Up from the Cape: An occasional journal
My grandfather on my father’s side was a practical man, and also an unsentimental one as far as I’m able to recall. It was a necessity of the age into which he’d been born. The late 19th century was not a time of ease for ordinary people. By the standards of today, it wasn’t even a time of ease for affluent people. I first became aware of my grandfather’s no-nonsense view of the world when one day he came back from a chicken coop he kept at the far end of his garden. At the age of five I hadn’t developed much in the way of analytical faculties beyond learning how to improve the odds of me being given chocolate or money. I’d been aware of the chickens at the end of the garden for (in relative terms) quite some time, but it was in an abstract way. I had no consciousness of what their purpose was other than for them to amuse me with the slightly gormless manner in which they looked back at me upon occasion, and the way they appeared to do everything in a shocked and comic form of stop-motion. Then one day my grandfather trudged back from the chicken coop with a bird under his arm, it’s head swinging freely like a bell clapper as it goggled back at the world with wide sightless eyes. I’d seen my grandfather go purposefully towards the coop earlier. Now I saw the result under his arm. Even at age five I was able to make the simple connection between these two events. The question was, why had he done it? I had no recollection of him being an excessively cruel man, though he was not averse to threatening to beat my mischievous older cousin who lived in the same house with his family. My grandfather had never wrung his neck though and carried the body back to the house for dinner. The great lesson I drew from this was how surprises make you look at the world anew.
Looking at the world anew was something that always seemed to me part of photography. From the first cameras I had at age 13, starting with a Kodak Brownie 44a 127 roll film camera, and then a Polaroid Swinger II, the thing that drew me in was the possibility of doing something different with the equipment beyond just creating a dull, faithful reproduction of whatever was in front of me. Trying things out as they occurred to me produced triumph and disaster in equal measure (perhaps more disaster if I’m honest). The great thing about disaster is to learn from it. Even when you lose the battle, don’t lose the lesson.
The Polaroid was especially good for experimentation as it allowed limitless multiple exposures, and the results could be viewed almost immediately. I learned a lot about exposure and technique in that way, and just as much about costs (Polaroid film was relatively expensive). The greatest lesson to come from these cameras was the most simple; rules are for the guidance of fools. If your imagination is equal to a process, and your technique and understanding of the equipment allows it, all things are possible. The first time I put film through the Kodak was to use it for something everyone I spoke to told me wouldn’t work. I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t work so I tried. In the event it did work. I’ve never listened to opinions since then. In that sense, my first lesson was the most important. Many of the images I make today are based on that principle.
“The Cape” logo by Ewan Lauder