David Collyer – What makes me click?

by David Collyer

David Collyer on “what makes me click?”…

I can’t remember the first photos I took, but I can remember that most of them were rubbish, and probably taken on a 110 film camera that belonged to my parents. I do vaguely remember my father having a better camera when I was very young; something along the lines of an Agfa Silette, but I don’t recall using it. We weren’t really a photographic household. Film was expensive in those days, and very few photos of me exist as a child, certainly when compared to the saturation of images that we are used to now. I do, however, remember the first good photo I took, and the rather convoluted journey that led me to it. It was of my maternal grandfather, a Cockney of gypsy heritage, former bare-knuckle boxer and complex World War II veteran, asleep in an armchair, mouth wide open wearing a paper crown after a long Christmas lunch. The camera was the ubiquitous Zenit E. I still have one largely for sentimental reasons.

I’m not one of those photographers who had an epiphany moment where they realised that they were driven to take photos. It was more of a slow seep, and the drive has got stronger as I’ve got older. My inspiration was probably more geared towards telling stories or reporting facts than it was to take pictures. I spent a lot of time as a child in the newsrooms of various papers that my father who was a journalist worked for. I used to love writing my own news stories and making small mock newspapers. This was in the days when everything was still filed as hard copy; newsrooms were smoky places with boxes of press cuttings and glossy 8×10 black and white photos lying around. The rooms resounded to the hubbub of rustling paper, chatter, and the click-clack of typewriters being pummelled as deadlines approached. There’s a reason why newspapers make such fascinating subjects for television or film dramas. They attract interesting characters in interesting environments. This was local news, so I can only imagine how exciting a national must have been.

I first decided I wanted a proper camera somewhere around the age of fifteen. More a follower than a leader, a couple of friends had SLRs so I put notes through various doors in the village where I lived, offering my services as an odd-job man in order to save up the £39.99 I needed to purchase a secondhand Zenit from a local camera store. Within a week I had enough money, and I even had enough over to buy a couple of rolls of film. I was a photographer! Or at least I thought I was. I’ve never considered myself to be a creative person. I’m uncomfortable at being described as an artist, and my earliest attempts at 35mm would bear this out. I recall a lot of out of focus photos shot at wide open of daisies and other things found in the garden.

I realised there was more to photography than this, as through Dad I’d met a couple of local press photographers. Derek worked for a local paper. He was a fairly eccentric older chap who I think still lived at home with his elderly mother, and rode everywhere on an ancient sit up and beg bicycle, khaki cagoule always on, cameras in a holdall over his shoulder. Think David Hemmings in Antonioni’s Blow Up, and then imagine the polar opposite. That was Derek! Ted was a seasoned press snapper on Dad’s paper. In my school holidays I got to hang out with Ted. There was a darkroom, endless rolls of film, Nikkormat cameras, and jobs to go and shoot for the paper. This was more like it! I learned how to compose and expose, when to press the shutter and when to watch, but most importantly I learned about life, and in hindsight, I learned one of the most important lessons that has shaped my photography ever since.

I got taken to Brands Hatch to watch and photograph the British Grand Prix. The Tyrell Formula 1 team were based locally so we needed some good photos for the paper. This was in the early 1980s, the days of cigarette advertising and “birds in bikinis” being paraded out to sell various merchandise. Ted trained his camera on one of the models and fired off a couple of shots, and said “you need to take photos of what you like, what interests you”.

I’m fifty-three now, and I firmly believe that these years are my most productive. I have a clarity and focus that I didn’t have as a younger man. I sometimes worry that I’m too prolific, but after a recent and ongoing brush with cancer and a contemplating of my own mortality, I now shoot with purpose. John Donne wrote “When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain” and this resonates. We are none of us on this Earth for an infinite period, so why not enjoy it and leave behind a legacy that we would want to be remembered for. I learned a lot as a teenager under the guidance of seasoned old pros; how to shoot, what to shoot, why to shoot, how to roll my own cigarettes, and how to buy a pint in the pub whilst underage. Safeguarding of minors was yet to be invented. Confidence is everything. I quit smoking, filthy habit, and at times when we are allowed to go out to pubs, no one ever asks me for ID anymore, but I approach my photography with a learned confidence, the seeds of which were sown as a spotty youth, and I’m now reaping as a middle-aged man.

I’m happy that when I shuffle off this mortal coil, and I’m not expecting it to be any time soon, I’ll be able to leave behind a body of work that I’m proud of, and that I think represents the best that I was capable of achieving. This is largely down to the support I’ve consistently had from other successful photographers over the years, but also from being galvanised by having most of my back catalogue and negatives burned by an ex-partner some years ago. But that’s a story for another column, another day. Or maybe not!

Names have been changed to protect the guilty

Images © David Collyer 2020.

You can see more of David’s work at www.davidcollyer.wordpress.com and on Instagram at @david_collyer_photographer

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