Brian Tompkins

When I was about thirteen years old my cousin invited me to her 12th birthday party. I fell in love, no, not with her but with the present her parents had given her.  It was a Kodak Brownie 127. It sat there in its bright yellow box, all black shiny plastic with a big white knob and an optical finder. A thing that fascinated me was the little yellow filter that clipped onto the front. I was mesmerised and completely hooked.  When I got home the campaign started. Dad was played off against Mum and vice versa. But family relationships were on my side. My parents were always trying to outdo the rest of the family and in all honesty the rest of the family were all busy trying to do the same. So after a bit of whinging the parents gave in and one Saturday a trip to the photographic shop in Brighton was made. But, my father said sternly it’s got to be a ‘proper camera’

Cameron Yorke in Brighton was one of those lovely old camera shops that are fast disappearing, none of your national chain stores here.  After much deliberation the purchase was made. An Ensign Selfix 16-20 and at Mr Yorkes insistence, a lens hood. I was over the moon.

Ensign Selfix

Ensign Selfix 16/20 with the infamous lens hood / telephoto lens.

Dad had to buy it on the new fangled ‘Hire Purchase ‘system. I think it cost £14.17.6 in old money and it was second hand. That was a lot of money in 1953 and I expect more than a week’s wages for Dad. At this sort of time cameras and anything else which could be classified as luxury goods were incredible expensive. I remember reading a year later that the new Hasselblad cost £315, most men didn’t earn that in 6 months so today’s equivalent cost would be in the region of £15,000!

It was my pride and joy.   I took it everywhere. Yes even when the pocket money didn’t stretch to a film I still carried it around and took thousands of pictures on nothing more than the film pressure plate.  I would even attach the little polished lens-hood and pretend that it was a telephoto lens. I wasn’t sure what a telephoto lens was but I’d heard about them.

Then I discovered the Amateur Photographer magazine which was published weekly on a Wednesday. Wednesday morning at school was also scheduled as ‘double’ French. Well as I dropped ever further behind with my French studies so my knowledge of photography improved with the magazine hidden under the desk. The cost of film and taking it to the chemist for processing….known as D&P in those days, was more than my pocket money would stretch to.  But as was often common in those days (1954) the manager of the chemist shop was interested in photography and helped me collect the necessary bits and pieces so that I could D&P them myself. I spent hours with my head stuck under the bed clothes. Then my father suggested the under the stairs cupboard and I had discovered the joy of the ‘Darkroom.’  The kind man in the chemist shop completed my dreams when he presented me with a contact printer and some little dishes. This printer was made by Patterson and the translucent yellow plastic body doubled as a safelight. It was a schoolboys dream or mine at least. Trouble was I kept reading the Amateur Photographer and discovered that big prints were best and you needed an enlarger. Money was tight and it was ages to wait until Christmas. Searching through the public library I found that it was possible to make an enlarger virtually from nothing as long as it involved an empty coffee tin, so I did.  The trouble was, then as now, I am completely incapable with anything remotely connected with bolting or screwing anything together, it was a disaster.

When I wasn’t taking wonderful masterpieces with my often empty camera I would indulge in another passion. ‘Nose against the window of photographic shops’ or in those days any window of any shop which might display photographic items. In fact on a Sunday I would get my bike out and pedal a circuit of some twenty miles window shopping. In those days photographic shops used to provide cameras on display with lovely descriptive labels. Not the sort of ‘Buy it now and pay later Day-Glo things, but discreet, beautifully hand written ones with details written out in full. “Ten speed Compur Rapid shutter Speeds from B, T, 1 sec – 1/500” would have me in raptures. But all this window gazing paid off, at the top of St James Street in Brighton was the junky sort of place that sold everything from broken radios to yes, an enlarger, 5/- that’s 25p in new money! And it was mine.

Of course the Ensign didn’t have a meter so at first exposures were calculated by means of the little bit of paper in the film carton.  This gave exposures for cloudy, sunny etc. For those who don’t know they work rather well. Then in a junk shop I found a meter. It was one of the extinction types. These had a slit which was covered up with cast-off nylon stockings in various thicknesses. Behind this was a series of numbers., you held it up to the light and the highest number you could see could be read off against a chart moulded on the instrument’s body. Obviously the brighter the light the more layers of stocking it would penetrate, the higher the number you would see and Hey Presto….it was useless! But as time went on and I got more experienced I discovered that I could guess exposures quite accurately. In fact to this day I only use the read out of a meter if it agrees with my guess. Likewise of course the Ensign had to be focussed by scale, surprising how good you can get at estimating distance. The cost of film made you very selective in pressing the button. Indeed that is something I learned then that has never changed. I looked at the exposure record of my Nikon D100 the other day and found that in eighteen months I have only taken 189 exposures and most of those have been playing around with it finding out how it works.

But would I swap those days for the guy or girl starting off with their all singing all dancing modern piece of kit……. As Eliza Doolittle said “Not bloody likely”. Now instead of my little lens hood telephoto substitute I read, “I am new to photography and wonder if I should buy a 24mm – 500mm zoom or something longer and is the xyz’s 24 point auto focussing fast enough for me, I am new so please help”. Do I envy them? Do I heck.


©2013 WPA Brian Tompkins

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