The first camera we receive or buy can be the instigator of a life long relationship with photography, of course this can happen at any stage of our lives, but as the contributors to our weekly A Photographic Life podcast evidence it is often as a child that this introduction takes place. I have no interest in cameras, but the cameras that were passed on to me by my father and the one purchased for me as a childhood birthday present remain with me as both an emotional and physical presence.
The camera I was not allowed to touch was my father’s Fujica 35 EE, purchased in 1964 to document our family as we grew throughout the 1960s. It was replaced in 1974 by another camera I was not allowed to touch, a Fujica ST801, chosen on the basis of a photo magazine review. However, I was allowed to touch my own camera, an 11th birthday present purchased from a ‘pile them high sell them cheap’ camera shop on Kensington High Street, London in 1975. It was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic 192 that used 110 cartridge film and featured a Magic Cube stick attachment that allowed you to take pictures when the light was not good. Despite its approximate £11 price tag at the time it is now a camera that sits in the The Kodak Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford.
That camera was my first ‘proper camera’ and I had no other until I reached my early twenties and inherited the Fujica ST801 from my father. A camera I have never used as I remain too scared to damage it. It may be in my possession but it remains my father’s.
I was not drawn to any other camera, despite the terrible quality of the prints, expense of the film and the cost, both financially and ecologically of the Magic Cubes (four flash exposures to every cube). My 192 was easy to use, load and it fitted in my pocket. An approach to photography that may seem amateur to those building their own darkrooms at home, and embracing the quality and kudos of Nikon, Leica, Olympus, and Pentax, but it worked for me. I was always more interested in the image than the camera, the boat rather than the hammer that built it!
It is therefore little surprise that I am, all these years later, so willing to embrace the smartphone as a camera. The Instamatic was exactly that despite its lo-fi quality and clunky flash option.
The receiving of a camera as a child can be a life changing gift and there is no doubt that in the past it was an expensive gift and a much treasured item within most homes. However, times have changed and the creation of photographic images is no longer the prerogative of the adults in the home (more often than not the male) or the child obsessed with the magic of creating images though chemistry.
Today the first camera is most likely to be a smartphone, never seen as a milestone in someone’s initiation into photography and more likely to be remembered as a move into adulthood and owning a phone. A symbol of independence.
Some may not consider this a ‘proper camera’ and I am sure that many would have felt the same about my cartridge fed Instamatic, but who is to decide what is ‘proper’? The power to make images is the most important aspect of photography and whatever you start off with will fulfil that requirement. I am not sure if the smartphone of today will have the same emotional attachment to the photographer of the future that a weighty Zenith, reliable Pentax, or aspirational Nikon has but it will have achieved the same purpose.
The camera is no longer one of the most expensive items in the home. They can now be bought cheaply through online auction sites and in charity/thrift stores. Digital compacts are easily available as are no longer used DSLRs, replaced as they have been by smartphones as the family documentation device. Analogue cameras are experiencing a return to favour just as vinyl records have but there is no need to return to an analogue camera to begin an adventure with photography. There is also no need to buy new or spend high.
The first camera you own will always be special whatever it cost, wherever it is from and however difficult it is to use. The person who provides that camera will also always remain long in the memory of the recipient. So, if you are in the position to give a camera to a young person and introduce them to photography, I suggest you do make that gesture. However, do not do it at the expense of the smartphone as camera, do it as a complimentary tool. I would have loved to have been given an SLR camera alongside my Instamatic, but not having one did not stop me becoming a photographer.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021