My many loves: my well-travelled cameras

Taking photos on vehicle roof

Once upon a time it was a birthday present. All shiny black and mine to take control of. Back in the days when you had to really decide what you wanted to capture because those twenty-four or thirty-six shots were so precious.

Learning the action of loading film by hand, getting the hang of catching the end of the film on the little black notches that it was designed to slot into and trying not to let too much light in the back while you were changing films. Those round plastic canisters that you’d carry around, these days I still have a few that I store pins in. They were so much larger than memory cards. I remember the slightly sick whirring noise as I pulled the lever to wind the film on after each precious shot I took on my Pentax. It was a real, mechanical noise – not just an imitation sound.

My first photos are small and square. Some are of a holiday in QLD when I was twelve or so. They show blurry barrier reef studies – bleary fish and smeared coral – an outcome achieved by the combination of taking photos of underwater life through the glass bottom of a boat, a rainy day and a very amateur young photographer. All my early shots are ordinary and badly composed. There are some of a parade in the city – it might have been for the Commonwealth Games – on a hallucinatory diagonal I caught parts of colourful floats flanked by a motorcycle police escort. My memories of this event are long gone or buried, but the proof remains. This camera and I grew up together.

But much as I loved my first one, there hasn’t been just one treasured camera, there has been a line of them marching beside me through life and the evolution of technology. My second camera was an old Nikon – it was my grandfather’s and he gave it to me – perhaps when he upgraded, or stopped travelling. This was a manual camera from the 1970’s – my first introduction to the world of aperture, exposure and focal length. This camera had travelled more than I had – it was a veteran of overseas trips. While in my possession it saw more of Australia than overseas. Eventually the mechanism started to stick and become unreliable and I had to move on from my sentimental bond.

When I went to Europe ten years ago, I borrowed my mother’s Nikon Koolpix and this was the first digital camera I’d really had the opportunity to experiment with.  It was love at first shutter-press. After that I determined to buy my own digital camera and my silver Canon became my companion on a three-month European trip. I had it a while, but then I remember running around Seoul camera shops trying desperately to buy the appropriate memory card when I was running out of space after my travels through Japan and Korea. My non-HD memory cards for that camera had become dinosaurs already.

The last in the line up of beloved cameras is currently my red Olympus Pen Lite. It has been to China and Vietnam and across the Nullarbor, to Darwin and Alice Springs and through ten countries in Europe, but the annoyance of swapping between its two lenses haunts my travels, although it takes a good close up. It got some rough treatment in the Netherlands recently when I went on a tour of underground limestone tunnels. The guide wanted us all to have the authentic pitch-dark tunnel walking experience and extinguished all lights. He urged us to continue walking by groping our way along the wall, however my wonky walking caused my camera lens to connect with the wall and collect some limestone deposits. When we eventually returned to the above ground daylight world, I noticed the lens was suffering a severe case of condensation. I’m hoping Pen & I still have some life left in our relationship.

In the last few years I’ve fallen in love with my smart phone camera. Discovering Instagram was a revelation and the light weight factor is a major concern. Also I never like being an obvious tourist, large camera around the neck, iPhone is good at being sneaky.

Whatever camera is my current beau, and whatever their faults, I love it when I’m with them. They help me see the world anew. Love camera – will travel.

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To gaze on the art alone

 One thing invariably happens when I travel: the places I was most looking forward to going end up being somewhat of a let down, while places I never dreamed of, or never meant to go to, end up being trip highlights. The best people, places and experiences are often literally stumbled across.

On on my recent trip to Europe there were art galleries I planned to visit, and most of my planned visits were worthwhile, albeit involving jostling elbows with others. However some of my best art experiences were ones where I ended up in galleries alone.

I stayed in the Belgian city of Bruges (Brugge) for three days and the first day I just wandered. I hate looking too much like a tourist and so I was hat-less and map-less (which actually resulted in me being asked tourist information by a group of Polish people, and led to an interesting conversation in which they were trying to persuade me to visit Ghent and look at a website containing aerial photos of Ghent – but I digress!).

I saw a sign to exhibitions of the art of Picasso and others and wandered into the Site Oud Sint-Jan (old St John) hospital site. While I was buying a ticket to Picasso, I saw they also had a Chagall exhibition on and so went for the ticket combo. It turned out my Chagall ticket had a door keypad combination attached to it. It took me a few goes to work out how to gain entry to the Chagall exhibition via the keypad – things are never simple when foreign languages, other cultures and even non-language specific symbols are involved (what is that supposed to be a picture of?).

Once I gained what now felt like privileged entry to the Chagall exhibition, I felt like I had entered a sacred space. 

The room had high ceilings, sun and classical music playing. I’ve seen a number of Chagall’s paintings before, but never his prints; his lithographies. Something about the space, the art and the fact that I had the art all to myself filled me with a sense of joy and wonder.

If you’ve never seen the art of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) before, there is a strong sense of character to his people, who are depicted in an expressionist, semi-naïve art style that stirs the emotions. The combination of their expressions and the vibrant colours tells a story with minimal use of line, richly coloured tonal areas and shading. Some of the lithographs were of biblical figures, like David playing the harp (to King Saul), his head turned to one side, in profile and looking down, and his arms encircling his harp, holding it close. His one visible eye and protective posture capture a poignancy. Often his figures are floating, along with plant and animal life, untethered from this earthy plane and gravity. His work has a minimalist charm. 

I remember looking at the works, and then returning to each work that spoke to me, under the spell of these speaking pieces. The sun shone down through the tall six-pane windows into the charmed space and I was in a state of awe and wonder. 

Eventually other people could be heard punching in the doorcode, with its accompanying beeps, and getting frustrated when it wasn’t letting them in. But after a while the space no longer belonged to just me. The spell broken, I went on to see other works, and share gallery spaces with other people (and an Afghan wolf hound at one stage). I can’t quite recapture it, but I still remember the state of grace that was that gallery experience. 

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Why I’ve decided to be more generous to buskers or the things you miss when you travel

Stone sculpture of a figure and busker with his back turned in Lagos, Portugal

When you are on the go traveling, what do you miss from your more settled life back home? Maybe what we don’t miss tells us something about the things we could happily life without.

I recently went traveling for nearly 3 months – some of the time I was living in the one place with friends, and the rest of the time I was traveling around, staying no more than two or three days in any one hotel. I can tell you straight away one of things I did not miss while I was away and that is TV. At home I watch far too much, but while I was away I was not even tempted to turn on the hotel TVs, I preferred to either just sleep or read in the room, or else head back out the door for more exploring. And of course I didn’t miss all the routines of settled life like cleaning, cooking and buying groceries.

On a sunny saturday I arrived in Brussels and wandered my way from Brussels-midi station through a number of streets with the eventual goal of the Magritte Museum. When I walked uphill and got to the top of the Mont des Arts, there was a busker playing guitar and singing in English in an open area. When I heard some familiar songs sung in my language, I realised how much I missed music and particularly the freedom to sing. I suppose you could sing in the hotel shower, but apart from that, there’s not much privacy or freedom to sing when you travel (unless you’re a musician, or you’re on a bus tour where people want to revive their school camp bus-singalong days). 

I came across a few buskers in my travels at times when their music gave me pangs of longing. When you travel to countries where your own language is not spoken, even the simplest things become hard and hearing songs sung in your own language provides a real touch stone. I have to say I almost never give money to buskers (although I did give money to a classical guitarist at the market who did a great rendition of ‘Paint it black’ earlier in the year). But I know now how much a (good) busker can give you something you didn’t even realise you were missing and so I plan to be more generous to buskers in the future. 

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To detour is not to er

Path through a green forest in Germany

How do you find your way somewhere new? These days GPS usually predominates over ye olde book of street maps. Do you ever do what I do when you know the general area but don’t know specific streets and just decide you will find your way without the aid of GPS or map simply by driving and following your nose. Whenever I use this method of getting places, it often results in a longer journey and several u-turns, but I do cover new ground and sometimes discover new routes, or sights I’d never seen before along the way.

I was traveling in Europe recently and I hate to look like an obvious tourist, so one thing I did was try not to look at my tourist map very often, or else I’d photograph sections of the map but then only consult them on my iPhone, so it might just look like I was just using my phone like every other technologically preoccupied person wandering along the street.

At one stage I was on my evening walk along a path on the side of a hill above a German town. The path was turning the cover to the left, away from the direction I wanted to go in. To the right was a gap in a fence and a sign I didn’t fully understand (it was all in German) that indicated a route that went downhill and to the right. I stepped into this area and began to follow the downward path. It was like I’d plunged ‘Into the woods’ or into Wonderland. We’re not used to tall, lush, bright green forests back home. But here was a true fairytale forest. The kind of place you expect to trip over elves or see a sword floating in an enchanted pool.

Away from the slightly busier walking track it also felt eerily quiet, like a place someone could sneak up on you in the depths of the deep dark wood. I hastened through the wood in case anything undesirable was lurking in there, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of the bright green wood, its giant trees far overhead with their spreading branches providing the shady paths.

And as it happened, even through I had taken the detour through the wood, instead of going back a tried and true way, I came out the bottom of the forest, not far from the path I needed to be on to head home.

Sometimes single mindedness gets you everywhere, but sometimes a detour is worth the time and in the bigger picture provides you with more inspiration to think outside the box.

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Hot air balloons & hope

  
There is something magical about spotting a giant, colourful, inflated balloon (or a flotilla of them) sailing through the skies over your town. I used to work on the edge of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens and when I arrived early to work, my route from the train station to work would walk me past the MCG sport stadium and then across the muddy Yarra River. As I approached the river I would often see hot air balloons that had probably left Melbourne’s Yarra Valley at 5am drifting over the gardens or over the city. When I saw them, they would always lift my mood. What is it about a hot air balloon? I’ve never actually been in one, although I’d like to have the opportunity one day. To me, hot air balloons are mystical, they appear to me as if out of nowhere and hover high up defying gravity. I can never see the passengers in the baskets, so they appear only as a spot of colour. Whenever I see them I feel like pointing them out to someone, not content to keep my marvelling to myself.

I have to admit to a penchant for the Regency fiction of Georgette Heyer. Some may pour scorn, but she wrote well and although the basic plots were Jane-Austen style Regency societal tales (with a central romance or two), Heyer infused them with gallons of historical detail about the period. In her novel Frederica, set in about 1818at one point Felix, the brother of the heroine (Frederica) accidentally gets carried away in a hot air balloon that was on show at an exhibition by some balloon adventurers. The Lord of the moment, the Marquis of Alverstoke, who has a tendre for the heroine helps to track down the fly-away young brother as he travels cross-country on his unintended balloon excursion. Even today there remains that random factor about balloon travel that, although I’m sure they plan for a particular destination, sometimes weather or other factors intervene and they have to make an unintended set-down. But (as long as the set-down isn’t in a hazardous location) there is something charming to me about the lack of ultimate control in an age of hyper-scheduling and technological control. I’ve been told that even whether a balloon can take off in the morning in the first place is impacted on heavily by weather conditions.

I’m staying in Germany at the moment and several days I have glimpsed balloons in the sky over Aachen. At first I was surprised to see them in the mid-late afternoon as I’d always seen them at home in the early morning. But regardless, when I saw them they appeared to me as symbols of hope. Something about them lifts the mind from daily concerns to the boundless possibilities of the skies.

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