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.
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.
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.