Thirty years ago I took a cheap black plastic camera on a week's holiday to one of the Channel Islands. The camera was point and click, no batteries or focus required, with a twisty button for winding the film on to the next shot. There was a round socket on top where I could have inserted a disposable flashcube, except I didn't have one so I had to take all my photographs outdoors. I'd taken a few shots back at home before the holiday began so the 12 exposure film was already nearly half finished. The camera sat at the bottom of my Dad's rucksack as we wandered round the island, and once or twice I remembered I had it and stopped to take some photographs. Nothing special, nothing arty, just a few sights that caught my ten-year-old eye. And once we returned to the mainland my Mum took the film in to our local chemist and, eventually, the negatives came back as curvy-cornered prints.
The results were pretty disappointing by modern standards, although at the time I was rather pleased with my efforts. A blurry close-up of a gorse bush and some daisies [reproduced here in all its dismal glory]. A distant lighthouse in a photo which was 85% grey sky. An impressive rock formation snapped from too far away to make any impact. A low dry stone wall across a featureless grass field. A semi-decent shot of a sandy bay with the rooftop of our guest house disappearing out of the bottom of the frame. And my Mum in a bright red coat kneeling to pick a flower, looking down just enough to keep the whole of her face out of shot. My entire photographic memories of that holiday consist of a handful of poorly taken snaps which only hint at the week we spent away. For some reason one particular clifftop featured in the majority of the photos, while most of the places we visited I never captured. It's almost as if the majority of that holiday never happened.
But thankfully my Dad had his own camera with him, a proper and more robust model, and he snapped away throughout the holiday. Sometimes he managed to take a candid picture of us interacting naturally with the environment. Other times we noticed him lurking with shutter poised and tried hard to keep out of shot. We knew he only had a certain number of shots and couldn't afford to waste too many of them. And then there were the more formal posed pictures of the assembled family grinning in front of some scenic backdrop - teeth bared, no escape. And when we got home - and the nice people at Kodak had worked their magic on the negatives - it was time for the post-holiday slide show. Curtains drawn, projector loaded, and the satisfying click as the next photograph slid in position. And there we all were large as life on the wall of the living room, a window into the past, just like magic. But each slide show was usually a one-off. It took so long to set up the equipment and to load all the slides correctly into the projector that each set of photographs probably got viewed just the once, and then it was back into the box with them all.
Photography has moved on almost unimaginably fast since then [as you can see from my latest snapshot]. Camera quality is hugely improved, permitting sharp photos even at the cheap end of the market. Auto focus and instant zoom allow us to concentrate on precisely what we want to capture. Digital cameras mean that we can take as many photographs as we like and discard the 99% of less-than-perfect shots. We can crop images to remove distractions, rotate the pixels to get our horizons horizontal and manipulate the colours to create the shot we'd like to have taken but didn't. And there's no more waiting around for days or even weeks for our prints to be processed. Even Boots the chemist's 1-hour premium service is seriously old-hat these days. Now we can upload and publish our photographs in seconds, and share those special family shots with relatives on the other side of the world without having to pay extra for a double set of prints. And there's no need for a wallpaper-backed slide show either, not when we can premiere seven hours of camcorder footage on our hi-res plasma screen instead. See, it's not all good news.
I took several hundred photographs on my last holiday. Even when I deleted the blurs, the bodges and the duplicates there were still tons of megapixels remaining. My latest holiday portfolio is of much better quality than the miserable set of eight I took on that far distant childhood holiday, and a far better memory jogger too. I can retrace every sight, event and sunlit panorama of my recent trip to San Francisco, which is sadly not the case for my family's Channel Island jaunt. But what really impresses me is that those eight 1970s photographs still exist. They may be stacked up in a box in the spare room, but they've survived three decades and will probably survive three more. And that's more than can be said for my more recent digital photographs. Electronic files may be versatile but they're also far far more fragile than paper rectangles, long term. That indistinct gorse bush won't disappear forever the next time my computer hard drive fails. That distant lighthouse won't be lost when I accidentally delete my backup folders. And that photograph of my kneeling mother will still be visible even after jpg files become obsolete. At least I can guarantee I'll have some photographic memories left when I'm 70, even if they are pre-digital, few in number and a bit blurred.