Pensioning Off The Old Fellows

There comes a time when some treasured things have to go …

It was my son Ben’s birthday last Friday 21st June. He happened to be born on the day of the winter solstice and, as a small birthday present I took him and one of my grandsons, Sam, out to breakfast at a local restaurant.

As it happens Ben is a successful young bloke on a career path which most people dream about. Heaven knows where he got his brains from but it wasn’t me. He certainly had the brains not to go into photojournalism or any sort of media. Needless to say I’m exceedingly proud of him and the family of Garwoodies – Bek, my daughter-in-law and two grandsons, Josh and Sam.

All that stuff aside I am always left with the problem of what to give a bloke who has everything he needs in life. Well, I think he has anyway. I have, over the past few years, been passing a few of my own ‘treasures’ over to him. Little things I’ve lived with and enjoyed. They don’t amount to a lot but are the sort of things we become attached to.

I have been staring at my two oldest cameras, a couple of Leica M2s, the very first cameras I bought. That was back in April and May 1963, 50 years ago. They have been sitting on the mantlepiece over the fireplace, staring back at me and reminding me of my career in a very pleasant fashion. Now and again something flashes through my mind and I’ll look at them and say: “Remember that?”. They stare at me with blank eyes.

My first Leicas. For a few years they formed the basis of the equipment I used. The upper one is still very smooth and the lens, an old Summilux, is delightful. I still use it a great deal. The lower M2 was overdosed on sea water many times and finally called it quits. The lens, an old 35mm Summilux, was also drowned.
My first Leicas. For a few years they formed the basis of the equipment I used. The upper one is still very smooth and the lens, an old Summilux, is delightful. I still use it a great deal. The lower M2 was overdosed on sea water many times and finally called it quits. The lens, an old 35mm Summilux, was also drowned.

And so it was I decided this year, after 50 years media use, they should go to Ben for safe keeping, a part of family history. One of them is buggered – too much salt water inhalation – the other is working perfectly. They actually got pensioned off about 15-18 years ago as I have a handful of M6s and an old M4-2 which fill their shoes these days.

When I give Ben ‘stuff’ I write a little of the history, A few pages which help him to know a little about my life. I do this because I know virtually nothing about my own family background and don’t want him left in the same position.

I Saved the World

In short I explained that I was studying engineering and hated it. In fact I pride myself in the fact I may have saved the world. By quitting engineering I didn’t design planes which fell out of the sky, bridges which collapsed or ships which sank faster than a stone. The world owes me!

I happened to be sitting in a physics lecture next to a friend, Alan Draper,  and can remember leaning over to him  and whispering: “You know something? I’ve got a feeling I want to be a photographer”.

Until that moment I had never given it much thought. I was an avid newspaper and magazine reader. Many years later I realised that my mother, in teaching me to read before I went to school – we only had newspapers and magazines – The Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Illustrated and Picture Post in the house – had hot wired me and conditioned me for a career in the media. Thus, no sooner had I made the decision, in April 1963, than I also decided I had to work in Fleet Street. Not only that but I had a clear insight as to whom I wanted to work for – Paris Match – which was a regular publication stocked in the college library and had a reputation for being a hard hitter.

How come Leicas? Well, I was rushing for a train and picked up a magazine – Photography  – from a news stand at the railway station. In it was an advert for the Leica M3. The punch line, after the general advertising guff was: “It still expects you to find the picture” or something like that. Check it out … I still have it after 50 years.

I suppose I can say that this ad set me on a career path. And what it said is true - they do last a lifetime.
I suppose I can say that this ad set me on a career path. And what it said is true – they do last a lifetime. This is from Photography Magazine, April 1963

In retrospect I like the opening line too – “The Leica does not set out to do your thinking for you”.

It’s a short story as to how I got going and I may tell that later. All in all I can say it was pure arse – fortune shone on me very quickly. I sit here writing this and wishing fortune would recharge its batteries!

So last Thursday the old Leicas were gift wrapped and handed over with very little ceremony but stirring many, many, memories.

Aside from covering news and shooting a lot of features I used one or the other of these to stroll around the streets, mainly in London, and do a bit of street shooting.

In the past few days I’ve been travelling down memory lane and scanning some of those early images. I don’t know that these are the best as I’m still sifting through boxes of negs. Here are a few. Non of them have been worked on in LightRoom. They’re straight scans from the Nikon Coolscan V. I’ll work on them another time so please forgive the scratches and drying marks.

Big Gap Here

I ran out of time after starting this entry. I’m going to add a few scans and then catch my breath a bit.

Coal Miner on Strike, England, 1973 © Roger Garwood 2013
Coal Miner on Strike, England, 1973
© Roger Garwood 2013

I had been covering the coalminers’ strike in England. I can’t really remember if it was 1973 or ’74. I’d spent the morning down one of the pits, wading waste deep through water, crawling along filthy passages and getting totally filthy. I’d gone down at the invitation of union members who were striking for a wage of 5000 pounds a year. When I got to the surface, showered and cleaned up and joined the miners in their social club I was asked what I felt about the situation. With great honesty I said I wouldn’t do their work for 5000 quid a week, let alone a year. As I left, I saw this miner munching at a pie and asked if he’d mind me taking a picture. Shot with a Leica M2 and 35mm Summilux on Tri X.

London, circa 1965 ©Roger Garwood 2013
London, circa 1965
©Roger Garwood 2013

This shot amused me. I was wandering around and looking at the sign, a theatre poster, thinking somehow it had to make a picture when this old fellow wandered along, stopped, and looked into the magnifying glass.

Ballroom Dancing Championships, Fremantle circa 1995
Ballroom Dancing Championships, Fremantle circa 1995

I’m not that interested in ballroom dancing. People gliding around a dance floor, stately as galleons, don’t do much for me. I can only say I must have registered an interest in off floor pictures. I may have been attracted to the dancers legs but can’t be sure of that.  Leica M4, Noctilux, Tri X

I’ll post a few more of these old shots later. In the meantime there are still a few places in my workshop at the Ballarat Photo Festival (BIFFO) in August. Check out the details at

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Travelling with Dragons: Part I

Saigon market place© Roger Garwood 2013
Saigon market place
© Roger Garwood 2013

 

Blast from the Past

I had an email the other day, a blast from the past.

A colleague, David Levenson, had contacted me to ask why I hadn’t continued with my blog. He had contacted me some months ago and reminded me that I used to write a column in a magazine, Photo Technique, and it had inspired him to become a photojournalist. I didn’t really know whether to feel flattered or guilty but I went for the former.

We subsequently exchanged a few emails and it transpires that during  the decades which followed his inspired moment we have shared many mutual contacts from agents to picture editors. I have to say it was a pleasant feeling to know that he, like me, shared equally enjoyable careers. I think we’d both have to admit that times have changed but, with a bit of willpower and hard(ish) work it’s still possible to keep our heads above water.

I guess I’m one of the lucky ones in this world  – my bread does have a habit of falling buttered side up.

Saigon: Fresh fish from the delta© Roger Garwood 2013
Saigon: Fresh fish from the delta
© Roger Garwood 2013

So why didn’t I continue?

Well, it wasn’t really by design. I’d have to admit I got lazy. If I’ve mastered the art of anything it’s procrastination. I also lost direction but after a bit of thought decided to keep on the same track – keeping the blog loose but a touch anecdotal, a few pictures here and there and sometimes a bit of technique thrown in.

Also, things did get busy. I made few trips and found I had a lot of editing, both words and pictures. I had a pile of stories to complete and get out. So, forgive the time gap.

It’s an idea driven industry

Photojournalism, any type of journalism, is an industry driven by ideas. If you don’t have ideas you don’t survive. I guess I’m fortunate in that I enjoy developing ideas and have a pretty good hit rate. I’m now at the stage in life where I don’t depend on commissioned work which is not so much a sign of financial success as a case of keeping my overheads low. Thus I can afford to work on the ideas I want to work on. And one of them has been tucked in my head for well over 40 years.

Rice in the Saigon markets© Roger Garwood 2013
Rice in the Saigon markets
© Roger Garwood 2013

Outside inspirations

Back in the very early 60s I read a copy of Paris Match featuring a story of the Indian monsoon by a Kiwi photographer, Brian Brake. Strangely that magazine feature gave me a sense of direction – I wanted to be a photographer and, more particularly, I wanted to work on Match.

In subsequent years I met Brian. He was a quiet, self-effacing character with immense technical skills and a lot of experience. It was about 1976 that he projected his entire edit of Monsoon for me. The quality was stunning, all shot on an old Leica with 35 and 90m lenses using Kodachrome – probably the old 12 ASA stuff but it could have Kodachrome 25.

Thus Brain Brake inspired me in much the same way I inspired David Levenson. Brian felt flattered and so do I.

My family seems to be steeped in maritime history, or up to their necks in water, whichever way you want to look at it. So it’s no surprise that I decided to specialise in anything connected with water: ships, boats, oceans, rivers, fishing … anything. Thus the Indian monsoon stuck in my mind.

Ice blocks in a Saigon fish market
Ice blocks in a Saigon fish market © Roger Garwood 2013

Photographer’s legacy

For many years I thought about reshooting the Indian monsoon. Several photographers, notably Steve McCurry, had been there, done that. All of them very well but none had quite captured the soulful, spiritual, essence which Brian Brake had so successfully recorded. I dropped the idea as I didn’t feel I could do better than the original and, if I had I’m not sure I would have been happy to chip away at a great photographer’s legacy. Very noble of me!

But I didn’t let the idea drift away altogether. Geographically speaking I live a stone’s throw away from the Mekong Delta. Put another way it’s a cheap airfare. Thus I revamped the idea and was happy with the notion of working on a feature about the monsoon season over the delta.

Thus I booked a ticket for August, statistically the wettest month of the year. I packed plastic poncho’s, an umbrella, a length of string and clothes pegs, anticipating spending a month soaked to the skin and wearing damp clothes, ripping leaches off my skin and smacking mosquitoes to a pulp.

I arrived in Saigon (I still call it Saigon as that’s still, in part, it’s name and I like the romance of it) and caught a local bus down to the delta. The first few days were spent in beautiful sunshine streaming from an azure sky. The humidity chewable. And that’s how the weather stayed – hot and humid without a skerrick of rain. Well, maybe about ten minutes in total but not enough to open the floodgates of a full-blown story. No mozzies or leaches either. My idea, through no fault on mine (which makes a pleasant change) had gone completely pear-shaped.

Delta cafe© Roger Garwood 2013
Delta cafe
© Roger Garwood 2013

Time Machine

Thus a decades old idea came to a temporary standstill.

I was having a great time moving around from town to town on the delta, which is known as The Nine Dragons. There are nine huge rivers which make up the delta, starting at Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border, and splitting into the nine dragons which then meander their way to the South China Sea.

My preferred method of travel was on old wooden cargo boats, cadging a lift for a few bucks and not having a clue as to where I would be at the end of a day. In fact it was often difficult to find out where I was – the language is pretty much impossible to learn and it took a week to master the art of ordering a coffee. But that’s the fun of escaping the bubble of the comfort zone.

So, the idea, figuratively speaking, was dead in the water. No monsoon. A minor mishap for me but for the coffee growers a little to the north it had the makings of a disaster.

Nevertheless, I had to make some sort of story from the trip and it came to me one evening. I was sitting beside one of the dragons’ tributaries, in a small waterside cafe, enjoying fresh fish, salad and ice-cold beer, the total cost of which was less than three bucks. After a couple of beers my mind started to drift. I watched rickshaws, locals people in the market, the general timeless socialising which happens in the tropics and the idea hit me. “I’ve travelled back in time”

Dragons in a delta temple© Roger Garwood 2013
Dragons in a delta temple
© Roger Garwood 2013

Thus the story line was in place: “Time Travel With The Dragons”

For the record, I know Brian took a few trips to complete his monsoon feature. I’ve booked again in September – the second wettest month.

I’ll continue with Part II of posting in the next day or two. Watch this space

Timeless travel on the delta© Roger Garwood 2013
Timeless travel on the delta
© Roger Garwood 2013