Philosophy & Reflections

Recurrent Corneal Erosion and a Mamiya 645 Pro – It’s a Pirates Life For Me – By Adam Laws

December 5, 2019

One delightfully horrid January morning in 2018 – probably a Wednesday, nothing ever good happens on a Wednesday I woke in excruciating pain. I hadn’t been drinking the night before nor was I involved in any nefarious activities – it was a school night after all – yet my eye had swollen to hideous proportions. Opening my eye exasperated the situation and, despite best endeavours by my dog. he couldn’t see or smell anything untoward inside my eye. I decided to venture to my doctor who presumed I had scratched it. She told me that if I still wanted to claw my own eyes out the following day I should arrange an optometrist appointment.

The optometrist wasn’t of much help. He prescribed me some glasses to correct my vision when all I could see were my own tears and utter resentment. I was told to venture to the hospital if I was still in any pain the following day. Subsequently my local hospital prescribed me drops for what they diagnosed as a scratch on my cornea. They informed me it would get better in a week or so, going well.

This cycle continued the following month and by the end of March I was thoroughly fed up of the situation. In a practical sense I had turned into a cyclops and despite the various eye drops I was given every couple of weeks my eye would swell which resorted in me exiling myself a way in a dark room. I convinced my doctor to refer me to Moorfields eye hospital, which as you can probably ascertain by the name are specialist in eye conditions – they are, however, terrible at making hot chocolate. Don’t ever order the hot chocolate if you go to their restaurant as it’s made by a nuclear reactor and is served at temperatures hotter than the sun. My referral took three months.

Moorfields diagnosed me with Recurrent Corneal Erosion. Symptoms include: recurring attacks of severe acute ocular pain, foreign-body sensation, sensitivity to bright lights, and tearing often at the time of awakening or during sleep when the eyelids are rubbed or opened. I was informed, in basic terms, that I had experienced an eye trauma at some point, and that rather than healing, the new eye cells that were generated were being ripped away by my eyelid. I was given a vast amount of drops and further appointments would be made to monitor the condition over the course of the next year.

Eye of the Beholder

You’re probably asking yourself isn’t this a photography blog? Well as you can probably appreciate during this period my photographic endeavors were sporadic at best. I got very anxious about putting any viewfinder up against my eye not wanting to exacerbate the situation.  After a couple of months of being disappointed that the various eye drops hadn’t given me superpowers – I couldn’t see through walls nor shoot lasers from my eyes – I decided that I needed to re-establish my passion to forgot about the pain and general frustration I was feeling. If a standard viewfinder was not agreeable a waist level finder (WLF) might possibly work.

My previous experience with a WLF was with a Hasselblad 500cm, which was a mechanical delight, yet I could not get the bastard thing to focus reliably. The split prism finder would always flare, and I ended up zone focusing, which is never ideal especially when shooting portraits. I looked at changing the finder to an Acute Matte screen but finding one at a reasonable price is like finding a unicorn riding a Penny-farthing reciting the lyrics of the Beastie Boys. Needless to say, I didn’t have the Hasse’ long before skipping back to a smaller film format.

Apparently, there are an excruciating amount of options for the disconcerting cyclops wanting to shoot with a WLF? TLRs were out as I didn’t want to deal with parallax and after my Hasse’ experience I didn’t want to spend vast amount of gold coins, so this pushed me into the 645 route with Pentax, Mamiya and Bronica being the most plentiful. I squinted at a ridiculous amount of YouTube videos so much so that if I saw another Square Space advert, I was going to gouge out my good eye. After moving on from YouTube I decided to just see what I could procure in town and take a punt being lucky enough to still have more than a few brick and mortar shops in London.

New Toy

So, what did I come back with? Well with the title of this contribution being “Recurrent Corneal Erosion and a Mamiya 645 Pro” you would probably be surprised if I said anything else? I wish I could say I purchased it for some validating reason. There were a variety of 6X6 or 6X7 options but this was the only smaller form factor offering in the city on this day. It did come with a manual film crank, battery winder, WLF, prism, and an additional film back – and it wasn’t so eye watering expensive that I couldn’t sell it on for a similar price if my hypothesis of being able to shoot with an WLF was incorrect.

Now I had a shiny new toy to play with it would be rude to leave in on a shelf – even if my eye was rebelling against me. Despite the pain and the British weather, I decided to venture out to shoot some clichéd Autumnal shots.

I don’t generally shoot landscapes predominantly shooting portraiture for various “creatives” and model agencies. I’ve never been a fan of shooting landscapes on 35mm, whilst I’m happy to shoot portraits I’ve personally always been somewhat disappointed with the resolving power of 35mm in relation to this genre.

Looking through the WLF on the Maimiya is glorious. Unlike the issues I had with the Hasse’ everything is a little more contrasty and snaps into focus more visibly even with a squinting and perpetually dripping eye. Ergonomically the camera is a box – with a grip attached the camera is indeed more comfortable but at the added expense of weight. I also like the manual process of winding film and although not as mechanically satisfying as the Hasse’ it does the job.

I spent all afternoon in the woods that day. Normally I whiz through a photo-shoot in a couple of hours but looking at the world through a WLF and concentrating on something other than my eye gave me some much-needed respite.

Over the next few weeks I spent a morning or afternoon back in the woodland just loosing myself in the task of trying to shoot something aesthetically pleasing. Waiting for the light to hit a tree/water in a specific way. I was quite taken back by the images, not because they were fantastic but because I was creating once again.

Recommencing commercial portraiture

It took about two months before I felt comfortable with the equipment to recommence with commercial portraiture. The Mamiya was obviously more than capable even if I did have to explain to the model why it appeared I was crying in one eye for the majority of the shoot. I subsequently added the 80mm 1.9 to my lens collection, which I paired with a small extension ring to get some close-up portraits. This lens has a gloriously long focus throw, which although slows down the process of shooting portraits does ensure focus is achieved. I would then swap over to the 80mm 2.8 for anything wider than head & shoulder portraits.




Post Operation

In the nine months of not shooting I didn’t realise how important photography was for my mental well-being. Personally, photography forces me to venture out to discover new places (often at ridiculous times of the morning). Whilst the camera is in my hands my only thoughts are about lighting and composition trying to create or capture wonderful moments. Whilst shooting portraiture, I get to meet a wide range of creative individuals learning their stories, ambitions and often dreams whilst entangling my own. Not only does that enrich my life but it makes more confident and hopefully rounded as an individual something I had unknowingly lost over this period.

I have now had my operation, which removed my corneal surface – the clear protective outer layer of my eye. This was done whilst I was awake and with a scalpel (it’s as fun as it sounds) and was subsequently followed up with a laser to smooth the surface. Since the procedure the pain in my right eye has subsided and the 645 has evolved into RZ67, but that’s another story.





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  • Reply
    Scott Edwards
    December 5, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    Lovely shooting, Adam, and great to hear that you have turned the corner regarding your eye. My experience is currently playing out – 5 weeks ago, I awoke to a detached retina and retina tear. Via pneumatic retinopexy (a surgical procedure), my retina has been reattached but the result is a bit of a disaster with warped distorted vision that now results in double vision when viewing anything with both eyes open (prob the subject of a post similar to yours), I’m now attempting to shoot professionally again (I primarily shoot digital and just a touch of film). As I shoot with one eye, only the processing is now a challenge. Sadly, given the current double vision, I cannot actually see the resulting work with two eyes. Instead, I typically close my bad eye to see any details. The lack of depth of field and the associated three-dimensional viewing that we tend to take for granted is my current state when I actually want to “see” something with both eyes. Otherwise, it’s the flat viewing option with only my good eye open. Most of us just totally take good vision for granted.

    • Reply
      Adam Laws
      December 5, 2019 at 8:26 pm

      Thank you Scott – I’m so sorry to hear about your condition. Have you got another procedure scheduled in? I know I definitely took my vision for granted. It’s been very hard and I imagine more so for you especially when having the diffulcult conversations with surgeons that gives you all the posible outcomes of procedures, well it’s not a great time. I really hope things improve for you.

      • Reply
        Scott Edwards
        December 6, 2019 at 2:21 pm

        Many thanks, Adam. I have now visited about 6-7 times in the five-week period and the tear was sealed, the retina attached and all things went well according to my doctor. Several times he believed he might need to do some laser work but once he observed my eye, he said there was no need and this was good news, of course. I’ll now return again in 6-7 weeks as the the healing will be complete and we’ll discuss options. But honestly, given the waves and distortions that are almost pattern like in 3-4 areas and given that what I see is approx 30% smaller in the center, I’m not holding my breath! Regardless, props to you and keep on shootin’!

        • Reply
          Adam Laws
          December 6, 2019 at 4:02 pm

          That sounds dreadful Scott – I really hope things do get better for you. I totally appreciate how frustrating and debilitating it all is.

  • Reply
    December 5, 2019 at 10:59 pm

    Adam. I’m glad you’re on the mend. You must have gone through hell with that eye. It’s doubly cruel when something that gives you so much pleasure (photography) gets interrupted and you can’t use it as a release.
    These shots are fantastic. I really need to try an MF camera other than my Holga!
    Thank you for sharing your story and art

    • Reply
      Adam Laws
      December 6, 2019 at 10:55 am

      Thanks Rob. I guess it’s true that you don’t know what you have until you lose it. MF has totally spoiled me, although my film costs have gone up considerably but on a plus the 645 cameras are quite affordable especially when compared to the prices of premium 35mm cameras these days.

  • Reply
    December 6, 2019 at 4:24 am

    Oh, man… sorry to hear about eye issues, get well and produce more fantastic images! And btw – Mamiya 645 and 80mm 1.9 is killer combination!

    • Reply
      Adam Laws
      December 6, 2019 at 10:50 am

      Thank you. Two more eye appointments in January but hopefully everything is OK now fingers crossed. The 80mm 1.9 is probably one of the favourite lenses I’ve owned.

  • Reply
    Alan Duncan
    December 6, 2019 at 7:23 am

    Adam. I feel your pain had this back in late 90’s and took a while to get diagnosed. Had the agony of opening my eyes every morning ripping off the smaller cover over the erosion by time I got to work it had healed over so colleague could spot on the slit lamp. Good to hear you’re on the mend. Your op reminded me of the laser treatment with mini paint scrappers (that’s what it looked like to me) removing my corneal surface

    Nice shots BTW

    • Reply
      Adam Laws
      December 6, 2019 at 10:46 am

      Just the thought of waking up to that ripping sensation makes my eyes water. I’m glad to hear things got better for you without the need of sharp pointy objects or lasers/mini paint scrapers. How long did you recovery take?

  • Reply
    December 6, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    Great article and I do relate to some of this (and also to Scott’s comment above) having an eye condition in both since my mid 20’s (I’m in my 40’s now). It certainly didn’t seem to hinder you based on the portraits which look sublime. I’ve approached photography almost as a kind of rebellion against my condition, in the sense I get on with it and try not to let it get in the way of something I really enjoy doing. Glad to read you’ve got it resolved.

    • Reply
      Adam Laws
      December 6, 2019 at 3:56 pm

      Thanks Neil, that’s quite inspirational that you’ve manage to continue despite your difficulties. Have you found any specific equipment or method that helps you along the way?

      • Reply
        December 7, 2019 at 4:07 pm

        I find using a rangefinder helps for some reason, don’t ask me how! I wear a rigid contact lens in my right eye and that tends to work ok. My vision is good with the lens.

  • Reply
    Kate Johnson
    December 6, 2019 at 4:12 pm

    Fabulous Work! I started my medium format life with the Mamiya 645. Mostly shooting Mamiya 7 now. And I am also a member of the Photo Cyclops Club. Nerve damage from a brain tumor (successfully removed) has damaged my left eye. And the struggle with surgeons is, well, a struggle when it shouldn’t be. All the best with your vision situation. I hope to have my surgery in January…….

    • Reply
      Adam Laws
      December 11, 2019 at 9:16 am

      Thanks Kate, I didn’t realise there were so many members of the club – maybe we should get some t’shirts made. I really hope your surgery goes well it all sounds quite horrendous making my situation sound quite insignificant in the grand scheme, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for you. Please take care and I hope you#re back shooting soon.

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