FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 20 / FEB / 2020
HOW IT WORKS: THE CAMERA
by David Carey
Ladybird Books: Loughborough, 1970
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

There’s something delightfully ironic about a fully-illustrated book on photography where every single image is meticulously hand-painted. In 1970, some 130-plus years after Paul Delaroche is said to have pronounced that photography had killed off painting, this technical guide features fine brush work representations of each of its photographic images, including film negatives depicted in careful chiaroscuro. This might seem like a perverse enterprise if one didn’t see The Camera in wider context. As one of a set of Ladybird Books (series 654, to be precise), the illustrated guide’s painted illustrations are just one of a number of characteristic qualities of the Wills & Hepworth’s imprint. The palm-sized hardback cover, the ten-spot red Ladybird logo, and the formatting of simple text on the left hand page with full-page colour images on the right are tell-tale signs for any reader familiar with the heyday of the press in the 1960s and early 1970s, when it produced hundreds of enormously popular titles from fairy tale retellings to learning-to-read schemes, all priced at 2 shillings and 6. Another key characteristic of Ladybird books, however, is that they are most strongly associated with titles for children. Peter and Jane pick up a Camera this is not. Its images belong to the pastel-coloured Ladybird universe, but its content is elsewhere.

The How it Works series, mostly authored by David Carey, includes The Hovercraft, The Rocket, The Locomotive and The Motorcar in its range. These suggest a schoolboyish set of transportation interests, and The Camera may initially seem a little out on a limb. The opening painting, however, shows a grinning boy with a push-button camera pressed to his eye, dressed in a shirt, tie and grey V-necked pullover suggesting school uniform, which implies the intended readership. The first page of text, "What is a camera?" indicates that extremely limited knowledge is an acceptable starting point, while the second spread outlines in text and image how to make a pin-hole device with an Oxo cube box, some tinfoil and sticky tape. So far, so typical. Yet as the pages continue, it is harder to tell The Camera’s ideal addressee. Highly technical details of light refraction and rotary shutters go beyond a school science lesson. As the discussion turns to consumables, the book’s pocket money price of 12 and a half pence contrasts sharply with depictions of cameras that cost up to £200. The text spells out the expectation: "As photographers become more experienced they usually buy better cameras". It also notes "You pay your money and you take your choice".

All the illustrations in the book are by one Bernard Herbert Robinson, who worked extensively as a commercial artist for Ladybird between 1965 and 1980. Art school educated, Robinson was also a keen amateur photographer, first printing and developing his own work while still in his teens. Like many other Ladybird artists, he illustrated from photographs, and he is known to regularly use his family as models for his paintings. Some of Robinson’s personal preferences seem to have entered the subject matter for The Camera; it is tempting to assume that the three children depicted in a painted snapshot are three of Robinson’s offspring, particularly as the blonde girl with a blunt fringe appears again in an illustration of a photograph of a child with a donkey (another of Robinson’s documented enthusiasms). In any case, the choice of subject matter in the painted photographs is highly selective. Focal length and aperture size are illustrated through examples of Horse Guards and Buckingham Palace, and Beefeaters and the Tower of London, respectively. Stonehenge and Durdle Door in Dorset suggest prime sites for holiday snaps. This is a series that is clearly ‘Made in England’.

Undoubtedly much of the content of The Camera has dated; the basin haircuts, satchels and orange squash in the illustrations evoke a particular time and place, and some of the technology it outlines has been advanced or superseded. The ice-cream colours and painstaking paintwork may seem only to offer nostalgic appeal. Yet, this Ladybird book for adults is not a production in the knowing mode of the recent slew of spoof publications (see, for example, How it works: The Hipster). As someone who does not comfortably distinguish their F-stops from their APA speeds, the book is genuinely informative. I refer to it a lot.

Other articles in the ‘Flea Market Photobooks’ series:

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