A few weeks ago I bought a book by Gunther Grass (umlaut) titled ‘The box’. On its cover it features a box camera and the words ‘tales from the darkroom.’ It is funny how a picture is able to recall memories deeply buried in the ashes of time passed all too soon. It was during my last year at high school in The Hague and rumors of my parents wanting to migrate to Australia were vaguely doing the rounds. I was fifteen. I happened to pass a camera shop and became instantly smitten by cameras that were displayed in the shop window.
My dad was a camera fan and had one of those cameras that one could focus on the subject by a lens that was able to be moved backwards and forwards by a concertina type action. I think it was a Leica camera. However, with his six children running around the dining table ( while shouting) and the Dutch rainy weather forever keeping us inside, his photography took a background stance. I don’t think he took many photos that I can remember, except some years later after migration to send back some photos to his parents (my paternal grandparents) whom he never saw again. My mother lost her parents at ten years of age during the Spanish flue epidemic.
When the migration plans became certain I was taken out of school and within days was working delivering fruit and vegetables to different embassies of which The Hague was full of. I did those deliveries on a sturdy steel bike with huge handle bars and large cane basket fitted over the front wheel. It was an industrial bike build specific for deliveries. The season was heading towards winter and storms were normal. However, I had my mind set on a box camera that I looked at numerous time in the window of the camera shop. Perhaps I inherited my dad’s obsession gene. I just had to have that camera.
My greatest joy was when a delivery had to be made to the American embassy. I was friendly with the kitchen staff and practised my English that I had been taught since two years at primary and the four years at high school. I would be given a hot soup and a tip that made my heart leap into my throat. I had started to smoke already and apart from the tip was given packets of Camel. Can you believe and understand my total happiness? Smoking in the fifties was regarded a form of maturity and for men at least almost a healthy habit to engage in. Even doctors gave it the nod of approval while wearing the stethoscope and white jacket.
I did also at times, try and get my hand underneath the wrapped up fruit and remember snitching a few grapes, while I single handed manoeuvred the bike again storm and rain. It was hungry work. I am not sure if the kitchen staff ever noticed the juicy ends of the few missing plucked grapes. In any case the tips kept on coming and within a few weeks I went to the camera shop and bought the camera. I always gave my earnings to my parents but was allowed to keep the generous tips. The camera is the same as on Gunther Grass’ book. I am sure it was a Brownie Kodak with a strap on top and two view finders.
I can still so vividly recall taking my first roll of film. I think it might have been eight photos or perhaps twelve. I took the exposed film spool to the camera shop who told me it would be ready in a week or so. I could hardly wait for them to be in my hands. The photos were poured over for hours. I was totally transfixed by the idea of getting an image to be fixed forever to be looked at over and over again. They had serrated edges as well and in black and white.
I took the camera to Australia and even took photos on the trip over. The boat had a developer on board so my excitement knew no bounds then.