On the morning of Friday July 26th, 2019 I awoke to the din of morning commuter traffic streaming by on the busy street outside my window. The street is generally noisier than is ideal, but living in Vancouver comes with certain compromises and one of those is the house I can afford in the most expensive city in the world happens to be on a pretty busy street. The choices are to deal with the sound of traffic or move, and the latter isn’t really an option.
I had taken the day off for a couple of reasons, one of which was my twelve-year-old daughter was coming home from a wilderness camp up north and needed to be picked up at the airport. Another reason was that I had decided to document this day in photographs. You know the old adage; a photograph is worth a thousand words, and by carrying a camera in a concerted effort to completely photograph the day, these few photographs would amount to a lot of words.
This is something I’ve occasionally done before; collecting photographs from dawn until dusk on any given day in an effort to tell a story of a moment in time, my time, with images captured for posterity, or for a self-indulgent moment in the future when reflecting back on some long lost day.
Like many photographers, I almost always have a camera on me in one form or another, not including the one on my phone. Also like many photographers, it’s easy to sometimes burn out on taking photographs. How many sunsets and pictures of my kid can I really have? It’s also easy to get caught up in the nihilism of modern life; nothing matters so why do anything? What’s the point of taking photographs of anything, ever? And yet like many photographers there is a drive to take pictures regularly for… whatever reason, and most of those reasons are usually founded on the basic belief that we are producing proof of… something.
The photographs, good or bad, become an affirmation of an event or time and a reminder of an experience. Memories are unreliable and much that we have experienced becomes the fictions of fading recounts of past events. In discussions on the theory of History we are introduced to an idea that the present doesn’t exist and that the past is always a fiction of the future. In contrast, photographs become a document of a time and place, and despite my being affected by nihilistic tendencies sometimes, it was once explained to me that “when nothing matters, everything matters.” So for better or for worse, I take photographs.
Preparation for the day began the night before with the loading of a fresh roll of Kodak’s TMAX 100 into a Yashica 35 MF, which was then placed on my nightstand to allow for an easy capture of a waking moment. And then I went to sleep.
First pictures come easy enough with the morning rituals of feet hitting the floor, of morning light, making coffee, and finding some inspiration for the day. The Yashica tasked with documenting this day is a pretty basic camera released in 1976. It’s styled like a rangefinder but it’s a fixed 38mm f/2.8 lens and it’s a zone focusing camera with four zones conveniently marked on the lens. It’s not good for anything closer than three feet, but due to the focal length it’s pretty forgiving if you focus one zone off. It has a flash that works well for filling in daylight scenes, but isn’t so good at being the only light source in a darkened room. It’s a simple camera and I’m a simple man, so it seems well matched to my task.
Before I got out of bed, a moment strongly protested by my bladder, I picked up the camera and pointed it at my ceiling and released the shutter. The morning light had pushed past the dusty blinds forcing dawn into the space previously occupied by my peaceful slumber. On the ceiling above the bed is a bare light bulb whose replacement with an appropriate light fixture or shade is often considered. But every time I look at it I’m reminded of an Eggleston photograph of a bare lightbulb in a ceiling, and also some design commentary in a book from my University days made by Modernist architect Le Corbusier about functional form. My bare bulb is an homage to Eggleston’s honest representation of the human condition and to Corbusier’s idea that simple and pure form has a legitimate aesthetic. I’m also a bit lazy sometimes, so the light fixture I bought over a year ago has never found its way from the closet to the bedroom ceiling.
Sitting on the edge of my bed I mentally calculated how close I could get to my feet before taking a photograph and then struggled with the parallax and vague framing lines in the Yashica 35 MF view finder to guess if my feet would even be in the picture. Some photographers find this looseness of method to be part of the romantic nature of using a simpler, older film camera. I’ve become very used to the 100% view finder of my SLR cameras and as a person who is driven to compose nearly always entirely in-camera, not knowing exactly what’s to be imprinted on the negative is a bit frustrating. The Yashica has me framing subject matter a bit closer to the center of the frame and stepping back a bit farther to ensure I get the photographs I want.
When it came to my feet, it turns out I should have been less worried about composition and focus and more worried about the 1/60th at f/2.8 slowest exposure the camera is capable of. My feet were ghosts in the dark of what wasn’t a pitch black room. The resulting photograph took some rescuing in Photoshop but in its muddiness, and poor exposure, it somehow still captures that moment in the morning when one is half asleep and resisting the day ahead, making an effort to find a footing. Looking at the photograph now I am reminded of the feel of the cool wood floor beneath my feet. It’s a bad photograph, but a good picture.
Breakfast is often simply a good, strong coffee and some reading; nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes there’s home-made sourdough toast or some more spectacular breakfast ordeal inspired by my daughter. Without the kid to motivate a concerted culinary effort on this particular day, just the coffee and a Greg Girard photo book called City of Darkness Revisited is all I consumed.
The Yashica handles the relatively low light coming through the window with ease, and it’s surprisingly good at finding just the right exposure in all types of reasonable light which is impressive for an older automatic exposure film camera. When I took the photograph of my feet I had a pretty good idea it would be too dark, but other than that one photograph, the Yashica 35 MF proved thoroughly accurate in choosing what it thought was a good exposure across a broad range of contexts, from my breakfast table to brightly sun lit landscapes.
Making the decision to document a day through photography can be a self-indulgent activity that results in a bunch of rather banal photographs, but for me it results in a narrative about a day in my life, a document that rarely exists in such a way in most peoples’ worlds. And even now, a short couple of weeks after this particular day, my understanding of how I was and how the world was on that day is changed. While each photograph may not mean much standing alone, as a collection of photographs there is a story being told.
When my kid was two or three years old I spent a few days photographing each step of our day; breakfast, tooth brushing, a trip to the park, a picnic lunch, reading a book, making dinner, a bath, and then bedtime stories. These things happened and it’s easy to recall in some way the activities we filled our days with, but the collection of photographs from those specific days makes them magical and I can revisit those moments in a way that normally isn’t possible. Memories are pretty good, but can be unreliable. Where a photograph can tell a story, and a day’s worth of photographs tells a longer story.
While the ideas remain, the specifics our pasts are lost to life and softening memories. With photographs a document can be created and with the photographic cues of July 26th, 2019, I’m reminded of an itinerary that included getting my kid from the airport, and a last minute meeting that took me into work on my day off, and a lecture at the Polygon Art Gallery in North Vancouver where photographer Alec Soth was going to talk about his photographs. My girlfriend would come with me to the lecture and I would only have one chance to take a picture of her as she walked into my apartment and I love that I have a photograph of that smile of hers, genuine and unposed. “What’s with the camera?” she asked. “I’m taking pictures of today.” She didn’t need any further explanation.
As I was riding a bicycle to the work meeting I recalled something Fred Herzog said in a lecture once. He said, “take pictures of old things, because people seem to like pictures of old things.” So I took a picture of an old thing.
And pictures were taken of things that are regular fixtures in my life that I sometimes forget about, like an art installation by Ken Lum demarcating the transitional point from Vancouver to East Van, and the train staging area under a bridge I ride my bike across five days a week. There’s also the proof of a housing crisis in this city represented by camper van neighborhoods on industrial park side streets. These are things I’ve photographed before, but they are also so commonplace in my world that it’s easy to forget the role they play in my life. Being reminded to pay attention prompts a quick stop during a bike ride and the extraction of an old Yashica from a shoulder bag and now I have photographs of these things too. Many of them aren’t old yet, but one day they will be.
When I’ve done these exercises in the past, a digital camera was used, or sometimes even two digital cameras, but this time I was trusting a single roll of Kodak film and a forty-three-year-old camera bought off Craigslist. Thirty-two frames were shot with the Yashica and there are twenty-or-so photographs accompanying this article. It’s soulful that film makes you consider every single shutter actuation. I like that the Yashica 35 MF reduces this consideration to a guess at focus, and hoping there’s enough light.
Every day is different, and they often blend together into a soft focus idea about how things were, but every so often it’s good to find the poetry in a collection of photographs that create a narrative with meaning about a day, any given day. The photographs don’t have to be perfect, and using a camera like the Yashica 35 MF with its limited functionality makes it easier to let go of an idea about perfect photographs. That being said, the Yashica made the perfect document of my day; Friday July 26th, 2019.