An Englishman’s camera bag

:: stories, photography

Or: you can’t buy history, however much money you have.

Billingham bags are beautifully-made leather-and-canvas things, which when new probably smell of nothing and when later cleaned might smell faintly of leather and old sails. Both the canvas and the leather will wear prettily over the decades. You could imagine leaving such a bag to your younger son in your will (your oldest son would, of course, get the house on Long Island, along, perhaps, with your mistress)1.

Billingham bags are what Americans who believe themselves cultured think English gentlemen might use: they are, in fact, New English. Of course, no Englishman would be seen dead with a Billingham bag, let alone in polite company, any more than they would be seen about with a Leica (“the Rolls-Royce of cameras”: ostentatious, vulgar, probably available in pink).

An Englishman’s camera bag is nothing like a Billingham. Indeed, it is not very much like a camera bag. It is made of a material which might once have been waxed cotton but is now mostly grease and patches. It smells of mould, ferrets, fixer and old blood – it is usually better not to ask where the blood came from. It is not, of course, padded: the owner will improvise padding from folded up broadsheet newspapers, none later than the 60s. It may have a strap, and this may not be made entirely of string. In one of the outer pockets there will be a quarter-plate darkslide for a model of camera not made since before the great war. In others there will be OS maps of Afghanistan, passports (all expired) several glass syringes and Kendal mint cake. In the bottom of the bag will be a dense layer of detritus including feathers, the mummified remains of a mouse, some filters in imperial sizes, a Watkins Bee meter possibly in working order, much string, a remote release apparently partly eaten, bits of film and what might be the remains of the original strap. It is better not to investigate this layer too closely.

The Englishman’s camera bag is not left to his children. Rather, they discover it years after his death in a cupboard, slightly mouldier than it once was and apparently having served as a home to several generations of small birds. No one particularly wants it, but since it is, somehow, useful (certainly more useful than something made of leather, canvas and salt air), it is adopted and so persists.

  1. Note: this article is intentionally using sexist language and ideas which are, frankly, offensive. Its entire purpose is to satirise both a certain sort of photographer (always male, usually American) and a certain sort of English person (again, always male, and who likes his martinis shaken and not stirred). I am not either of these sorts of people and I certainly do not support the attitudes in this article. I also did not inherit my father’s camera bag, although I did inherit his Curta.