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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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Social justice rock ‘n’ roll, rugby league & archaeology: Heroes from childhood

Stained glass window with image of knight, Tower of London

Who are our heroes? Who do we look up to and why? The strong? The talented? The verbally skilled? The Everyman/woman? Who inspired you when you were a child? Kings, knights, super heroes, princesses, librarians, veterinarians, chefs or vegetarians? Here are five of my disparate childhood heroes. Who were some of yours?

1. Katharine Hepburn 

To my mind she was a woman and an actress ahead of her time: she wore pants a lot in the movies when the other women wore dresses, after her initial short-lived marriage, she never married again, but had a series of unconventional relationships. In movies she was sporting (Pat & Mike), opinionated (The Philadelphia Story) and spirited (Bringing up Baby). Her appearance and her voice were a bit out of the ordinary – she was striking with her pronounced cheekbones and sharp voice and had a strong presence on screen. Personally she had her fair share of tragedy, but she had a long career of roles spanning nearly 70 years, from roles of naïve young women (A Bill of Divorcement) through to elderly (but still spirited) women (On Golden Pond). Her long life included her lengthy and unconventional relationship with Spencer Tracy, who she also played opposite in a number of great movies, including Desk Set, from which film I learnt incidentally all about what a palindrome was! And it never hurt that she also made a number of her earlier films opposite the charming and handsome Cary Grant. To me she was a unique and versatile actress and a role model for women.

2. Peter Sterling

In a completely different vein, I believe my mother was horrified when I got into rugby league as a child (I started watching it because it came on TV after my regularly scheduled viewing of Nancy Drew). Peter Sterling was the half-back for the Parramatta Eels rugby league team during the main period in which I watched rugby. I was drawn to him because he was small and fast (not like some of the players in the other positions who were big and bulky and built for scrums) and he seemed to be everywhere on the field weaving in and out and scoring points. Even if he was tackled by someone larger, he always seemed to come out fighting. During the 1980’s when Parramatta won a number of premierships, he was a star player and I always wished girls could play rugby league too.

3. Spy vs Spy

Sydney indie ska/rock band Spy v Spy were amongst my childhood rock and roll heroes. As a kid I really questioned why everyone seemed to write those ‘boring love songs’. Why were so many songs about love (or sex)? Wasn’t there anything else in the world to write about other than broken hearts or love hearts? Spy vs spy wrote and sang about individual and social injustice. With their rock guitar sound, they put power behind the plight of murder victims, the homeless and marginalised and asked questions about our society. I had all their albums on vinyl and got to see them live once. The combination of the energetic, powerful guitar and drum-driven sound and their political message drew me in, and I thought Doc Martens were cool after having a poster of the Spies wearing Docs on my wall. I wanted to grow up to play rock guitar in a band and sing about the world’s injustices.

4. George from the Famous Five

I always thought Anne was wet: she did dishes and made meals and was kept out of the ‘dangerous’ aspects of the Famous Five adventures by her older brothers, Julian and Dick. They tried to keep George out too, but she embraced adventure and refused to conform to stereotypes of obedient young women of the time. Coming from my own time, I was incensed that the boys would try to exclude her from adventures and that she would be expected to instead attend to domestic matters. She was a tom boy, a spirited heroine who spoke her mind and, with her dog Timmy, she ran headlong into the heart of any mystery. She never wore dresses and I went through an anti-dress phase, seeing it as a form of anti-feminist oppression. I’ve since reconciled with dresses, but my admiration for George’s spiritedness lives on.

5. Indiana Jones

When I got to University and first joined the Archaeological society, I discovered that along with me, most others had been inspired to study archaeology after we were brought up on a childhood diet of Indiana Jones movies – especially Raiders of the Lost Ark. During the course of studying archaeology we learnt that what Indiana Jones was doing was actually ‘treasure hunting’, where he looked for particular objects and scandalously ripped them from their cultural context with no regard for stratigraphy. However, he made history and archaeology seem cool and brought the past to life, so he remained my dusty book-learning, action-embracing hero.

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