ON SATURDAY I’M SURE I took more photos than my parents took during my entire childhood. Mum used a Kodak Box Brownie that would take eight pictures on a roll of film. Each roll probably took a year to be used up. Now, in 2020, I blaze away on my phone at a huge rate. Being a Huawei phone, the pictures are beamed straight to the Chinese Intelligence Service who retouch them and send them back and they look beautiful.
The phone even gives me little picture-taking tips and reminders like, “You haven’t taken pictures of an air force base lately”, or “That shot would look better with a naval base in the background”. My phone really does take better pictures than my expensive DSLR that gathers dust in my cupboard, and much better than my even more dusty, more expensive film cameras in my other cupboards, and much much much better pictures than any of the dozens of ancient cameras in boxes in my garage.
Heroin would’ve been a cheaper hobby, and possibly less addictive, than photography. I got the photography bug early, and I got it bad. Before I got glasses as a teenager, the world I lived in was not nearly as crisp and clear as good quality photos. I distinctly remember staring at postcards of Auckland and thinking how much better they were than my blurry myopic reality.
I remember getting my first camera – a Kodak 25 Instamatic – and taking my first picture – a ship. Mr Ferguson at Intermediate showed me how to process films and make prints, and for the first time I had the wonderful thrill of watching a photographic print slowly appear as it developed in a tray under the orangey glow of a safelight. Mr Devcich the chemist steered me towards a better camera; a Russian Lubitel 2, that cost a whopping $13.97. Cousin Reg lent me his enlarger and I set up my own dark room. From then on, I was ‘John Cowan the Photographer’. It was my identity. I remember thinking, if I ever go blind I’ll have to get braille labels on my camera … And it was wonderful.
Here’s the thing: I wasn’t good at sport and I was the opposite of cool; I was a nerd trapped behind acne with matching spectacles. And desperately, desperately shy. I was far too shy to ask girls out on dates, but … I was ‘John Cowan the Photographer’ and the prettiest girls in the school would model for me! Whole days at the beach with them, and I still have the prints to prove it! At parties I hid behind my camera: I didn’t have to dance or socialise, I could just take photos and eat the food.
Teachers recruited me to take pictures of school events and for the school magazine. An art teacher even invited me to an adult night class to take pictures of the life model. Never has an adolescent boy been so grateful to photography … until some students stole my prints and negatives and the poor woman’s image was widely distributed throughout two high schools. I was proud of being ‘John Cowan the Photographer’ but ‘School Pornographer’ took a bit of living down.
The photography addiction persisted on into adulthood. The cameras around my neck were always more expensive than the cars I drove. I had a permanent pallid ‘darkroom tan’ and probably Vitamin D deficiency. I definitely had a photography-induced money deficiency … lenses, gadgets, film, etc. was all so costly, but eventually it started to pay me back. I worked as a newspaper and wedding photographer, took magazine covers (including Grapevine!) and for years I was a multimedia producer.
And then … I wasn’t. I was ‘John Cowan the Used-To-Be-a-Photographer’. I must admit a lot of the appeal of photography evaporated with digital technology. Suddenly I had decades of experience and masses of equipment … but anyone can take better pictures than me on their phone. I still click away at my cycling buddies and family, but the blazing addiction has cooled and abated.
After all those thousands of pictures, which are my favourites? The ones my mum took on her Box Brownie.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.