It is dark. Cold. Wet. Normal really. Spring in the Calderdale Valley is not a time to rejoice for the green shoots of a new year, but a time to wait for the sun to finally crest the skyline and flow like syrup along the valley floor. It is not that winters here are as hard as other places, they are just unrewarding. Low light conditions are normal, and what we do get is grey and dull. However, this is perfect for someone who enjoys black and white over colour as a medium.
January, February, March. Every day so far I’ve ridden to work. Two hours, forty four kilometres of canal towpath to get to Manchester, forty four kilometres to escape homewards. Forty four kilometres of ice, mud, greasy cobbles, early morning canal drinkers and dog shit. All in the name of training for a mountain bike race the length of the USA. With work, family, and friends, it was the easiest way to combine training without too much of an impact on normal life. Or what life is for a bike racer.
As you may guess, this became somewhat tedious.
As winter receded, I saw the seasons change. The light came over the moors earlier and earlier and the light lingered later on my return ride. It would still be months yet before I left the house in direct sunlight. Trying to explain the joy of those daily moments to my wife proved difficult. How do you explain joy in the warmth of the suns first rays? In the first sign of green grass? In actually being able to see further than the arc of light thrown out from your handlebars?
Images. Snapshots of a commute. Daily sights for me. Something new for her.
I’d acquired my late fathers Canon AE1 Program a few years earlier. Sat in a box of memories I couldn’t deal with at the time I chose it for the job. The camera reminds me of my youth. Evenings in smoke filled community halls where bearded men gathered nodding sage like at the images they’d pinned to the wall before wandering towards the bar. As I child I wandered the halls looking for images of scantily clad women. Catholic Ireland in the mid 80’s, there were none, just nuns. Using it felt right.
A 50mm f1.8 and some Kentmere 400 were placed front and centre as a simple dependable combination in the grim northern light. With 24 exposures, a photograph every 2 kilometres from home to work would give me a chance to show my wife what my morning was like. Her still tucked up in bed, dreaming, warm, content. It also gave me something to think about, stopping at the side of a canal, looking for something interesting to photograph. Actually thinking about my father for the first time in years.
The results surprised me when I had the roll developed. Snapshots of a day I had forgotten about. I remember that lock gate. That fence. That floating swan pedalo so out of place in an urban environment. The bridge where I was beaten up. The 7am Special Brew drinkers at Rochdale at the canal basin, always pleasant, always calling me sir. The images themselves are uninspiring. Nothing you couldn’t see on any other canal in the area. But to me, they are burned into my memory through repetition.
A year on, I look again and smile. I miss the commute, by bike and film as much as I miss him. He taught me to look at the world differently. Not just move blandly through it. Finding something interesting in the banal is not easy. I don’t claim to be able to do it, but to be made aware that it is possible, that was explained to me at a young age as something to look for.
The Canon is not my best camera. Nor my favourite camera, for the memories it evokes are not always pleasant. But it is one I shoot with, a tangible physical connection to my father that I can pick up – load – be with him. Even just for a few frames. It’s been a while since it has had a roll through it. Maybe it is time again?
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