“That’s it, wind it on, line up those overlapping squares,” said Dad, his giant leathery hands demonstrating the actions. “That’s focusing, so your pictures don’t come out blurry. Now, press the button, GENTLY, he encouraged. “And always have the strap round your neck so you can’t drop the camera,” The Minolta. “A year’s wages for some people,” said the Dad with a wink. (Make sure the strap is round your neck.)
The projector whirrs to our smiles or concentration. There’s Mum on skates. Or my brothers, lit by Hitchcock one sunny, stormy-skied day. There’s me, the baby, suckling at a milky bottle in my gigantic perambulator as Ian carefully chews a dandelion stem.
Time is stopped. We all live forever. Smile.
“But why can’t I come?” I wailed.
“There’s only room for three and you’re too small to be of much help,” Dad explained, rolling his eyes invisibly. Since our Mum died, he had been short on patience.
“But I can’t stay here on my own”, I wailed. “I’m ten! What if you don’t come back?” I wanted to be in the van with my brothers, the big boys, up high, looking down on all the things I usually had to look up to, like pillar boxes.
“Stop grizzling”, said the Dad.
I wasn’t grizzling (grizzling is to crying as drizzling is to rain). And crying was not for small things like missing out on a van ride or being left alone in an empty house.
“Son, you’re on your own now,” is what I heard. I watched from where the garden gate should be as the borrowed van with its trail of blue exhaust smoke diminished at the road’s end. Head hung low, I walked slowly back to the doorstep and sat down as my Dad, my brothers and the assorted contents of our home turned the corner. They called it moving house, I called it leaving home.
I never shed the feeling of being alone, homeless on the inside. Sometimes I called it solitude, other times it was loneliness. I was hurtled, free-falling into rage, later into alcohol or wandering blind in the fog of weed. I took a camera as companion. Together we made notes to debate and relate as we fell in love or watched children be born while houses and places came and went. Still, I grew disconnected and other. I found successes and failures found me as I scribed a big messy circle back to isolation. And then came sobriety.
The camera still hung around my neck like a talisman. It was my outsider’s passport. I could be anywhere, my face behind the lens, my purpose to be outside looking in.
Decades passed, therapists and self-help books scattering from my flailing, out-turned pockets until, little by little, I shed the drive to mend my flaws and instead made use of my separatist nature. At 54, I have settled into relationship, bought and rebuilt us an isolated derelict house on the marshes to make home. I am what I find myself to be. I keep taking pictures.
Born to isolate
When the lockdown came, I cackled inside. I was born to isolate! The company we run suddenly stopped making any demands on me though the wages still came. At first the days and nights lost their shape. I watched the sunrise from the wrong end of the day. I stopped shaving, slept in my clothes, feral and lawless with no-one to tell me what to do as nobody knew, not the elders nor the government. I felt ten again.
At 4am one March morning, I suddenly bought a Leica M online, enchanted by the heritage of mindful, spontaneous, intrinsically human photography. It arrived quickly and I cradled its dense, machined weight in my grown-up hands, bringing it to my eye and watching those familiar rectangles collide and divide through the bright-lined viewfinder.
STAY AT HOME, we were told. A new routine emerged. My partner would go to work, keeping the business running by herself. I was left with Flower, a 4-year-old Patterdale Terrier. We eyed one another warily.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said. She wagged her stump of a tail, I put the camera strap around my neck, and we began.
Every day of the lockdown we go out. The house is surrounded by empty marshland and quarry laid still. We find decaying buildings, rusting pylons, tiny flowers, moonscapes of scraped earth where the diggers have been.
After a week, I graduate to a bicycle, the new Leica tucked in my half-zipped top to save it from banging at the handlebars. We stop a lot, Flower sniffs and watches, gaining a sixth sense and making her way into every shot. She learns the meaning of ‘get the fuck out the picture!’
We share water when I stop for a cigarette, me swigging from the bottle as she laps from the bowl stowed in my saddlebag. She knows that despite the shout, I love her. Sometimes she sees things I might have missed and waits patiently for me to spot the puddle of light or the buried plough like a shipwreck in the grass.
We get fitter as she learns to race me, flying along the empty paths and farmyard concrete tracks. A new concentric circle of adventure grows as we venture further, over fences, down and up the ditches. The perimeter of our endeavours is set by boundaries we cannot cross without a lead.
This becomes our patch, outlined in red on an invisible map that keeps us safe from encountering people but free each day to have our eyes surprised and filled. We see the same subjects often though the light is ever changing. How is this day different? What does my eye fall upon today? The future has become nearer, this day, this hour, this 1/2000 sec. Here I am then, solitary and in isolation. Accompanied by a camera, a bicycle and a dog. This land is home. Everything and more that long lost 10-year-old boy could want.
Fieldworks (@field.works) has become a small Instagram showcase on the theme of solitude and isolation—the nuances of being alone, set on the windswept marshes at the East Sussex and Kent border. It is perpetually curated by my eldest daughter, Maud, locked down 50 miles away along the same south eastern coast. The collaboration brings discipline and purpose to the practice—a demand to supply and an attentive audience of one who decides what to share and how. Thank you, Maud.
A note on Leica
It’s just an opinion but I have come to believe that Leica employs people who deliberately set out to enchant and entrance innocent photographers. I was happily using a very capable Nikon Z7 for work and after a run with the Fujifilm X100, I had settled on the Sony RX1R for travel and unexpected opportunities. I needed for nothing.
In February 2020 I made the mistake of looking into the Leica Q, watching the odd review on YouTube and so forth. And soon I was lured in by a very affordable Leica Q-P. This, it turned out, was a gateway camera. The M10-P followed in March, along with a weighty silver Summilux-M 50mm (f/1.4).
Before I knew it, I had added 35mm & 75mm Summicrons, and in the midst of lockdown (and the middle of the night), I found myself in the car park of a deserted service station on the M25 doing a deal on the holy grail of M lenses—the APO 50mm—truly a jewel to behold.
Soon after I got to wondering how the M lenses would be with an EVF. I bought the designated M accessory but the idea I could use these masterpiece lenses on the SL kept nagging at me. And obviously, if you have an SL, it would be plain rude not to try out Peter Karbe’s pride and joy—the SL lens, with autofocus! I bought and sold the monstrous 24-90mm zoom, although it is a spectacular piece of engineering, and have now settled with a prime (or four) for the SL2. (Did I mention that upgrade?) The tale does not end here but be warned. Leica is not your friend though the pictures will make you forgive them.
Cameras used for these pics:
- Leica Q typ 116 (fixed 28mm)
- Leica SL typ 601 (Vario-Elmarit-SL 24–90 f/2.8–4 ASPH, though we try to run a zoom-free household)
- Leica M10-P (35, 50 & 75mm Summicron – all f/2 & 50mm Summilux. (50mm is my true love)