I’ve used this quote and title elsewhere before. It’s the title to Laurie Lee’s semantic work of the same title, a fine book about coming of age.
The image accompanying this piece comes from a body of work that seems to have garnered some interest – this according to Google and some of its tracking schematics. Nice to receive the attention. Now for the story.
In some ways this work imbues the title of Lee’s book. Referring to the “coming of age” part. The picture featured in this post and the project from which it emanates, while different, kind of embraces much the same synergies – as in a coming of age thing.
SOME EARLY HISTORY
I grew up in a home where we were, let’s just say, “encouraged” to get up and go. My “walk out” came just after I returned home after completing my national service. Things at this time were transitional, kind of fluid and going no where. This was in March or April of 1974. As a result, I was kind of languishing around and, not altogether sure of what to do or where to go with my life. It was too late to start college in one instance and to early in another instance. The academic year usually started in February or so. My gracious mother kind of categorically stated, “Well, you’re not staying here”.
She was referring to where I had been living for most of my years while attending a local high school. With that statement, this kind of put things into some perspective.
Towards the end of my schooling, the best advice – career and counselling-wise – that I ever garnered from my mother was, “Just get yourself a job and then, you can think about what it is you want to do”. To me, bloody minded as I may have been, that sound more like a death knell than good advice.
I had long considered myself to be – at the age of eighteen or so – to be a kind of a 100% guy. As in putting my all into something, not hanging on to some sort of part-time thing and then, “thinking about what I wanted to do” afterwards. This advice of hers didn’t work for me. For all my time at high school, I had done “part-time”, as in all the vacation and weekend jobs I had over this period. My national service had taught me about the value to doing something 100% and putting your all into it. Time had come for me to move on.
Some two weeks after completing my military service I left home and moved to another city and there, stayed with my father for a short while. In terms of career advice and where I could or should be going with my life, being with him wasn’t much better. He was hoping that I would follow on in this footsteps. He was an engineer specialising in drainage and irrigation. From him I learned and garnered a love for technical drawing and all things mechanical, for reading and a love for the outdoors. While my mother was specific, my father was hopeful. My mother was a city girl, my father, a country boy. In between, I guess I was more wilful than much else.
FIRST REAL CAMERA
In all of this, I chose to go my own way. Photography was something I had picked up while in high school. From my part-time jobs, I bought my first real camera – a Canon FTb SLR. This was the “bee’s knees” as we used to say. At school, I had a friend who had a darkroom at home – a toilet [or a water closet by any other name] that we used to convert for the purpose.
As a result and, with one thing and another, I stepped out to do my thing – as a photographer. At this stage, all I had was a head full of dreams and a pocket full of empty. Heck, what can I say, I was being my idealistic self! And, after all this time and even now, I’m still wondering if anything has ever changed? Something we’ll leave for another time.
We move on. As a young photographer, full of aspirations but little practical experience, life was something of a challenge. The locus of this challenge had more to do with acceptance and credibility than having anything to do with my well-being at the time.
As I snapped away, some of the city’s newspapers were kind enough to use my pictures. As I recall, I got paid around R35 for each published picture. At the time, that was quite good money and quite encouraging to say the least. To put that fee into perspective, I was paying around R50 per month in rent, petrol was around 35 cents a gallon and a pint of milk was about 8 cents. With enough picture sales like that, I reckoned I could survive. Well, if I could hit this spot at least once a week, I could be made. In reality, this was more like every other month.
With this kind of reality, I had find something more substantial or, at least having something better to do. The advice my mother had given me really rankled: “Get yourself a job, then you can think about what you want to do”. Sure and surely. This wasn’t the encouragement or acknowledgement I was looking for.
And, it wasn’t likely to come for a long while yet. I had to finding something more substantial to do. With one thing and another, I decided that it would be best for me to go far, as in far, far away – to the edge of the world so to speak and this to find something new and newsworthy to pursue.
And here I must confess, I’m not really a photographer. I’m more of a story teller. Throughout my high school years and, probably before this, I had aspirations of being a writer, the kind that would write great masterpieces. Well, true. I had aspirations. Photography became a means to an end. As some young wet aspiring writer, did I have any sort of “voice” with which I was acquainted? Hardly. How was I going to assert my authority over my oeuvre? But wait, what as this – assert, authority, oeuvre? Heck, all this was so far removed from my everyday that I wouldn’t even know where to start with anything like this. Just give me a camera. If anything, this was the next best thing. If for nothing else, I could at least make notes – picture notes for want of a better term, this while I “drifted” around trying to find that “voice” and my “authority”. Kind of sounds like a swagger thing? Maybe it was.
At some point around this time, a long weekend came up. I was kind of at my wits end and really needed to get out of town. I had a car but, instead, decided to hitchhike to the other side of the country. I had an idea of going to Lüderitz in Namibia [Then still known as South West Africa]. When I was some way out of town, discovered I had no money. I had left my wallet and bank book behind. So, instead, hitched to Cape Town where I had family and friends. There I could pick up money and then continue on to that coastal town.
This trip to Lüderitz proved to be pivotal. While on this trip, I conceived of the idea to cover and document South Africa’s fishing industry – from top to bottom. From documenting local fishing communities through to photographing the fishing canning and processing industries to deep sea trawling. “Nice move”, I thought. And, it was.
Here, I need to remind you, dear reader that this was at a time way, way before computers were ever thought of. Well, PC’s at least. There were mainframes but not for the likes of you and me. Research was traditional – as in going to the central reference library and finding what I could there. Some references were current to within a year. Anything more recent had to probably wait to be indexed – all manually. Communications was usually done by post and may be a follow up phone call.
And the money to finance this project? It was all my own. Like that “writer’s voice” thing, who was going to back a young whipper-snapper? No one that I know of. Times then were not like today. While the USA had the Guggenheims and all sorts of the other fellowships and sponsorships, this was sunny South Africa. For someone who was established, maybe no issue. In doing what I was looking to do, I was still trying to get there – as is in building up credibility.
After doing the ground work, I started working on this project, one leg at a time. In the process, I would go to a location, do what I could do there by way of photography and then, head back home to process the pictures, put together a couple of illustrated feature articles and posted these off to various newspapers and magazines. Most of this work was done on spec. In the process, I rarely if ever contacted any of the editors I submitted my work to. It wasn’t that I was shy per se, I just hated the idea of rejection, of being told no.
Once those feature articles had been posted off, it was a matter of heading out on the next leg of the project. I worked like this for about 18 months.
Was this project a success? Who knows? Much of the work still languishes and has yet to see the light of day. But, at one point, I was pulling in more than my father was getting paid as a regular salary. Does that qualify as success? Not too sure.
Back to the image heading this post. This image was made during the snoek fishing leg. I had made contact with some people who knew some other people. And, as a result, I got to spend a few days on the snoek boats working out in False Bay. This was a matter of getting to Kalk Bay at 2:30 or so in the morning. There, I joined the boat and fishing crew. Hence this picture. More can be found at this link – Snoek Fishing
Of the photography. Let’s put it this way, I learned as I went along. At this time, there were no college courses. If you wanted to get into photography, you either started off in a newspaper darkroom or, working as some professional photographer’s apprentice. In any event, I took to the high road.
As part of my education, for want of a better word, there were the Michael Langford books on photography. Great then as now. I had access to that definitive set of Time/LIFE books on photography. There were, of course, those magical Kodak books. Then, there were all the picture magazines of the day such as LIFE, Paris Match, National Geographic and others. All this reading more or less gave me my cues. There were no mentors as such, at least live ones local to where I was – both in geo-physical terms as well as the time frame. And, besides, who was I in any event?
In starting out, I recall taking all sorts of different types of film with me – ranging from Ilford Pan-F through to some Kodak high speed film. In the process found out Pan-F was not what I was looking for – as a slow, contrasty and very fine grained emulsion. It might have been good for studio portraits but, a boat tossing around out on the open sea wasn’t a studio. The high-speed film might have been great for after mid-night stuff but, with grain the size of golf balls, this wasn’t what I was looking for either. I needed something in between. It took a while to figure out what this was.
Learning on the job was not without consequences. And, some of my early work showed this. But, we got what we wanted – eventually.
THE LOST YEARS PROJECT
The gallery featured at this link is but a small sample of the work we did on this occasion. Enough to say, if anybody wants to dip their hand into their pocket or knows of anyone who wants to fund the “recovery” and digitisation of this work, please let me know.
This is the basic remit of this, The Lost Years Project – to raise funding to bring this body of work and other personal photography done between 1976 to around 1994 together and to start digitising the negatives and then, to produce several volumes featuring this photography. There is a wealth of photography here that should find its way into the public realm – one way or the other. The PDF books I have on offer are but a small token of this effort. There’s a lot more from where all this came. Enjoy…