Interview with Dr. Michael Pritchard, FRPS

Hot on the heels of my review of his book, A History of Photography in 50 Cameras, I had the chance to ask a few questions of Dr. Pritchard to learn a little more about the book "behind the scenes"!

What inspired you to tell the story you have through the models of cameras, rather than simply write a "straightforward" history of photography book?

I have always been interested in photographic technology and this generally gets overlooked in histories of photography. The opportunity to use the camera as the starting point to bring out key photographic themes, together with the photographers and some of their photographs was something that appealed. There are plenty of general histories and camera picture books so this was something distinctive and going to be useful for readers.

What was your thought process when choosing the cameras? It must have been tricky to narrow the options down! Was personal preference a factor at any stage?

I wanted to pick on cameras that were relevant to the themes that I was discussing e.g. stereoscopy or amateur photography. For some areas different cameras could have been chosen so I have used those that I thought would be good exemplars. Where there were several good examples, I chose some which readers might not have come across before; but for many areas, such as the Leica or Kodak, then they were self-selecting to some extent.

Of the 50 cameras you describe in the book, how many of them do you own? If you could choose one to add to your personal collection which would it be?

I own three of those in the book: a Vest Pocket Kodak, a 1901 Brownie camera and a Leica I. Choosing another is like asking what is one’s favourite book or piece of music – impossible!  That said, I have always had an appreciation of early wood camera and an Ottewill camera would be high on my list, but then an Original Kodak or Super Six-20, or a Nikon F wouldn’t be far behind… as I say, it’s a tough choice!

What about the "also rans", are there any you'd love to have fit in but didn't make the cut?

There were many cameras that could have been included – the book could easily have included 100 cameras – but I think the 50 shown, plus the other models discussed in the text, are a pretty good selection, when one considers that they are there to tell a wider history of photography. Interestingly, one could write A History of Photography in 50 photographs, or 50 photographic accessories, perhaps even 50 lenses, and each of those would be a different history.

You knowledge of the history of photography is immense - what would you say are the most important lessons a photographer can learn from the history of our art?

Many the well-known photographers have a good understanding of photography’s history as they will often use it as starting point for their contemporary work – whether that is through process, technique or style. People say that there’s nothing new in photography but a look at many photographers work shows that there is. History can inspire and it reminds people what’s gone before.  As society, generally, becomes more image aware then the history becomes even more important for photographers and artists, for the designers and technologists, and for the industry generally.

What kickstarted your passion for photographic history?

It was the purchase of a Kodak Vest Pocket Kodak model B at a garage sale that got me hooked. The camera fascinated me and I researched the history - pre-internet! - and I realised there were so many stories waiting to be told that took over as a career and a hobby. Along the way I have worked for a studio on 5 x 4 and medium format cameras and in a b/w darkroom so I have a practical knowledge of photography which is useful to a historian, but it’s always the history that I am drawn to.

What are you future plans, do you have any more books in the pipeline?

I have a few personal research projects I am developing. But there are currently no more books planned unless a publisher approaches me. I do have a couple of ideas…

If you were looking ahead and writing a sequel, perhaps "50 more cameras", what would you feature from the more recent camera models and what would you predict might be in the future for cameras?

Interestingly, I think we are seeing a slow down in camera developments that be seen in 50 or 100 years to have had real impact. Of course, better sensors and higher pixel counts benefit photographers but we seem to be seeing a levelling off in technical developments… and photographers moving away from DSLRs to CSC and more compact models.  For most people taking photographs then improvements in the smartphone, with its built in camera, will have the greatest impact. For the professional and serious amateur photographer then the traditional camera will remain their preferred tool. I would be hard-pushed to suggest recent cameras that might feature in a sequel… although there are other models from the twentieth century that could be brought in.

Continuing the theme, if a future historian were to write about the camera that defined the work of Dr Michael Pritchard, what would be "your camera" of choice?

I suppose it would have to be the single lens reflex. I started with a Canon AT-1 film camera which served me very well. I now use a basic Nikon DSLR, and at some point I will invest in a more modern DSLR and a couple of decent lenses. At the moment, I carry around a Sony RX100 II which is excellent, and a Samsung Galaxy 6 smartphone which has a great camera on it…

Finally, one that I’m personally very interested in as it’s something I’ve aspired to! What advice would you give to a photographer considering writing their own book?  What was the trickiest part in making this book come to life, from initial concept through to final publication.

The research, writing and sourcing pictures will always take far more time than you expect and a deadline comes around more quickly than you want!  Think who your audience is likely to be and make sure you write for them rather than for yourself, but keep to facts and don’t dumb down. 

Thank you very much indeed for your time & insight Dr. Pritchard!

Check out his website here or you can buy his book from Amazon here.