Updated: Oct 28
Once there was a legendary camera repairman in London. I'd love to give you his name but he's retired now and doesn't want to be bothered - as he often still is - by those who track him down and pester him to repair their cameras.
...He could fix anything and every professional photographer knew it - but God help anybody who asked him a dumb question or appeared anything less than properly informed. Always cantankerous, he could be downright rude and often terrifying.
I remember being in his workshop one rainy afternoon, waiting in my usual state of mild terror as he huffed and puffed to finish a camera repair for me. My eyes wandered across all the gear piled up for his attention. And I spotted something that I had never seen before. All I could see was a leather strap handle attached to the top of what looked like some kind of a box camera but in that moment, the really seductive thing was the case the camera was in - it was lined in the kind of richest purple coloured corduroy that would have made Willy Wonka smile.
I reached to lift the camera out of the case, just glimpsing the words 'Graflex Super D' before being gruffly told to leave it alone -
'That's not your camera!' '-Yes, I know but what is it?' 'It's Donovan's... That's what it is. Leave it alone'
He meant Terence Donovan, of course. He who had been one of the three photographers who had come to dominate the portrait and fashion scene of London during the 'Swinging Sixties'.
Bailey (left) Duffy (seated) Donovan (on the right)
As photography students at the tail end of the Seventies, we had all learnt of the wild and highly competitive David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy. They had been dubbed 'The Terrible Trio' by the Sunday Times. We read everything, watched every interview and film of them in action - and looked at everything they had shot. And the abiding impression was that they were hugely talented, hugely rude and all in all, pretty aggressive types... A bit like my camera repairman.
Maybe that's why Donovan used him.
Not everyone had been impressed by these so-called 'cockney photographers' (Duffy actually came from North London). Norman Parkinson - that high priest of portrait and fashion photography - thought that the trio were producing photos that didn't 'make the mark'. He found their 'methodology crude and their pictures at best unpolished'. Parkinson, who had himself been a great innovator - by taking fashion out of the studio and onto the street - took a pretty dim view of the Bailey/Duffy/Donovan gang... He called them 'The Black Trinity'.
Parkinson - and his famous 1959 fashion image shot on the street
...Not that Bailey, Duffy and Donovan cared much. They were young, ruthless, and having the time of their lives.
When I started out, life began with 35mm. As I moved into filmmaking, my still cameras came with me - remaining around my neck to shoot production stills of the scenes I directed. My solitary medium format was a Microflex TLR languishing at home. None of the picture publicity departments in TV ever asked for medium or large format... I never thought about them for work.
My favourite stills camera was a battered old black paint Leica M4. It was my 'go-to' and I always had it with me.
Mix through to - years later...
2004. I was shooting a series called 'Musicality' for Channel Four TV. It was my first foray into Musical Theatre.
I'd resisted the idea at first - thinking that I had no interest in Musical Theatre and now here I was, living night and day in the West End of London, loving every minute; shooting the series which followed hopeful young performers battling for a role in the great classic musical 'Chicago'. God only knows how much footage we shot in the end... And to this day, I'm still not sure how many rolls of film I put through my Leicas and Nikons.
...But one event certainly does stick in my mind. On Soho's Old Compton Street there stood a wonderful coffee shop called 'La Patisserie Valerie'. It was everybody's favourite. It was the first place I sat in when I came to London as a film and photography student in the late Seventies. And I was still using it at the end of the long days of shooting on 'Musicality' in 2004.
As I passed other tables on the way to pay my bill, I caught the eye of a guy quietly snapping away with a state-of-art digital SLR and what look liked a very wide angle lens - 'Oh, how are you getting on with that?' I asked - and he replied with a chuckle and a slightly disparaging nod at my old Leica- 'Not bad - and how are you getting on with that old knacker?'
A beat later and I was out on the street, heading back to shoot more stuff of my cast rehearsing 'Chicago' on the stage at the Adelphi Theatre. I looked at my old Leica and suddenly felt a bit nervous that maybe I really hadn't made any effort to keep up with the times; here we were, shooting the show on digibeta but I was still clinging on to my film cameras for picture publicity... If that guy (who was clearly quite serious about photography) could adapt to digital then surely I could/should too?
And then it dawned on me.
...I had heard his distinctive chuckle before - in the interviews I had watched as a student: The guy with the camera had been David Bailey! How could I have not recognised him!!
I plowed on, for a few months more, shooting 'Musicality'. I didn't see Bailey in Valerie's again. Maybe it wasn't a favourite haunt for him. My kids loved the place. My eleven-year-old daughter, Isabella, in particular. And she loved watching the rehearsals for Chicago, sitting in the darkness of the stalls, watching it all play out on the glowing stage.
Once the production had moved into editing, I had the chance to start out again, with my camera collecting obsession; heading down the eBay rabbit hole, hunting for the next best thing... And suddenly there it was: that distinctive Willy Wonka purple corduroy-lined case. And inside a Graflex Super D.
Donovan had passed away in 1996. His 5x4 format Super D's (it turns out he had two) had both sold at auction in 1997, making over £400 each - more than I could afford at the time. In the years that followed, I'd looked occasionally for other examples but they never came with that nice corduroy lined case. And I liked my kit to be complete with all the accessories.
Now I had another chance. This eBay Super D was in the smaller and rarer 3 1/4" x 4 1/4" format. And if I didn't want to shoot sheet film in this size, it also had a roll film back that would take 120 roll film. Perfect.
The camera was described with supreme indifference by the thrift shop selling it from their remote location in the mid-west as an- 'Old Graflex camera with other bits. No film. No guarantee it is working. No returns.'
It had to be saved. I put a bid on it.
A week later it arrived. It was dusty. It needed a service. But the moment I looked through it, I was in love with it - as you would be. And, having pulled apart quite a few cameras by now, I wasn't scared of servicing it myself.
I have never encountered another camera that presents such a wonderful image through its finder. There is something about that lovely glowing picture surrounded by the broad black border induced by the deep viewing hood that is unlike any other.
Josh and I tried to capture that incredible 'Graflex Glow' by taking this pic looking down into the hood at that lovely big ground glass screen... But we just couldn't do the Graflex justice. The real thing is pin sharp and magical to look at. The Ektar lens is a really fine piece of glass... So, apologies - I guess you will have to wait to see how nice the viewfinder is until you encounter the camera for yourself.
I remember my daughter looking into the Graflex and saying 'it's just like watching a show!' Images do appear as if on a stage - each new composition presents with a kind of unique glow and depth induced by the relatively long lens and shallow depth of focus. It's lovely. And completely absorbing.
Digital cameras offer up the image through their viewfinders with a pretty much uniform blandness. How a camera offers up the light from its lens to the viewfinder is where the real magic is to be found. All the great cameras have great viewfinders - each is distinct and quite different. And all are uniformly stimulating for the creative eye. How the camera image is presented to the photographer is vital… And the grand, glowing stage of the Super D takes some beating.
The Graflex became my Theatre of Light. It still is. And I think it always will be.
No wonder Donovan loved this camera. It's a big reflex with a big screen - revealing a wealth of detail that is hard to see on smaller format TLR cameras. I guess you could think of the Super D as a kind of giant Hasselblad. It makes a great studio camera but it is also still handy enough to take out on the street or into the wilds - like the intrepid Margaret Bourke White did.
Margaret with her Graflex camera atop The Chrysler Building New York 1934
...And Dorothea Lange -
Migrant mother 1936 - shot by Dorothea on her Graflex using one of those wonderful Kodak Ektar lenses
If you try a Graflex (especially the super D model which has an automatic iris), you will buy one... If you can find a good one. Be patient. They made this camera for a long, long time; it's just that an awful lot of them seem to have ended their days by being ruined in damp cupboards - or in the case of one I saw, it was being used as a paint-spattered door stop in a studio that was being redecorated. Donovan would have spun in his grave.
Whilst I was making 'Musicality' my eight-year-old son, Theo, came home with his new best friend. 'Dad this is Lucas. His gramp is a photographer but he is a bit old'. I wish I had taken the time to meet the man. It turns out 'gramp' was Duffy.
I'd met Bailey and didn't know it. Donovan had passed long before I had any opportunity to meet him and I had missed meeting Duffy simply because I never thought to ask Lucas what 'Gramps' name was (although Duffy would probably have been pretty unhappy receiving any kind of admiration from me - see: https://www.duffyarchive.com/videos/bbc-documentary-man-shot-sixties/#:~:text=So%20influential%20were%20their%20images,each%20other%20to%20new%20heights. )
... But I did finally see Bailey again - on the street walking towards me through Covent Garden. It was years on from seeing him in Valerie's. And this time, he was the one with an 'old knacker' around his neck - a Leica M6. He looked at my Leica for the briefest moment and gave me a kind of canny smile. I don't think he remembered me but he knew I had recognised him. He walked on. I took a picture of his retreating figure and thought to myself that I shouldn't feel so bad about my 'old knacker'. If Bailey was still shooting film, then so could I.
He later said - 'For me, simplicity is the ultimate aim, combined with the perfect accident. All creativity is an accident. That's why I prefer film cameras. Digital takes away the accident. If you do that, you take away the creativity. All those pictures on digital cameras are all perfect. And they're perfectly boring!'
My son Theo grew up to be a photographer. He has just finished shooting for HBO on 'House of the Dragon'. He shoots digital and film. And my ‘Donovan’-inspired super D? It’s now my screenwriter daughter’s favourite camera...
Last word - I read somewhere that, whilst talking about his career, Bailey had reflected that- ‘if I hadn’t spent so much time fiddling about with different cameras I could have been a better photographer…'
So - I guess, in the end, Bailey is just as 'hooked' as the rest of us; at The Latent Image we are all addicted to cameras and photography - and if you have been reading these blogs, you must be too.
Welcome, one and all.
All historic photographs are strictly the copyright of their respective owners
Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman
Camera photos copyright The Latent Image