Fountain pens have long appealed to me. In fact, this editorial started out as a series of disconnected thoughts and notes jotted down on the back of an envelope with a cheap, but functional, midnight blue plastic model.

From the Archive: Don’s Editorial, Photo Review Issue 11 Jun/July 2003.
Fountain pens have long appealed to me. In fact, this editorial started out as a series of disconnected thoughts and notes jotted down on the back of an envelope with a cheap, but functional, midnight blue plastic model.
There’s something peculiarly satisfying about using a nib to put ink on paper. The act of writing is smooth and flowing. The best result comes from caressing the paper lightly, instead of pressing into it. Even if your pencraft isn’t remarkable, writing with a fountain pen still makes you feel like a calligrapher.

Although almost everything I write for publication begins life as scribbled lines of ink on bits of paper, the final act of composition occurs when my fingers hit a keyboard. When you think about it, typing is just another way of taking something from the analogue realm (thoughts, in this case) and digitising it. In the end, a scrap with a few cryptic notes (ø¢â‚¬Ëœup to the light’, ø¢â‚¬Ëœherding pixels’, ø¢â‚¬ËœHolga’) is the only tangible artefact of this article’s gestation.

It’s nearly 20 years since last I wrote out a draft by hand, marked it up and then typed it out so that it could be handed to the compositor. Oddly enough, it’s been about that many months since I put an entire roll of film through a camera in the space of a single week. Yet, I still typically shoot 30 to 40 images a week. It’s just that they’re all digital.

One of the more interesting cultural consequences of the transition we’re making from an analogue culture to a largely digital one, is that we’re having to develop a new kind of faith. Not the religious sort, but a faith which allows us to think of the physically insubstantial – digitised data – as a quantity somehow analogous(!) to the real objects it replaces (print and photos).

This new world will be one in which the serendipitous discovery of long forgotten images becomes less common. You know the kind of thing. You’re sorting junk from the attic and you come across an old box of slides. Holding them up one by one, you find a jewellike transparency of a friend now long dead, and you’re carried away for a time.

That’s not something your offspring are likely to experience when, several decades hence, they come across a hand-labelled CD of holiday snaps. You can’t exactly hold it up to the light for a look. Perhaps they’ll be carrying around a PDA-like device with an ultra-high resolution, snapshot-size screen and a terabyte of solid state memory containing every digital image your family has created. A quick scan of the disc code with the device’s scanner/reader, and up come the images from the old disc. Hmm… maybe… but it wouldn’t really be the same thing, would it?

In the future we won’t worry about archival standards for imaging materials, but instead we’ll have to cope with the problem of safely herding our precious pixels from one digital standard to another as storage and memory technology evolves. And we’ll still be transforming analogue artefacts into digital form.

There are some things that are just too low tech to bother digitising. A digital fountain pen would be silly and pointless since it would do away with the tactile quality that is intrinsic to the appeal of a writing instrument. In a funny way, this applies equally to my favourite niche of photographic technology – the toy camera. If you haven’t already done so, turn to page 28 and contemplate Susan Fowler’s exquisite images from the urban landscape. Fowler uses Photoshop and high end film recording technology, but her pictures all begin life inside the cheap plastic body of a little camera called the Holga.

My camera collection doesn’t include a Holga (yet), but I do own a couple of vintage Diana models. They too use 120 film and have the same ultra-low tech single speed shutter and cheesy, horribly flawed injectionmoulded lens. They cost me about $10 and are covered with black electrician’s tape to stop the numerous light leaks. I took to the innards of one with a box cutter so that I could maximise the image size on the film. It’s the sort of thing you can do with a camera that costs about the same as three cups of decent coffee.

Toy camera images are very special and to my eye, often exceptionally beautiful. The cameras’ simplicity and low image quality forces you to put all your creative eggs in the composition basket. You don’t have depth of field to work with, contrast is weak, colour slightly odd and sharpness is closer to a pinhole camera than anything else.

No one will ever build a digital version of these cameras. But, I’m willing to bet Holga will still be making them a decade from now. We forget sometimes that the best tool for the job isn’t always the most expensive, high tech device. Sometimes it’s a little plastic toy camera or a $4 fountain pen.
This is an article from Photo Review Magazine Jun/July 2003 Issue 11.
To find out more about Photo Review quarterly print edition and eMagazine, click here.
To subscribe or order back issues:
1. Order online by credit card click here, or
2. Order by Paypal click here
3. Order by phone (02) 9948 8600 or
4. Mail or fax – click here for PDF order form