I am. I didn’t become a black man until 1969 when I joined the London Evening News as a staffer. Having become one, I stayed that way until August this year. It wasn’t a choice to concede my black status, it was forced on me by an aesthetic imperative. They happen a lot to photographers, aesthetic imperatives. Part of the job almost.
It only lasted for six months before I felt uneasy and started longing to re-instate my old black self. No question about it, it was self-indulgent and to someone colour blind a totally unnecessary expense. But did it anyway. It’s my money and while it may seem effete to you, to me its a visceral thing.
Now look at this picture and tell me it wasn’t worth it. I’m black and I’m proud. Silver is for sissies.
Real photographers tote hard black pitiless cameras. They shelter in bullet pocked doorways in bombed out areas of war torn towns in Wheretheactionisistan, oozing charisma and audacity. They video themselves bungee jumping from the Eiffel Tower. They wash in cold streams in the foothills of the Himalayas, their black camera thrown carelessly around the neck of a nearby Yeti.
The silver camera people, they worry that their man bag’s mohair hair lining might scratch the nice shiny swivelling monitor. The women that their lipstick might make the shiny, pretty silver finish look greasy and smear on the monitor. Worse, that they don’t have their microfibre ‘Clean’n’Shiny Camera’ cloth with them and other photographers will think they are, well, not concerned with hygiene.
Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I am in any way prejudiced. There are red cameras, white cameras, even blue cameras. They all have their place. I’m not sure where it is but I am sure where it is not. Nowhere near a black camera. People tell me that some photographers who use coloured cameras can take quite nice pictures. And I believe them, just as I believe people who tell me that fairies really exist. I’ve never seen one myself but I’ve read many articles by Victorian fantasists, frauds and lunatics who assure me they do and who I am I to argue with that?
When I started out in photography, this colour discrimination didn’t exist since the cameras were mostly made of wood. Then I had a various Japanese 6x6s that came in silver with a leather finish. Then various Pentax SLRs and Canon rangefinders that came in silver. It was only in Fleet Street in 1969 that I came across black cameras, The Nikon F!
From the moment that I realized what a great scam – this was work? – sorry, career, press photography was, I had visualised myself walking up Fleet Street, a brace of Nikons slung nonchalantly lens facing in over my right shoulder. I would greet my heroes, the people whose work I had seen in the papers, Arthur Steel, Terry Fincher. Hi, Arthur! All right, Terry? And they would smile back, raise a hand in acknowledgement. They were decent sorts and even if they didn’t have a clue who I was they’d raise a hand just so as not to be rude.
When the Evening news handed me my camera kit, Nikon bodies, lenses, flash, bag, all the bits and bobs fresh, brand spanking new from the buying department, it was the first time I’d really noticed black cameras. And I realized that all my heroes used black cameras. I imagined the humiliation if Nikon had supplied silver Nikons instead of black. Backs turned all over Fleet Street. Who would deign to be seen acknowledging me, let alone talking to me or treating me as an equal? I would have been that new guy with the funny cameras, you know, the wimp.
But I wasn’t. I was a black man like all the others. One of the crowd. The in crowd. Which brings me up to August this year and my excursion into silver cameras. I thought the the Panasonic GX8 I was buying had a lot of spare space on its body. I thought it would look prettier in silver. It did, actually.
But pretty? A hardened old ex news hound, cynical, the kind of guy who nonchalantly slings his cameras on the sawdust floors of dangerous dive bars in African hell holes, has a pretty camera? Not this one. It taught me a lesson. I’m a black man through and through. So I swapped the silver body for a black one.
And you know, it feels good. I feel manly. I feel virile. I notice beautiful women looking at me again and fear in the eyes of other photographers. I walk tall. As I put on my slippers, do up my cardigan and make my cocoa, I can hear the voice of Mae West , summing it up for me.
“I’ve had silver cameras and I’ve had black cameras. Black is better”