06 November 2008

Diana the huntress spotted at the NPG

I'm in the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favourite haunts when in central London with a short time to myself...

A long time ago, when I was eleven, My family lived for a time in Australia. My passion for photography (established for three years) met the wonder of warm seas and the vivacious landscapes beneath them. I discovered and devoured The silent world and The living sea, imagined myself with Jacques and Simone Cousteau, Frédéric Dumas, Philippe Tailliez, the Underwater Research Group and the research ship Calypso.

An underwater camera, or even an underwater housing, was financially out of the question; I wasn't inclined to risk my precious folding camera in experiments, either. The solution, eventually, was to go without film for a couple of weeks and save up my pocket money for the cheapest of plastic cameras on the toy counter a my local department store and seal it inside a polythene bag.

The camera was called a “Diana”. It had an atrocious cast acrylic lens. It had three exposure settings (bright, cloudy, and dull) and two focus settings (near and far). It was, despite all its woeful inadequacies, designed to ape the appearance of expensive Canon and Yashica coupled rangefinder (CRF) cameras of he time. It cot me two shillings and sixpence — 30 cents US at the exchange rate of the time, perhaps £5 or $8 in current real value British or US currency terms. I loaded it with film, put it inside a heavy gauge polythene bag with some pebbles for ballast, and my father had the bag sealed with a heat welder at work. When the film was finished (winding it on wasn't easy, through the thick polythene) we cut the bag open again.

The resulting pictures were, to put it mildly, not of publication quality. Dim forms swam murkily beyond the combined optical aberrations of lens, polythene and sea water, recognisable only to me who had taken the photographs. But to me they were wonderful: a new visual world, reached by my determination and ingenuity. I loved that tatty and barely usable Diana, and love it still (though it broke and was thrown away after about a year), for where it enabled me to go.

Back here in the present, in the National Portrait Gallery, I spot a camera in a blister pack which looks remarkably like that Diana of forty five years ago. I look more closely ... it still looks remarkably like that old Diana. In fact ... blow me, it's even called “Diana”.

I pick it up .... but its weight is too great; it must be made, I think, of metal rather than tatty brittle plastic. And the price is £50 sterling — about $75 US at current rates of exchange. I put it down again .... and again it looks like the Diana I knew and loved.

  • Jacques Yves Cousteau, James Dugan and Frédéric Dumas, The Silent World.. 1953, London: Hamish Hamilton.
  • Jacques Yves Cousteau and James Dugan, The Living Sea. 1963, London: Hamish Hamilton.

No comments: