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


Sword Excalibur & Decisive Moments
Sunday, July 26, 2009

It was sometime around 1948 and I was 6. We had moved from Martinez to Coghlan which was closer to Belgrano where my mother taught and closer downtown to the Buenos Aires Herald where my father worked as a journalist. The moving must have involved wooden crates as we had an open one in the galpón ( a shed with a metal roof) in the back of the house. With some extra boards, a broom stick and a bricks I made a car. I don’t remember what the steering wheel was but the bricks rested on other bricks on an incline so that each pair represented the gas pedal, the clutch and the brakes. For some time (my memory is not exact on this) that wooden crate was a real car. I drove the car and I was Juan Manuel Fangio the great Argentine driving champion. One day the car reverted to the crate it really was and no matter how hard I tried to use my imagination the crate was a crate. It would seem, as I look back now, that imagination and magic are killed, little by little (or suddenly as it was in my case), by growing up.

Not too long after a magician came to our school. I remember him pulling out of his throat a long string of Gillette razors. I suspect that children of my age then, would now be looking to see if they could figure out how the trick was performed. For me it was real. It was real magic, no different from what I was learning at catechism (I was getting ready to do my First Communion) where I marveled at Christ walking on water and changing water into the best wine.

For many years my medium format (6x7cm) Mamiya RB-67 has been my Sword Excalibur. I honestly believe that with it in my hand I can take very good photographs because the camera is special. I have three of them but I keep using only one. The others are for backup and or for spare parts if Sword Excalibur where to be broken beyond apparent repair. My Mamiya contains all kind of (almost) foolproof devices that prevent me pressing the shutter if the film back has not film. I can instantly change to colour or b+w film because my Mamiya has multiple backs. I own five of them.

I purchased my Mamiya sometime around 1979 and I showed it to Rick Staehling who was the art director of Vancouver Magazine. He looked at me as if I were crazy. I didn’t blame him. In comparison to other cameras of the time like the 35mm SLRs and even the 6x6 Hasselblads my Mamiya looked like a camera on steroids. It is its very heft that has made my relationship with it to grow in time to the point that I now believe that I cannot possibly take a bad photograph if I give the Mamiya all my effort and imagination.

But that Mamiya has a few shortcomings which I will argue, up and down, are the reason it is such a good piece of equipment. I have to think of every photo I take because its 120 format means I will only get 10 pictures. Film is expensive so I am extra careful. This has meant that through the years I have developed a photo/Scottish mentality of making sure everything is to my satisfaction before I press the shutter.

It is a big and heavy camera that more often than not has to be tethered to a studio light system. I need to check the light with a flash meter. I have to be fussy and fuss around. This does not mean that when I have to I cannot set up that camera and one light in under three minutes and take the picture of a busy actor or politician in the allotted 8, 9 or 10 minutes!

Where the Mamiya seems to fail (and I am not all that sure about that!) is in its inability to shoot quickly, from the hip (as they say) and capture moments with an extemporaneous quality that smaller cameras are good at.

Much has been said and written about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum that one must wait for the decisive moment to happen and to be ready for it. I believe to the contrary. I believe that decisive moments can be hurried along by the photographer. A case in point, I explained it here where I rang the bell at a door and ran back in wait of the person who would open it. I use this principle in most of the photography that I do. But I will admit that when things happen (wonderful unexpected things) I do my best to notice them most of the time! Sometimes I can photograph them or I simply set it up. It many not be all that extemporaneous but it will do for me.

Switching from my Mamiya to any of my Nikons or Pentaxes must feel (to those who own guns) like letting go of the AK-47 and picking up a .22 caliber pistol. I feel like those Nikons and Pentaxes are toys. And treating them like toys I tend to take many pictures that seem eminently forgettable. One of the reasons is that these cameras almost feel alien to me. I don't use them much.

Thanks to my interest in taking pictures of my granddaughters (the hate it when I suggest we go to my studio to take some portraits with the Mamiya or I carry out the lights to the garden) I have been using my two Nikon FM-2s and one Nikon FM with some sporadic success. They are compact and light and I have a whole gamut of lenses but I seem to use mostly the moderate wide angle 35mm lens. Because I tend to use ISO 100 Ektachrome or Plus-X in b+w I find myself using maximum lens openings and slowish shutters speeds like 1/30 second. The pictures are pleasant but often they have their technical flaws. Sword Excalibur provides me with pictures that to my ey have few if any technical flaws. I guess one has to get used to the trade-off and accept that candid pictures can have charm.

There is one picture that is not in the least candid. I posed Rebecca and had her move up and down (ever so slightly) and then swing her face from left to right (ever so slightly). I instructed her to look at the camera with a cold seriousness. She rose to that request and provided me with this photo that I repeat here. I took it at the MacMillan Bloedel Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park when she was 7. I love how it looks like it may have been taken in Mexico with the beautiful blue agave behind her. I love the no-nonsense look of her little button-down blouse.

I will freely admit here that I used Photoshop to lighten the sparkles in her eyes. I am not the purist that some people might think I am. For me this is the most perfect photograph of Rebecca that I have ever taken and when I look at it I grieve in that I may not take a picture like that again.

As a photographer who harps about creating decisive moments I have a better chance of taking a picture like that since I don’t have to wait for it to happen.

That brings me to the meat of today’s blog. I decided on Friday and told Rosemary that we were going to return to the MacMillan Bloedel Conservatory on Saturday and take pictures of Rebecca and Lauren by the agave. I took two cameras. One was a Nikon FM-2 loades with Ektachrome 100G (my favourite colour slide and transparency film). I took another camera. It is a camera I have not used in many years. It is an extremely heavy Nikon F-3 with an attached motor drive. In its heyday it was a serious peace of photographic equipment. Thinking of my 20s I loaded it with Kodak Tri-X.

Rebecca tried to thwart me every step of the way yesterday. She absolutely refused to wear a beautiful dark blue Mexican dress that her mother wore a few times at about her age. There was lots of shouting, “I hate dresses! I will not wear it, it’s too big for me and I cannot bend over as my breasts will show!” In the end with a bit of pleading and logic she relented and wore it. I found a little top from Oaxaca for Lauren in our Mexican trunk.

When Rebecca stared at my camera yesterday she would watch my shutter finger. As soon as she saw me about to press she would give me a wishy washy smile. Many exposures were ruined. I told her to stop it. She didn’t. I then covered my right hand shutter finger with my left hand and that was the end of it!

I have come to change my mind a bit about my Mamiya Sword Excalibur. Perhaps that beautiful no-nonsense-I-mean-business Nikon F-3 does have some of its qualities. It is not too late in my photographic career to discover it and perhaps even profit from it. As I held that Nikon F-3 I felt a bit of magic. It was exciting. No, I wasn't driving that car/crate. I had not gone back that far in time. But I was feeling that electrical pulse going through me. I was taking pictures again just like I had done those many years ago. The weight in my hand, the decidedly loudish ( a most expensive sounding sound) motor drive. I was in control of the decisive

"Tune in" here to see the results in a few days.


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