My Sunday Interview with … My Grandparents

by Rebecca J Gerken

After looking at my family photographs last weekend, I had numerous people kindly tell me they found my last post an interesting topic. I’ve had a busy week but something I have spent a little time on has been researching my growing collection of analogue cameras. Some of these (including my favourite at the moment – the Zeiss Ikon Nettar 515) were given to me by my paternal grandparents. I thought it would be interesting to talk to them this week for my Sunday interview and found out how photography has been involved in their lives and their thoughts and opinions on particular aspects; the digital age, for example.

Nan and Grandad

My grandad, John, was born in 1934 and started using his first camera (a Coronet box camera that he very kindly found out and let me have yesterday, much to my delight) when he was around 13 years old to photograph his increasing interest in planes. It also travelled all the way to Gibraltar with him during his national service in the army. He showed me his very first photo album, full of planes and could still point out which he had been up in as he kept a detailed log book of each flight, which also contains some tickets and more photographs.

My grandmother, Sheila, was born in 1939 (her mother used to tell her that it was her crying that had started the war) and fondly remembers her dad being a budding amateur photographer, whilst it is a long-running family joke that Nan herself is notorious for chopping people’s heads off in her photographs. I began by explaining what my blog is all about and why I wanted to interview them and so it began…

S: I don’t do much photography *laughs*

RG: I remember you saying your dad was quite into it.

S: Oh yes, he loved it, his photography. I mean, he wasn’t professional, just holidays and things like that but he did love taking his photos.

RG: Can you remember him always using cameras or was there a specific age from which you remember him photographing?

S: I always remember he always had his camera with him when we went on holiday. He did take things at home as well because he loved his garden; he often used to take pictures of that.

RG: How would he have developed the film? Did he do it himself?

S: No, you went to the chemist in those days. You just went to the chemist and they did it, didn’t you?

J: Well, I always used a photographic shop on Springbridge.

S: Oh yes, Springbridge, that’s right! Ealing. Broadway.

J: Hmm I used to have a tremendous problem with mine, every time, because mine were all aeroplane photographs,  well not always, but with the aeroplane photographs, when they developed them, they always cut off some of the bits that I didn’t want them to cut off. I mean, say if the aeroplane was facing left to right, I didn’t mind them cutting off the tail on the left, but I hated it when they cut off the front where the propeller was, as then it hadn’t got anywhere to go, if you see what I mean.

S: But why would they cut bits off if you’d want it in the shot?

J: Well because you could see looking at the negative that it was all there but presumably the frame that they put it onto somehow when printing was a little bit smaller so they had to choose which bit to chop off. I used to have to take them back and complain, which I hated doing, but it used to upset me so much that, you know, ‘Oh, they’ve chopped off the wrong side!’ I had to explain to them what I wanted and make them do it again.

It was very difficult taking pictures of aeroplanes with a box camera. With my box camera, you only got 8.

RG: 120 film and they’re large negatives aren’t they, 6 by 9, like the Zeiss you gave me?

J: The folding camera, yes. I can’t remember where I got that from though.

S: I’d forgotten about Springbridge. That was where everybody went, wasn’t it?

J: Well there wasn’t anywhere else really.

S: It was over the railway, a little hump right over the railway. A little camera shop full with cameras in it and I suppose the man did it in a little bit at the back of the shop.

J: I wonder if it’s still there.

S: I have a feeling we drove over it recently and it wasn’t there. I remember it was a camera shop for years and years and years, all the time I was there.

RG: So, Grandad, do you have a favourite camera out those you’ve used in the past?

J: I suppose I was reluctant to stop using the box camera because I’d used it for so long; I always took it to Farnborough with me. But it’s so difficult because you take 8 pictures with it and then you had to change the film, which is difficult in the daylight. The flying’s going on and you didn’t want to miss anything.


S: Well that was always the problem if they got stuck. Sometimes they’d get stuck and you’d have to find somewhere really in the dark.

J: But I don’t suppose I’ve had many cameras in my lifetime. I mean, that box camera, that was the earliest one I ever had; it even went to Gibraltar with me. Cameras were hard to come by when I was young, well, you couldn’t get film, of course, after the war for a long time.

S: Nobody took photos. That was really why there were hardly any pictures of me as a baby.

J: And of course, it was all black and white. Colour film hadn’t come in yet. Or, I think, it was beginning to come in but it was very expensive. Only rich people could afford it.

S: I thought it came in much later.

J: We had colour film on our honeymoon, didn’t we?

S: Very funny colour. The colours weren’t true, were they?

J: I don’t know, some of the colours have changed, faded and changed over the years. I mean, we’ve still got pictures but the tones have changed slightly. The prints this is.

RG: Can you remember 35mm coming in and using it?

J: I remember 35mm coming in but I didn’t have a 35mm camera for a long time after that because I couldn’t afford it. I can’t really remember how I came by my first 35mm camera. I remember even as late as when I was working in Bexhill deciding to go and buy myself a decent camera. That was more the one I think you’re probably using *looks at Nan*

RG: So is that one of those fully automatic ones rather than an SLR?

S: Its plastic I know that. It’s there beside you.

RG: Oh, I have one of these! My friend bought it for me from a charity shop; she’s good like that.

S: So if you have one, you’ll know when we bought it, as it was new.

[I looked in my notebook when I got home and saw that it (a Panasonic C-420AF) was first made and sold in 1988.]

J: I never had an SLR, like your Dad did.

S: We’ve never had a camera as good as the one Sally left you, have we?

RG: That’s a compact digital, isn’t it? How have you found moving onto digital?

J: Good, apart from getting the prints off, which is not difficult now because Matthew or Hannah [my uncle and cousin] do it for me…

S: But we can’t do it by ourselves *laughs*

J: We’ve only once been into Tesco to do it ourselves and it was a disaster.

S: We were in there an hour and still didn’t know what we were doing…

J: Sometimes I’ve accidentally taken videos instead of photos if the camera is on the wrong setting by mistake. There was one that went on for about two minutes and I hadn’t realised and it’s in the car and you see the roof and floor of the car and hear Nan talking *we all laugh*.  The man in the shop managed to print a still from the video so I’m reluctant to take them off the camera. Instead of printing what was on there, though, he said, ‘Oh you’ll just want the plane’ so he blew it up and it was so large, the grain, it was all pixelated.

S: Didn’t want that, did you.

J: Knowing it can be done, I haven’t eliminated them as sometime I want to go and get them done again.

S: I think it’s good with the digital because you can look immediately and see what you’ve taken…

J: That’s the beauty of it.

S: …and if it hasn’t come out very well you can take another one but on the other hand, showing people is very awkward because the screen is so small you have to get it in the right light and some people just can’t see it at all. So we can’t really wait to have them done but then you say we can’t have them done yet because you haven’t filled it, if you see what I mean.

J: I leave it until I have quite a few to run off otherwise it’s not really worth it.

S: Yes and then the excitement of the day, the holiday is over…

RG: So that’s quite similar for waiting for your film to finish, the 24 to 36 exposures or likewise.

J: It is.

S: Yes. What people used to do in those days, is just take lots of film, if it was Christmas or a holiday, you’d just take one after the other and very often you’d come home and take the last one of the cat or something *we laugh* and then you’d send them off.

J: Hmm in those days it was the thrill of waiting to see what you’d got because you didn’t know what you’d got.

S: They’d come through the post and half of them would be a thumb or a blur or something.

J: Yes *laughs* but it really is the beauty of the modern camera when you can look straight away, like you say.

S: There’s good and bad in all things modern and old, really. I think we’ve always, although we’re not good at it, we’ve always got a lot of joy out of taking photographs. If they’ve turned out right, it’s exciting, isn’t it?

J: Well, so many people are giving up. Not bothering to take pictures anymore.

S: No, we have several friends who say they don’t take photos anymore and I think, ‘Oh, that’s a shame. It’s nice going somewhere different and taking shots of things.’

J: They don’t seem to want to record their past, or what they’ve seen.

RG: Hold that thought…I’ll come back to this…


J: Nan’s just taken a film and there are 24 on there and when I send it off, that’s going to be five or six pounds. Now, I’m getting 60 or more for just a little bit more money. One of the drawbacks with the modern camera, though, is that you do need to keep the batteries up to date. It runs through the batteries quick, especially when you’re looking to see what you’ve taken all the time or playing your movie ones, that sort of thing.

[During this part of the conversation, Nan asked whether Grandad had enough film in his camera for a party they’d be going to the next day before asking (less than a minute after being reminded the camera is digital) if you can put batteries in the camera whilst there is still film in there… It’s okay; she is a self-proclaimed ‘Potty Nan’.]

S: It’s too beyond me, I can’t believe it. You’ve been born into it, we haven’t. [This was after I had tried to explain how digital cameras work.] You can’t believe how it’s changed from those photographs, like we have in our hall, where the man would’ve pulled the cloak over him, had the big flash and no one would’ve dared to move, which is why they all look so solemn.

RG: Did you ever have a photograph taken like that?

S: No, I’m not as old as that. No, the only portrait I ever had is downstairs and was when Pat [her sister] was about four or five and I was bout eighteen months or two or something but I can’t remember that.

J: Well, we did go next door for one. He never went to digital; he gave up when it went to digital.

S: He got rid of everything, you know. I don’t know how he could do that. You’d think it would just become a hobby. He loves wildlife and things. It’s lovely when you go round National Trust or places.

RG: Some of the cameras you’ve given me, Nan, have Auntie Pat’s initials on them. Did she enjoy photography as much as your dad?

S: Yes, she had a few cameras. She always used to take pictures. She had a Box Brownie that she used a lot. She must’ve had Father’s camera after that.


RG: I said I’d return to it, and it’s because I wanted to ask you a (sort of) topical question about photography as evidence. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about how some people, arguably most people, use photographs as evidence and as a record. Is this relevant to your photographs?

J: Oh definitely, as far as aeroplanes are concerned. Also, as far as family is concerned as well because we always take pictures when we’re on holiday. Nan loves to photograph the cottages we’ve stayed in, inside and out.

RG: Would you say it’s the main reason you photograph?

J: Yes. It’s nice to look back on photographs; remember old times and times in the past.

S: I suppose, when you think about it, it is for that reason. Even when you’re on holiday, you like to remember that place, so it’s evidence you’ve been there. You can say to other people, ‘Do you remember so and so? I’ve been there.’ Couldn’t you?

It would be very good for real evidence, wouldn’t it? If you took something and there was somebody in the background. You could say, ‘Look, there he was. He wasn’t where he said he was.’ If you see what I mean.

RG: Would you say evidence or memory…or are they the same thing in a photograph?

S: Hmm difficult…*laughs*

J: Well, they’re not the same thing, are they?

S: No, you could record a memory without taking a picture, though you couldn’t really prove that that as evidence if you didn’t have the photo of someone there.

RG: The sorts of photos you take are of family and holiday snaps…

S: Yes, they’re mostly for looking back at memories and I think they’re very, very good for older people. You know, when older people go into homes or can’t get out anymore, they can look back at photos and remember things as they might not have much future left, but they might have good memories. They do say that people with Alzheimer’s or Dementia can sometimes look at photographs and remember. So I think they’re very good, very good talking point.

RG: Do you ever look at a photograph and think, ‘Now, where was that, and why did I take it?’

J: Yes, I do, and that’s the reason why I tend to now, and have done for years, to write on the backs of the photographs the place and the date so that we can take them out and see where it was. Also I think when we talk about things that have happened in the past, and we think, ‘Gosh, how long ago was that?’, usually if we can date it within a year or two, I can go to the albums and get the one from that year and find the photograph of when we went there and see that it was such and such a date.

I do often go up and get an album out to look at it just for the fun of looking through. Lots of people have hundreds and hundreds of photographs and never look at them and occasionally we do. It’s good.

RG: Do you think they may be a day when there are no physical photographs?

J: I would hope not, but it could do, where they could all be in archives on this microfiche business or that sort of thing. Film is being phased out, is there going to be a time when film is no longer available? You don’t seem to think there’s much of a problem in getting it, except that it’s probably more expensive to get the older type film. But to the ordinary layman, it is difficult to get it unless you know special places for it.

RG: Well, we’ve covered a lot and thank you so much for your time. Next time I visit, I definitely want to have a nose through your albums again and hear some stories about the memories that come hand-in-hand with the contents…