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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So Just What Does Make a Picture Great?

This is an area where photographers can be treading on thin ice. I was in a lengthy email conversation with a colleague. I’ll call him Andrew (because that’s his name).

Andrew and I happened to be discussing snaps. I made a case outlining the importance of the simple family snap and pointed out that whenever I’ve been to a news story which involved fire, flood or similar tragedy which had left property destroyed the response from the victims was nearly always along the lines:  ” … and we’ve lost all of the family snaps … ” I’m sure I’d have no trouble finding other photographers who have experienced similar reactions.

My attitude is that great pictures exist in the eye of the beholder. That invariably puts the humble snap at the top of the heap for many people. But snaps are also an important recorder of history and that happens to be an area where photography scores very highly indeed. It gives us a pictorial record of moments in time. Often those pictures are ultimately treated as works of art, are bought by institutions and traded among collectors.

I’ve been trawling through old negs recently, mainly snaps from my earlier days in photography, and scanning them. I was working on one particular image, taken around 1963 when I was strolling around the back blocks of Paddington. I’d come across this negative while the exchange between Andrew and I continued –

Rag and Bone Merchant, Paddington, London.  circa 1963      © Roger Garwood 2012

I was a carrying the Leica M2 loaded with Tri-X and fitted with a 50mm Summilux. I decided that I’d use this as an example of what I like in a picture. I like it, you don’t have to.

Here’s the slightly edited  extract of what I said:

” … re snap v great picture. It’s a discussion we could have interminably – and forever.

In many respects it doesn’t matter. I’m a great supporter of the snapshot and saying that reminds me of the number of people I’ve met [while covering news events]who have had their property burnt out and say: ” …  we lost all of the family pictures”. In most case it’s a sure bet they were snaps. But to them they were the best pictures in the world and I wouldn’t dream of arguing with them.

In that regard I have no argument with your pictures of the family. They are, and you said so, family snaps. And it is not the right of anybody to pass some sort of etherial, aesthetic, judgement on them. When it comes to pictures which are designed to be published … for general consumption I believe we need to look at some basics which give  pictures broader appeal.

So what are the basics? Well, in that respect, it’s every photographer for himself – that’s what defines style. It’s what makes Salgado, Strand, C-B etc stand out from the crowd.

Thank goodness we each have a set of rules as to what we like, what we define as good or bad, and it’s very hard to qualify what they are. I have a tendency to like media work which depicts day to day life. Some I don’t like. For example, try as I may, I find it difficult to appreciate the work of Robert Frank. Yet the work of, say, Eugene Smith, I deem as brilliant. I also acknowledge that I have tunnel vision as to what I feel is good. I’m  happy to be dismissive of the work of say, *** ***, which has never been great but is sold on the back of bullshit [by third rate curators, particularly in Western Australia]

What do I look for in a picture? Well, attractive lighting is important. Light can make or break an image. Secondly, and broadly speaking, composition which is easy on the eye, where the elements of a picture seem cohesive and the eye can be lead from part of a picture to another. (I can feel a blog moment coming on) Look at this shot and see what you feel makes it work (if you feel it works at all).

I think you’ll find your eye will move over various elements of the picture, taking in detail, reading a poster, the phone number, the man in the chair, looking at the rubbish in some detail but always looking the girl in the door. It’s the sort of ‘snap’ I like and the reason I took it was because of its complexity, its variety of interesting points. All in all it works and had I been ‘working it’ as part of a story I would have spoken to the bloke, taken a portrait of him, detailed shots of the rubbish, posed a shot of him and the girl together, posed a shot of him beside the rubbish and so on. Try and imagine the shot without the girl. Or of him leaning against the ladder with the rubbish around him. It would have worked. As it is I settled for the one frame candid snap.

I happen to like pictures with a lot of detail in them and also with a touch of whimsy. The whimsical touch in this is the girl. She’s totally out of context but without her you’d be looking into a black hole. As it is, small though she is, she is very much an essential element, possibly the strongest part of the image. And, referring back to the last post on serendipity, she’s a touch serendipitous.

Anyway, I’m rambling (hence the blog’s subtitle title).

The point I was trying to make is that if we are to be professional we can’t be indulgent and take pictures which please us alone. There’s enough esoteric stuff out there without imposing it on the whole world. 

Serendipity’s Role in Photography

Most photographers will tell you that serendipity plays a large part in their work. Those fortunate moments when the gods shine on us. When the elements of a good picture fall into place, we are in the right place, we have our wits about us, and we manage to capture the moment.

Most photographers with a bit of experience will also tell you that if you really work at it, practically day in and day out, you may be fortunate enough to get a world class picture every year or so. If that notion was good enough for Cartier-Bresson it should be good enough for most of us. I’m happy to accept the philosophy.

I think the two most difficult aspects of photography are landscape and street shooting. Photographers will appreciate they have absolutely no control over any of the elements which make the difference between a mediocre picture and one which brings the bacon home. Landscape photographers will revisit a location many times, note the light, the time of year, weather patterns. They may camp for a few days, knowing the weather is changeable and will ‘happen’ for them. Similarly street photographers like to be around people, watching the elements which may form a picture and be ready when it happens. I’ve been known to follow two or three nuns for hours (that’s not true – but a lot of minutes anyway) and still fail to get a decent shot. Street shooting and landscape photography are like going fishing. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. Either way it’s always good fun.

A few years ago (about 1972 to be precise) I was in Brighton, England, and happened to be looking at a wall who’s bricks had been carefully painted, alternately black and white. I took a couple of frames and turned to carry on walking when I saw this couple walking towards me. So I waited:

Brighton Promenade, England 1972

© Roger Garwood 2012

It was a one framer, no second chance, no control over the picture. Leica M2, 50mm Summilux, Tri-X. Exposure would have been about 1/250th @ f8.

I count this as the first conscious moment of being aware of the part serendipity plays its hand in the work of the street shooter.