My wife Joan has done a lot of research into the history of our respective
(respective not respectable) families. Sometimes the information unearthed has
stirred in me memories of previous existences
A dubious tale by Dave Nelson of St Ives Photographic Club
Somewhere around the 1860's I recollect being a struggling artist in Montmartre. For many artists the description 'struggling' was a badge of pride. They struggled to exist because poverty heightened their sensitivities. A rich artist could not possibly 'feel' the way that the scragbags of Montmartre did. Only by being consumptive and smelly could one produce 'real art'.
Unfortunately I was struggling because I was an incompetent artist. I would have traded in my integrity for a square meal anytime.
My big problem was that I had hoped to be better than Toulouse-Lautrec. I was taller but not better. He must have been one hell of a quick worker. Whenever I tried to paint a line of Folies Bergere girls standing in a line all with one leg in the air showing their knickers they got tired and fell over long before I had got around to painting in their suspenders. How to speed up the recording process was the problem.
I was aware that a bloke called Fox Talbot had invented a way to make prints of windows and a fellow Parisian Daguerre could produce tichy little portraits on metal but their processes were no use to me. Half hour exposures and the use of neck clamps were not conducive to the type of instant image that I was trying to turn out.
My English relatives were experts in soap boiling and were therefore able to help me to produce something like gelatine which I then mixed with silver salts to form an emulsion that I coated on to compressed cowpats. My neighbours initially objected to the smell of boiling bones and hides but when we found that we could also make the basic material into a passable 'potage' by adding mould from the attic walls they soon accepted it. Indeed I could have become a celebrity chef if had I wanted to.
It was not enough to invent a new photographic process, I also had to invent a camera. A great lump of teak and brass on a tripod, requiring a black cloth and lens cap was not the best way to catch the decisive moment of a line of cavorting chorus girls. For a start the image was upside down so the photographer had to stand on his head to view the image. This was embarrassing since the girls could see my suspenders and the holes in my odd socks. And I got splinters in my head from the floorboards.
My English relatives recommended that I visit a village near Peterborough. An Italian watchmaker who called himself Oscar of Barnack agreed to make me a much smaller camera. 'I want a focal plane shutter, interchangeable lenses and flash synchronisation', I said. Oscar scratched his head. 'Whatsa them?' 'I don't know. You're the engineer, just make them.' I ordered. 'OK, no problemo' said Oscar and two weeks later there it was, the world's first miniature camera. 'You like it?' said Oscar. 'I like her' I answered admiring the sleek body. 'Is'a good name, I write 'liker' on it' grinned Oscar. His spelling was not too good and he actually engraved 'Leica' on it but I didn't complain.
My artistic career really took off then. The surprising sensitivity of a silver emulsion coated on to compressed cowpats allowed for very short exposures and gave high definition. A chap called George Eastman sent his cousin Maximillian round to buy the formula. 'What do you call this film?' said Max as I was about to pour him a welcoming cuppa. 'Tea Max?' I asked, not hearing his question due to a tram passing by. 'T Max' muttered my visitor scribbling furiously. Unfortunately an attempt by Eastman's company Kodak to market the film failed due to the labour costs of sending men out into the fields with shovels to pick up the millions of cowpats needed for a mass market. So George had to wait until a cellulose film was developed before he could sell his Box Brownies. However some aspects of the design of early cameras show that they had expected to use cowpat technology. In particular almost all box and advanced reflex cameras had waist-level viewfinders. This was because the upper classes, who were expected to be the first customers, seemed averse to having their noses too near to a cowpat as would have been the case with an eye-level viewfinder.
My masterpieces were not only printed in the more salacious magazines but the candid pictures and portraits began to appear in major international exhibitions. I began to style myself 'Dave Nelson ARPS'. ARPS meant Artist Roaming Parisian Streets. One day I had visitors from Bath in England. 'We are the 'eavy mob from the Royal Photographic Society. Yew,' growled the chief mobster, ''ave not submitted twelve prints of superlative pictorial merit AND paid the appropriate subscription therefore are not permitted to use such designatory letters'. Since I was being held by my boots out of the attic window at the time I did not argue. I believe that they also went round to duff up Oscar in Barnack but he got wind of their arrival and scarpered to Germany, a place called Wetzlar where he changed his name a bit and did quite well.
Nevertheless my quest for innovation continued. The camera was equipped with flash that I used to obtain a range of expressions in my head and shoulders portraits. The flash system that Oscar had devised involved my wearing nothing but wellies and a dirty white mac. As the shutter release was pressed a device actuated by the camera blew a blast of air inside the mac so that it opened. The expressions on my lady model's faces therefore varied from shock-horror, via 'seen it all before' boredom (the Mona Lisa expression) to utter contempt. After a few years I had to give up this method due to frostbite.
There is a serious problem with cowpat technology in that the negatives are extremely biodegradable. Within a few weeks a collection of files is suitable only for encouraging rhubarb to grow. For this reason none of my images have survived and jealous rivals have been able to expunge me from the list of photographic greats. However if you search hard enough you will find a little memorial in Montmartre. Down a festering side street you can still just read a rusting sign on a crumbling door 'Vaches ici'. This is where the abattoir man brought my raw materials. Old residents still know the street as 'Allee de Nelly'.
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