My habit of creating visual art has been hiccough-y to sat the least. My ‘mice sitting on mushrooms’ phase was over by the time I was about six, when I was diverted by the wonders of clay and Fimo. Later I dabbled with pastels, but that was about it. My creative life was then crowded, in a good way, by music, and for a long time that was my mode of expression, along with teenage attempts at original dressing.
My relationship with cameras has always been uncomfortable, whichever side of the lens I’ve been on. I never really embraced digital. People repeat to me the great advantage – that they can snap away, collect hundreds of images, and then edit them later – but it was exactly this that put me off. I’m shy about shooting, and I also enjoy taking in a place or a peculiar sight, letting atmosphere sink in as much as the visual, so I am not left with a memory of how a place was as seen through a viewfinder. Perhaps it is also due to my default approach, nowadays, of searching for words to express an experience.
This changed when my brother gave me my Diana F+, a reproduction of a camera that was originally, and still is, made entirely of plastic, including the lens. It looks and feels like a toy, as if holding it up to the light and peering in will deliver me a selection of tourist sights of London, clicking past at wobbly angles. It’s fashionably retro, but I don’t mind admitting that I like this about it. After all, I had been banging on for some time about how I wanted to take photos that weren’t identifiably taken in the 21st century, but I had no idea how to do this.
Diana’s features would frustrate a skilled photographer. She is mercurial; the viewfinder is far from honest for a start. I never quite know what I’m going to get, but I can be sure that it will be interesting. Sometimes she seems to photograph a ghost world; at others she turns it into hyper-real technicolour. Familiar things become magical or unrecognisable; some things disappear altogether. Wisps of smoke appear where there were none.
She has a mind of her own, and the important effect this has on me is to reduce my sense of responsibility to produce a ‘good’ photograph. I can leave my own intentions vague, or relinquish them altogether, as if I am handing my camera to a small child and pointing her in the general direction of the subject. This releases me, and suddenly I want to take photographs. I won’t have to defend them, I feel.
I find exactly the same mindset is often what I need in order to get writing. With an audience, a clear plan in mind, I am stymied by perfectionist tendencies. If I tell myself instead that what I am writing is just an indulgence, an experiment, a brief exercise in knitting words that needn’t become a demonstration of skilled craft, then I am off. This is how I wrote a novel without meaning to. This is how I intend to keep capturing some view of the world that is not quite my own, but belongs to the ghost in my plastic camera.