Photographic memories

THERE IS PHOTOGRAPHY IN MY GENES. My great-grandfather, Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) left his native Prussia to migrate to South Africa in 1880. He arrived in King Williams Town where he and his future bother-in-law Jakob Rindl established a photography studio, one of the first in southern Africa.

HAL 6

I became keen on photography as soon as an uncle, a keen amateur photographer who was closely related to Jakob Rindl and also Franz Ginsberg, had presented me with a simple Kodak Brownie camera when I was about seven years old. It was exciting taking photographs, waiting for the film to be developed at chemist or photography shops, and then opening the packet to discover whether the prints bore any decent looking images. In those early days, there were plenty of dud shots, but also a few decent ones. I graduated from the Brownie to another Kodak model, which had two lens and a viewfinder on top of the device. It was probably a version of the Brownie Reflex camera. It pleased me because it had a few things that could be adjusted whilst taking a picture.

As I got older, maybe over twelve years old, I began buying photography magazines. I soon realised that to achieve interesting results in photography, using a 35mm film camera was essential. I leafed through the issues, reading the reviews of cameras that sounded wonderful but were way beyond my budget. I was so fascinated by these sophisticated devices that I used to draw pictures, fantasising what I would have liked to have owned.

Eventually, there was a review of a camera that almost suited my pocket money budget, and which was likely to satisfy my desire to own a more complicated camera. The camera, which was given an excellent review was made by the Halina company and cost around £12.The Halina models were manufactured in Hong Kong by the Hakin Company. I cannot recall exactly which model was reviewed but it looked similar to the Halina 35x. I do remember that it did not have a built-in exposure meter.

Twelve pounds was a lot of money for me to find in the mid-1960s. I did not expect my parents to donate this sum to me for something they considered unnecessary because they never showed any interest in taking photographs. However, they did offer me a solution: I could earn the money by helping them. The task I was given was to mow the lawn in our garden once a fortnight. Please note that we only possessed a non-motorised human-powered mower. So, the £1 that I received for each quite arduous mowing was not easy money.

Eventually, I amassed the required sum to buy my Halina camera and it leather-like case. Then, I was faced with the problem of determining the appropriate shutter speed and diaphragm settings for my shots. My uncle, the one who had started off my interest in photography, gave me a circular plastic exposure calculator. By twisting the dial to three settings (weather condition, subject matter, film speed), the device produced a recommended combination of exposure time and diaphragm setting (‘f number’). At first, this was quite difficult to use. After a little practice, I became very adept. For example, I could use the calculator to work out the correct exposure settings when taking pictures of landscape from a moving car or bus, and the results were often more than acceptable.

A little more money saving allowed me to have sufficient to buy a highly recommended low-cost electronic exposure meter made by the Boots Company (the famous British pharmaceutical retailer). The meter was far easier to use, and much quicker than, the plastic calculator.

I used the Halina happily for several years until 1967. That year, my parents paid a visit to Japan, where they were hosted by various Japanese people and organizations. Moments before they were about to board the jet that would fly them back to London, their hosts handed them several generous gifts. One of these was a top of the range Canon Rangefinder camera. As mentioned already my parents had no interest in using cameras.

When my parents landed in London, they declared their gifts to a customs officer. Handing the camera to him, my mother said:

“We don’t want this. Take it so that we need not pay duty.”

The officer looked at the fine camera and said:

“The duty is only £3. Anyway, I can’t take it.”

As my parents paid the duty, the officer leant over and whispered to them:

“You’ll get at least £300 for this if you sell it to someone on Oxford Street.”

Fortunately, they did not follow the officer’s advice. Instead, they gave me the superb camera, which I used for many years until I decided to buy a Pentax single lens reflex (‘SLR’) camera. Its excellent lens and accurate built in exposure meter never let me down.

The Pentax was a disaster. I bought it to use during my first visit to what was then Czechoslovakia. A critical part of it broke two or three days into the trip. No one in Prague could fix the thing. So, I purchased another SLR camera. It was an Exacta, which had been made in Eastern Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall was demolished. The Exacta was heavy but solidly built; it was probably indestructible and produced lovely photographs.

That was all long ago. My interest in photography has continued, but it has been several years since I abandoned film cameras for digital devices, both ‘phones and actual cameras. The advent of digital photography and the editing software that can be employed to modify the images captured have eliminated the need for film developing and darkrooms. Modern digital software allows anyone to be able to do what was only possible in darkrooms and much more.

It was not all bad in East Germany

 

For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

The Wall

DDR

 

The Berlin Wall ceased to be a barrier between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany in late 1989. It marked the ending of the ‘Cold War’ and the recent collapse of the former USSR. 

At that time, my father made an interesting observation, which I want to sahre with you. He is a retired academic at the world famous London School of Economics (‘LSE’). The LSE had a large number of academics with an expert interest in politics. He told me that the end of the Cold War had come as a complete surprise to his colleagues, who professed to be experts on the subject. Not one of them had predicted either the downfall of the USSR or the ending of the Cold War. I was staggered by this information, and my faith in ‘experts’ reduced a bit.

So, now when I listen to ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ giving opinions on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ and the future of politics in the UK (or elsewhere), I take what they say with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’.

 

Picture: The emblem of the DDR, sourced from Wikipedia