Back at home, suitcases have been unpacked, clothes have been washed and the all-important photographs have been viewed, labelled and culled. If, like me, you can remember when the height of photographic profligacy was slipping a 36-exposure colour film into your Kodak Instamatic, you will marvel at the sheer quantity of digital images that bounce onto the screen.
I remember, at 17, and on my first ‘real’ trip abroad – by land to Turkey – obsessively checking the little window on my camera, which showed how many shots I’d taken. I would then calculate the number of days left, so that I could ration the remainder accordingly.
This was long before “selfies”. Back then, if you wanted to capture yourself on film without resorting to tripods and timers, you would have to hand your precious camera to a total stranger and hope they didn’t blow the shot with a clumsy finger over the lens. Or worse! Accidentally press the shutter-button twice and waste one of the valuable frames earmarked for Venice the day-after-tomorrow.
Then there was the nail-biting process of extracting the film cartridge from the camera. First (and most importantly) the “rewind” button had to be located and activated. Then the whirring/clicking sound would start as the little motor moved your treasured memories to their safe place on the other side of the spool. Holding the camera to your ear, you would anxiously wait for the whirring/clicking to stop, which would indicate a successful rewind. But, if the whirring/clicking continued, mocking you with its persistence, then you would have to face the possibility of abject loss and failure, because “something would have gone wrong inside”. Sometimes, in my haste, I overlooked the “rewind” part of the process altogether and ruined a film by opening the back of the camera with the film exposed. Disaster.
If, by great good fortune, I managed to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls, my film would need to survive the “photos by post” service. In the 1980s these Freepost envelopes would come through the letterbox unbidden and by the fistful. Films and envelopes would have to be carefully labelled with corresponding stickers, requiring a diligence usually reserved for hospital identity tags, before being sealed in the brightly coloured packs and sent away … and then the waiting began.
The week or so that elapsed before the longed-for return of the photos could seem like an eternity. But, hey, it’s Peak Holiday Season, right? You were warned by that small-print disclaimer on the back of the envelope.
In reality, this relatively brief interlude before the glossy prints, along with negatives (for reprints) landed on the doormat, was an exercise in managed disappointment: That shot which, in my memory, encapsulated the essence of the Mediterranean with azure sea and powder blue sky, artistically shot through a bougainvillea tracery, has somehow been rendered in a much less vibrant hue. The close-up, which showed the intricacies of a tropical bloom, comes back blurry and unrecognisable. And the hilariously-posed, ecstatic group-shots reveal the sweaty faces of those afflicted by a strange sleeping sickness – with mouths gaping, and red-rimmed eyes, either staring or half-closed.
For a few days I would keep all 36 prints in their glossy wallet, in the vain hope that I would, with fresh eyes, see their “inner” beauty. Or, vainer still, that the holiday-snap-fairy would return the bright and beautiful images I was convinced I’d captured and which had somehow been lost. Eventually, I would ruthlessly dispose of the outtakes, keeping the half-dozen or so which didn’t hit the cutting room floor.
Now, with hundreds of digital images, better cameras and editing options, the chances of getting some good photos are so much better. And yet I still think that the colours I hold in my mind’s eye, the scents I’ve captured in the limbic cortex of my brain, and the feel of the warm breeze, still on my cool skin… these are the things of which memories are made.