A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Six Brothers Chip In To My Photographic Career
Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The first camera I ever saw was my Uncle Tony’s Kodak box camera. Thanks to my Uncle Tony there is a pretty good record of my childhood in Buenos Aires. Many of his pictures he took in our Melián garden. I suspect it was Uncle Tony who took all my birdthday group photographs which are some of he few I have where I can see my father.

It was in Buenos Aires, at the Lincoln Library (a United States Information Service sponsored propaganda establishement) which was at the even then fashionable Florida Street where sometime around 1951 when I was 9 where I saw a photograph that I think changed my life. At the very least it pointed me in the direction of my becoming the photographer I am today. It was an journal of the American Heritage Society and the picture was one taken by Timothy O’Sullivan of the dead on a battlefield of the American Civil war.

In 1951 the only magazines I was familiar with were Billiken, an Argentine children’s magazine and the historietas (comic book magazines) that my mother bought for me at our Coghlan train station. They were Ratón Mickey and Pato Donald. That first photograph I saw in the American publication was (unlike the images in the Argentine comic books) incredibly sharp and the dead soldiers look for real. There were portraits of Lincoln with General Grant by Matthew Brady. The men looked like they could walk out of the page. I made the math that the people in the photograph had been dead for about 97 years. In comparison to what I had learned in my history classes at school that did not seem to be such a long time.

In 1958 when I was in grade 10 at St. Ed’s High School in Austin Texas, Brother Vincent de Paul (top, centre) and Brother Dunstan Bowles (below, right) organized a bus trip to Washington DC. It was in Washington DC that I spotted an Agfa Silette in a pawn shopt. I have no idea how much I paid for it. The pawn shop attendant even had film. I asked him what film he recommended. He said, “Kodak Tri-X is the best film you can buy.” This I did.

It took me a year to feel the frustration of this beautiful camera’s limitations. It had no rangefinder so the focusing was by guessing the distances. I felt frustrated that no matter how hard I tried I cold not unscrew the lens. It dawned at me that the one lens it had was the only lens it would ever have.

It was in grade 11 that I made up my mind that I needed to buy a new camera. The one I wanted was similar to the one that my friend Brother Anton Mattingly (below, left) had. We both spoke Spanish. I took his Spanish class instead of Latin thinking it was the lazy thing to do. I soon learned I was not going to be as easy as I thought it would be. Brother Anton taught me Spanish grammar. He liked to take snapshots with the most beautiful camera I had ever seen. It was a Pentacon with a Zeiss Biotar F-2 58mm lens.

At the time I worked for Brother Hubert Koeppen (below, right). He paid me wages to clean the basketball gym and to work with him in his shop where he sold model cars and airplanes. It was there that we re-used all the paper streamers that he and I would use to decorate the school dances. We would carefully bring them down. I woul roll them carefully into rolls and staple one end to another. We had boxes of red, orange, white, green, etc coloured streamers.

One day Brother Hubert took me to a place where he warned me in advance that it was a secret I had to keep. We got into an old truck that had a putrid smell. The back was full of old rags. He took me to some nearby warehouse where we dumped the old rags into a room that was full, from floor to ceiling with more rags. He explained that he sold the rags to a paper company and that with the money he bought the supplies to varnish and keep the gym floor in tip top shape. I imagined then that Brother Hubert would have done well as a concentration camp inmate as he would have stored everyything and found use for all of it.

Working with Brother Hubert was a tough job but there was the extra pleasure of being exposed to his corny humour and erudite stories of ancient history. I was teased by the Latino contingent of the boarding school. Brother Hubert wore a very large black hat and a black cape. He was given the sobriquet “El Vampiro”. And since I was his helper I was dubbed “El Vampirito”. But I had a goal. I was going to buy the newer model Pentacon-F with a Zeiss Biotar F-2 58 mm lens.

When I thought I had enough money I realized I could not afford the Biotar but had to settle for the lesser Zeiss 50mm F-2.8 Tessar. I ordered it from Olden Camera in NY City and Brother Emmett Strohmeyer (below, left) who ran the school bookstore and just about anything else shop got me the money order.

Some weeks later as I was passing by the store Brother Emmett stopped me to tell me had a big box for me. It was my Pentacon-F. It was the most beautiful camera I had ever seen. The knobs to wind and re-wind the film were much bigger than in Brother Anton’s!

It was with the Pentacon-F that I learned phtography. Within a few months I had saved up enough money from Brother Hubert’s job to buy an extrmely fast (for the day) F-1.8 Komura 80mm lens. I could switch lenses to my heart’s content. This camera had interchangeable lenses. And my camera was cutting edge. In 1959 there was a heated argument that the new-fangled single lens reflex cameras were no match to rangefinder cameras. But my happiness with my Pentacon-F was short-lived.

Brother Edwin Reggio, right, (one of his tasks was to shoot the photos for the school annual, the Edwardian) bought a brand new Konika F which had a built in light meter system. It also had a metal, vertically running Copal focal plane shutter. Brother Anton and I were left with dated pieces that if not junk they were close to it. To make my jealousy worse Brother Edwin added insult to injury by waylaying me on the way to lunch to inform me that I was going to be his new alto saxophone player for the school band. Since I did not even know how to read notes I could not understand why he had chosen me. But cleaning the band hall for Brother Edwin gave me extra wages to pay for my camera and film expenses. Would it be possible that I could then buy a Konica? I never did but I bought another camera, a used one in Mexico City in 1962.

In Mexico City before I left for my stint in the Argentine Navy in 1964 I had purchased a used Pentax S-3. It had the same lens mount as the Pentacon. I could shoot colour slide with one and b+w with the other. At the time I used brands such as Afga, Ferrania, Adox besides the usual Kodak Tri-x. In 1964 before I left for Argentina I won first prize at the annual university competition at Mexico City College. I never really did notice the judge who signed my diploma. He was an obscure (to me) Mexican artist called Rufino Tamayo. But the prize did put in my mind that perhaps photography could be an interesting hobby.

The two cameras recorded my stay in Buenos Aires and my meeting up with my soon-to-be wife Rosemary Healey in Mexico City in 1967/68. The two cameras recorded the birth and growth of our two daughters Alexandra and Hilary. I took the role of Uncle Tony and photographed all of my daughter’s birthday parties in Arboledas, Mexico. The groups had at least 50 children in them.

In 1975 we decided to abandon the financial and political uncertainty of Mexico for Vancouver. I made the decision to give up my high school teaching and English teaching in American companies. I had the ambition to start from scratch in Vancouver as a photographer. On the way to Canada in our VW Beetle I dropped off my daughters and Rosemary at Disneyland and I drove to a camera store and bought new Pentaxes, new exposure meters and lights. I was going to be a professional photographer.


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