Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Father's Eyes


digital scrapbook layout 12ins x 12ins

I grew up during the 1960s and 70s, in a Black Country town that was taking its last, wheezing gasps of Industrialism. Before his parents managed to graft their way into the ranks of middle class shopkeepers, my grandfather's forebears had worked on the canals and as Whitesmiths and Glass Flatteners, so I could lay claim to being a "proper Black Country wench" but somehow, I never felt that I "fitted in" with the other kids at my school. One morning, in assembly, Mr. Heslop, our headmaster, asked us all to mime our fathers' jobs. Adrift in a sea of whirring arms, deafened by the din of hissing and stamping, I was silent, confounded and forlorn, having absolutely no idea how to demonstrate what my dad did for a living. All my mates had fathers who worked in local foundries or at the brewery: places with names that were, at least to me, strange and mystical: Smethwick Drop Forgings; The Birmid; Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds; British Pens. My dad didn't work at any of those places. My dad worked in a shed that he had built at the end of our narrow brick-paved yard, next to the coal bunker and outside loo.
My father, or Brian, as I now call him, was born in 1938, with Myopia and a condition called Nystagmus: an involuntary movement of the eyes, usually from side to side but sometimes up and down and, in certain cases, in a circular motion. My grandmother wanted the best for her only son and despite my grandfather's protestations, was determined to send him to a boarding school run by the Royal National Institute for The Blind. Brian first walked through the doors of Lickey Grange in Birmingham, at the age of seven and, in accordance with the school's rules, he took with him not a single toy or momento of his family. At Lickey Grange, partially sighted children were treated in exactly the same way as those who were completely blind and so my father was taught to read and make Braille, rather than read and write text which he has described to me as a tortuous, humiliating experience. Indeed, the emotional scars from his days at this first boarding school have never completely healed. Brian remembers that the matrons were kind, but some of the teachers could be cruel. This was the 1940's, children were still expected to be seen and not heard and physical disability did not exempt them from physical punishment.
At about eleven years old, Brian moved to Exhall Grange in Coventry: a boarding school for young people of all "disabilities". Here again, the headmaster believed that each child should be treated as equal to the next, a view which extended to the nurturing of their ambitions. In earlier childhood, my dad's ambition was to be a lavatory attendant, his reasoning being that lavatory attendants wore a uniform and spent all day, not doing much, in a place that was warm and dry. Understandably, my respectable middle-class grandmother saw things somewhat differently and by the time he went to Exhall Grange, my dad's dreams of a future, working with sanitary cleansing fluids had moved on to working with chemicals of a very different kind.
Like many people in those days, Nan and Grandad printed their family photographs at home and that might have been where it all began, but my dad thinks it was the 9.5 Pathe Box Sound Projector, a birthday gift from his grandmother, that turned him around. Brian was mad about films. He and a chum from school would often sneak into the local cinema until one day, Dad's rather overweight friend got stuck as he was squeezing through a toilet window: their usual way in. After much heaving and pulling, my dad had to finally admit defeat and call for help. Fearing their headmaster's cane, at the very least, the boys were met by a perplexed cinema manager who couldn't understand why two lads from Exhall Grange were sneaking into the matinee, when they were actually entitled to free seats every Wednesday.
Brian now desperately wanted to be a film projectionist and asked if he could sit in the box during school film shows. To begin with, his teachers were concerned that a partially sighted lad might accidentally damage the expensive-to-hire films, but eventually he was shown how to thread up the reels and in time, was even allowed to run the projector while his teacher kept a close eye. Brian began a photography club at Exhall Grange and recognising his potential, but lacking the facilities to teach photographic printing, the school arranged for him to attend Birmingham Art Collage, every Wednesday. These days, blind and visually impaired young people can learn photography at collage or University, but my Father may have been the first visually impaired person in the UK to become a professional photographer and film maker. He doesn't seem to make much of this and when asked for tips to share with other visually impaired photographers, his advice is "Bullshit will get you anywhere!"

My father's chosen career was the cause of much family unhappiness and memories of hours spent with him in the darkroom shed: the dim red light; the unforgettable smell of photographic chemicals; the ghostly negative images appearing under the enlarger, intermingle with the vision of my mother ceremoniously burning her beautiful lavender-coloured wedding dress, atop a bonfire of photographic prints and negatives, not long after dad had run off with a glamorous young woman who modeled for the local photographic society. It has taken me forty years to reach into the embers of that fire and pick my art from out of its ashes, to come to terms with my own love of photography, to accept it as part of who I am.


photograph taken and processed on my iPhone of an original print by my father


photograph taken and processed on my iPhone of an original print by my father

Photograph of my father was taken in the Dubarry Studios, Great Western Arcade, Birmingham in about 1944


Oberazzi said...

"Bullshit will get you anywhere!" is great advice! Thanks for sharing your father's story.

Blind Photogrpahers

Carol said...

Wow. Not only can you do art, but your writing is beautifully descriptive and gripping. What a story you captured here. Amazing. And yes, his infamous quote, as stated above by Oberazzi, does pan out to be quite true!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating account. Must be empowering in the retelling of it.

Kimmie said...

Bullshit that it was bullshit that got him there .... what a story! I grew up with a darkroom in our house too. I love that smell. We have some of the most beautiful b&w photos of us kids taken by my Dad. It's pure love through the camera's eye. I'm glad for you that you have the courage to sift through those ashes .... thank you for sharing your father's story (and yours too)

Lori Saul said...

Amazing and engaging story. Your photos and art are always expressive and thought provoking as is your writing- one compliments and completes the other. Beautiful post!

Donna B. Miller said...

I had heard parts of this story before, but never the whole story. What a beautiful job you've done with this, a wonderfully written tribute to a fascinating man.

Anonymous said...

You took me back sis,do you remember playing in the coal shed?those were the proud of you big sis, your work is a gift and like you it's amazing.xx

Barbara said...

Thank you for sharing this moving story.

Kathy said...

This is one of the most amazing and fascinating stories I've ever read, Lumi. And I love your father's advice!


Pondlife said...

Lovely story. And I have to say I love the idea of running off with the glam photo model. You should have seen the models I had to photograph when doing my O level photography as an evening class! Horror films. I used to zoom in on the acne...


deb said...

wow what a story, isn't it funny what confuses us as children, one day I'll have to tell you my grandmother's story, not so unusual but it was unbelievab;e to me the first time I heard it! And I tell all my students, get a good line in bullshit, you'll need it in the art world!!

NuminosityBeads said...

What a beautiful story. Totally captivating and such a touching glimpse into your father's life and the seed of your own artistic journey.