Got My Mojo Working

I found this set of photos on the internal memory of an early compact digital camera made by the company Oregon Scientific, founded in 1989. Oregon Scientific was responsible for a number of firsts in consumer digital technology, including, in 2003, the world’s smallest digital camera.

This camera is the same size as a credit card and 15mm thick. It looks like a prototype and feels like an executive toy. It is made from thin, pressed and powder-coated metal sheet. Embossed on the front, it boasts 2.0M. With a 128mb card inserted, it can take 84 pictures or shoot 14m 04s of silent video. The video cannot be downloaded via USB, only using the separate video port. If you are in a tight spot, the internal memory holds 10 photos, depending on resolution quality, or 1m 04s of video, and, as you can see, it has a very bright flash. It has surprising capability all round, with image resolution and ISO settings, white balance, light sensor, self-timer and a zoom feature. The lens is located in the top right-hand corner of the camera, top left in portrait orientation, which allows it to be manipulated in the hand in the same way one would if using the front-facing camera on a smart phone. Yet it is to be remembered that the screen is on the back of the camera, so when taking self-portraits one cannot see oneself.

Shot with this camera, these images show a young buck orienting himself before a night on the town. The photos were taken between 6.37pm and 8.10pm on Saturday 4th May, 2003. In the first eight shots, he is in the bathroom, rehearsing his poses; throwing shapes, as if before a mirror. There is a gap of about 30 minutes or so, and then, in the final two shots, we see our protagonist transformed, fully in character, booted and suited, buff and quaff-haired, ready to take on the night.

Nigel Martin Shephard

The New Engine

The Kodak disc camera appeared on the market with great fanfare in 1982. Kodak’s chairman at the time, Walter Fallon, ahead of the biggest publicity campaign Kodak ever launched, called disc photography “the new engine that will drive amateur photography”.

Although presented as ultra-modern on its release, which in some ways it was, the disc camera had precedents. Some ‘detective cameras’ from the 1880s, so called because of their easy concealment, also had a circular, flat design of film. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the more regular box-shaped ‘detective camera’ was the inspiration for the design of the Kodak No1, released in 1888. In another respect, the disc camera also followed a design trajectory begun in 1972 with the introduction of the new, smaller format 110 films with a 16mm negative, less than half the size of 35mm film. This new reel-to-reel cassette format provided for a more portable, pocket-sized camera. The disc camera, with its 15mm negative and flat, carousel design meant that cameras could be made even smaller.

Although 25 million were sold, the Kodak disc camera was finished by 1988. The miserly 15 exposures on each film was poor value, and the tiny negative provided for disappointing, grainy prints. Very few labs went to the expense of upgrading to the new technology developed to get the best out of this smaller negative. It has been said that the under-performance of the Kodak disc camera campaign certainly contributed to the company’s eventual bankruptcy. 

Time and obsolescence have rendered these developed disc negatives art objects. Never designed to be seen like this, only as individual prints, once scanned into a computer and colour inverted, the positive images appear in a rosette pattern around an inner label, much like a vinyl record. The strange aperture at the centre, the barcode and boxy, machine-like font are suggestive of a robot age, while its petals and floret shape are evocative of nature.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Ghost in the Machine

Found image in a Vivitar digital camera

It goes without saying that the ways in which family photos get made, collected and disseminated has changed a great deal in the last couple of decades. Simply from talking to the younger members of my close extended family, I know that the physical family photo album is, for this generation, and presumably for future generations, a thing of the past. Digitisation has made an online setting far more likely; our familiar memories now exist as code made visible only by electricity, and in most cases a third party.

Consumer digital cameras started to appear in the mid-1990s, and by the beginning of the next century a little compact digital was the camera de jour. Recently, I bought a Vivitar digital camera to sell at TheFamilyMuseumStore in London’s Spitalfields Market. I had to make sure it was in good order and functioning before selling it; there is a desire among those of college age for analogue cameras generally, but early noughties digital cameras are also having their Indian summer at the moment.

On the Vivitar, there were a few images left in the tiny internal memory, date-stamped 2007.  Two were of garden furniture and the third was of a four- or five-year-old girl standing next to the kitchen sink, looking up into the camera. She seemed vulnerable, set adrift like this, perhaps forgotten. Was this the only one? Had this image been copied to a hard drive? I pondered over deleting it. I would never once consider destroying a physical photo, and if I wanted to I would have to go to the effort of ripping it up, or more dramatically, setting fire to it. But with this image, all I had to do was click a button and it would be scrambled into non-existence.

I didn’t delete it. I’ve passed the buck. I’m going to sell it with the image still there.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Adrian, Rosemary, Niall and Me…

This collection of photographs comes in 11 identical volumes, and is just shy of 500 images. They begin in August 1931 and end in May 1938. The story begins with a couple on a camping holiday in St David’s, Wales. They were touring around in a Riley Nine motorcar. Apart from these first few pages, the collection is dedicated to two children, Adrian and Rosemary. They lived in Sloane Avenue, London SW3, and spent family time in Richmond Park.

Over the years, they visited Boscombe in Dorset; Strete in Devon; Prah Sands and St Just in Cornwall; Ambleside in Cumbria; Rustington, Little Hampton and Lodsworth in West Sussex; Kew Gardens, Richmond Gardens and Cadogan Gardens in London, and Candy Gardens in Guernsey.

The photographer and the curator of this collection is the mother, known as ‘Me’. Each album is about the size of a paperback novel. The pictures are beautifully annotated in pencil, with locations, dates and the children’s ages counted out in fractions. The photographs of the children begin when Rosemary is nine months old and Adrian three-and-three-quarter years. Every shot is taken outdoors, and there are very few, if any, candid shots. The condition of the albums is virtually brand new, as if, once each was full, they were put in a box and never touched again. If anyone has looked through them, they have done so with the care of a dedicated archivist.

Most striking is the obsessiveness. We are now used to people having hundreds of photos of their children on their phone, but in the 1930s this kind of volume would have required considerably more effort. They were clearly a happy family, but the children often look like objects of scientific study rather than devotion. Most of the photos have the stiffness of re-enactment, as if they have been rehearsed two or three times to get it right.

There are three images of Rosemary, about four years old, entirely naked on the beach. It is clear from these shots that the mother had no notion that these photos would ever be seen by anyone outside of the family. A critique of family photography presents ethical and moral problems not known in any other photographic genre.

Nigel Martin Shephard

The Post-Victorian Eye

In the influential Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, written in 1889 by PH Emerson, the eminent Victorian photographer and writer is at pains to make the reader aware of the difficulties in trying to distinguish between the ‘professional’ and the ‘amateur’ in the field of photography:

‘ There is one obstacle that we must clear from the students path in this introduction, and that is the confusion of the terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, as used in the photographic world, for in this world it must be understood that these terms exist as in no other world.

The point being made is, it was not necessarily those who earned their living from photography that were making advances the field, but more so, the free application of dedicated minds upon which the history of photography is built. Although when making these statements Emerson had in mind the polymath fraternity to which he belonged, I feel a similar caution may be exercised in the snapshot era – a visual culture that barely existed when Emerson was writing.

This album was compiled some 20 years after Emerson’s book was written, and many things were different. Victoria was dead, and the maudlin shadow that she had cast over the period had lifted, which, along with the growing movements for social justice, the arrival of the tabloid press, galloping consumer technology, automation, cinema and recorded sound, all added up to an air of change.

This is a family album, pure and simple. It shows the family on their holidays: at the beach, along the prom, having picnics, taking boating trips. Although this is all common amateur fare, this album could not be described as an ‘amateur’ effort. In the first half, all the photos are landscape orientation; in the second half, beginning exactly in the middle, they are all portrait format. Each shot is beautifully composed and all the photos are nicely rendered; it is rare to see photographs from this period with so little sepia tone in them, a varying hue resulting from chemicals added to protect the images from fading.

One may be able to see the influence of Emerson’s teaching in this album, in the shots of yachts and seascapes, perhaps. Yet the formal gaze is constantly interrupted by candid photos of people in unusual or ungainly poses: perhaps people reduced to dotted rhythms across the sand, or people simply there to frame space – their humanity temporally sidelined to preserve the beauty of the composition. The album is curated to juxtapose moods and atmosphere. There is an action shot of the little girl, turning around, joyous and playful. In the shot next to it, she sits stock still on a bench, deep in thought, pensive and vulnerable. In many of the images, no one is looking directly into the camera – a circumstance guaranteed to encourage sentimental detachment. There are several tableaux with the idyllic iconography of a proto-Norman Rockwell painting, a look seen in Kodak advertisements of the day.

In the 21st century, the distinction between the amateur and professional in photography is far easier to discern than in Emerson’s day; the dedicated colleges to the teaching of photography that he so longed for in his book now exist. And yet, arguably, the selfie is the first form of new photographic portraiture for 160 years. It can still take the amateur to switch up the game.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Sun Print

‘Sun Print’ experiment with a negative and 70-year-old photographic paper found in a Johnsons ‘home photography’ kit

I have recently been working on an exhibition, part of which includes photographic equipment made by Johnsons of Hendon. The roots of the company can be traced back to the 18th century and the assayer John Johnson, whose Johnson & Sons firm would go on to provide chemicals for the Fox-Talbot calotype photographic process from around 1839. In the period prior to WWII, the company was providing many of its chemicals for military photography, but also for the new ‘Home Photography’ kits that were being aimed at the amateur market. After WWII, under its new name of Johnsons of Hendon, the firm began selling its own complete ‘Home Photography Outfit’ kits.

These kits came with developing tank, mixing flasks, developing trays, thermometer, contact printer, other paraphernalia and several boxes of photographic paper. I am a novice in the photographic arts, but was informed by those more knowledgeable than me that the paper would be desensitised and useless. By accident, I recently left a sheet out and noticed later that it had turned black. One of the Johnsons’ printing frames that I had bought still had a negative in it, so I put the negative in to the one of the printing frames, placed a sheet of 70-year-old photographic paper on top of it, and set it face up on my windowsill in the blazing midday sunshine.

After 15 minutes, I took the paper out of the frame. With no stop bath, or any knowledge of what one was, I quickly took a photograph of it, and this is the result. Before printing, I had held the negative up to the light. I could make out the general tableau and see that there were figures, but the vitality that the final print revealed was startling. Such a romantic and magical experience was this that I fancied I felt some of that wonder the early 19th-century pioneers must have felt when viewing their first experiments.

Nigel Martin Shephard

American Gems

In America, where tintype photography first took off in the 1860s, tintypes represent an important national record and cultural bond. Their rise in popularity coincided with the desire for durable keepsakes prompted by the upheavals of the Civil War, which began in 1861. The hold they have on the American imagination is evidenced by the fact that more than 10 craft tintype portrait studios have opened up across the country since 2010; in 2019, the director Greta Gerwig had the entire cast of her film Little Women photographed in tintype. Yet in the UK, this form of photography has been almost entirely forgotten.

American Scott Archer announced his wet-collodion positive technique in 1852. By 1856, the first US patent had been granted and, by the end of the following year, ferrotype plates – the technical name for tintypes – were being commercially manufactured. The tintype trade in America was pursued with great vigour and acumen, but in Britain, to begin with, the attitude towards it was wary. The most influential British Victorian photographers at the time regarded themselves on a noble quest for the advancement of the arts and sciences, and therefore felt that any commercialisation in their field diminished not only their profession but also their social standing. As a result, the tintype trade in the UK did not get going until the 1870s, and even then, this was only as a result of American agents travelling across the Atlantic to set up shop in Regent Street, London.

Although the trade survived for 100 years, and fine examples still exist, tintypes were always regarded in the UK as the cheapest and lowest form of photography. The photographers themselves were seen as no more than hucksters and drunken ne’er-do-wells peddling cheap tat to undiscerning punters; like silhouette cutters before them, they thought nothing of setting up shop alongside a pub. Tintypes could be produced ‘while-u-wait’, with the rapidity of a Polaroid, which was all part and parcel of the quick thrills available at fairgrounds, wakes, village fetes and bustling beauty spots. While it is true to say that many tintypes are low fidelity, they can nonetheless hold interest and great charm.

Tintypes typically ranged in size from full plates measuring 6½in by 8½in, descending down in fractions to the smallest size available, the ‘American Gem’. American Gem plates measured 1in by ¾in. As their name suggests, this was a style of tintype imported from the US. Their diminutive size and lower fidelity seems to have been compensated for by the sheer variety and attractiveness of their decorative mounts. At 36 for 2s 6d – less than a ‘penny a pop’ – they represented the cheapest portraiture on the high street.

Nigel Martin Shephard

Long Shadows

Pasted on the last page of this album is a map. A thick red line runs across this map from west to east, beginning at Istanbul on the Black Sea, travelling across the Middle East and ending at the Taj Mahal in Delhi. During the 1960s and 70s, this alternative, down-to-earth tourist trek was known as the ‘Hippie Trail’. The word ‘hippie’ is derived from the 1950s word ‘hipster’, an epithet that still signifies a fashionable coterie of hirsute handicrafters.

The first edition of Lonely Planet, a series of budget travel guides with a current annual turnover of $85 million, was written about the Hippie Trail. ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’ was published in 1973, written by Tony Wheeler. He had made the trip with his wife, Maureen, in 1972. The first edition was a zine stapled together at their kitchen table. It provides many valuable insights, but the most entertaining aspect of the book is its attitude toward smoking dope. In a chapter dedicated to this, the sole advice is to stay stoned and out of prison (a ‘short-haired wig’ is recommended at one point for crossing borders) for the entire 2,826 miles journey, or more. The photos I have picked out here are the best in the album; most of the others are of distant, blurry, ancient ruins, and the odd snake charmer.

For the photographer, the guide had this advice:

 “If you are a camera fan, take plenty of films. It is incredible how much film you will get through on a trip like this and between South East Asia and Europe film is chronically expensive. If you are travelling up from Australia the best idea is to take enough to get to Singapore or Penang then stock up on the duty free stuff. We used 5 reels of 36 exposures film and if we had had more we would have used it too. Don’t worry if you do run out of film as you can get major brands easily throughout Asia and the Middle East, but once again, it costs. Be cool in who you point your camera at, if they seem disturbed by it, don’t. Especially be careful about photographing women in the strongly Moslem countries, cameras can be a major cause of hassles. In general you will find that people are quite happy to be photographed. I took a photograph of one of the fascinating little open air bakeries in Afghanistan and the whole staff were up and posing. You are probably best advised to take your exposed film with you and get it developed in Europe, except in Singapore where the local developing is fast and good. If you decide to mail film ahead to be developed, or back home, take care. Little packages, especially from places like Afghanistan, are treated with suspicion by customs – x-raying a film to see what is inside doesn’t do the pictures any good.”

Under the heading ‘VISAS’, there is a note on photographs:

“Raid the piggy bank, rush round to your favourite photo booth and get dozens. Three dozen might not be too many, every visa seems to require two or three plus you’ll want others for I.D. papers, passport, driving licence and student cards. Asians are very big on photos and you may feel obliged to present a photo of your own sweet face to someone who has been particularly nice. So take photos, they’re cheaper now than later.”

Experts did not write this book; it is an example of peer-to-peer learning, something that is common now on the Internet. The demise of the Hippie Trail was also prescient. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, an event that steers geopolitics today, was to end it.  

Nigel Martin Shephard

War Babies

The cover of this album is bright red. When open, it measures 2½ft x 18in. It weighs about 2kg and is packed with photos. On the inside cover, is a blown-up newspaper photograph of the Kray twins with their mother, Violet, beaming with pride in her boys. Throughout the entire album, there is no indication of any personal connection with the Kray family, or that world. It must simply be there for reason of their celebrity, or maybe the owner of the album just liked Vi’s smile.

This is essentially a courtship album. The woman is Spanish, the man English. The album is decorated throughout with Spanish and English stamps, all of which have been franked, which means they must have been steamed off posted letters. The earliest frank mark is dated 1952, the latest 1966, the year of their marriage. Perhaps they came from the letters they sent back and forth during their courtship. The album proper begins, as you would expect, when the couple meet, then continues through their courtship, wedding and honeymoon. But on the first five pages, they have combined their childhood photos, which show them growing up in the 1940s. Perhaps some of these photographs were also exchanged in those letters.

As the 1960s get going, photos in colour and larger formats start to appear. This chapter of the album mainly shows their days out together. There is one shot of the woman with a huge parrot perched on her arm, and her fiancé with his camera dangling at his side. Later, the woman is again photographed cradling a parrot like an infant, with a white dove perched on the top of her head this time. Professional souvenir photographers who operated at popular tourist spots would at times have exotic animals to lure the punters in.

Their wedding photos are snapshots taken by a friend of the couple, not the official wedding photographer – a gesture in keeping with the 1960s youth rebellion, which eschewed traditional practices, the staidness of which had been accentuated by 1950s austerity and their war-weary parents desire for a quiet life. The war babies favoured a fresher, more ‘happening’, more ‘with it’ vibe – the future was theirs to inherit.

Nigel Martin Shephard


This collection comes in three volumes, each with a heady smell of damp. The earliest album starts in the 1930s, but most of the photographs date from the 1950s. There are more than 40 colour photos, which, for albums of this period, is an extraordinary amount. Occasionally, some 1950s albums could, perhaps, contain three or four colour photos, if you’re lucky. Judging by the quality of the black and white photos, and the albums dedicated arrangement, it comes as no surprise that this photographer was an early adopter of colour.

Practical colour photography appeared in the UK in 1907, with the introduction of Autochrome Lumière plates. Twenty million were produced and lovely examples still exist – the photographer Etheldreda Laing was an English exponent – but their use seems to have faded out by the early 1930s. From the mid-1960s, colour photos were commonly found alongside black and white images, and by the mid-1970s they are the norm. Yet the colour photos in these albums represent the true birth of colour for the amateur. They were processed by the Belgium company Gavaert, founded in 1894. Gevacolour colour film was produced from 1947 and available in the UK from 1953. The Gevaert colour service operated in the same way as Kodak’s; the exposed film was sent of to the Gevaert Company, which would return prints to the customer some time later. There were several formats sizes available: the smallest measuring just 2¼ inches square; the largest 6 x 4 inches.

The Riviera shots, taken on board a yacht, show the merriment of a harpoon-fishing trip. One man can be seen ironically brandishing the fearsome weapon in one hand, with a minnow in the other. The lithe youth over his right shoulder has an expression that seems to announce a wisdom beyond his age. People from the 1950s in swimming costumes always look under nourished; the lack of gym bodies is striking. The photos of the little girl and young woman, both in their blue dresses with the stylish cars in the background, wouldn’t look out of place in Paris Match. One well-turned-out lady, with a little girl at her side, looks dressed for a wedding but steeled for a funeral.

There is something that distinguishes these early 1950s photos from those taken less than a decade later. By the late 1950s, rock and roll culture had made its mark, and street fashion began to have an influence. But these photos come from a time of sartorial elegance and old-school cool, when you dressed for every occasion.

Nigel Martin Shephard