WE ALL had one, didn’t we? The little Kodak instamatic. It was the first time we could tell the grown-ups what to do as we got them to strike a pose and say “Cheese” for us. Then we would take our treasured film to the local milk bar and wait anxiously for the results. Our parents would fork over the $15 or so (a lot of money back then) only to find a series of blurred, out-of-focus or out-of-field shots.
Hard to believe but Trevor Foon had the same camera – and yes, also made those early errors. At the zoo, as he recalls, out-of-focus lions were the background for in-focus fences. But for him it was just the start of a journey.
Trevor’s Chinese-born ancestors made the epic journey to Bendigo seeking wealth during the gold rush of the mid 1800s and remained in Australia. His father, Morris Foon, moved from there to work in the mines in Wonthaggi. In the late `60s, seeing the writing on the wall of the mine closure, Morris decided to establish a business. It was quite a gamble as – let’s face it – many thought Wonthaggi would die once the mine closed.
Morris was already working as a photographer for The Sentinel, the predecessor to the South Gippsland Sentinel Times, in order to make ends meet, so it was a natural progression to set up a business in photography.
Starting with a spare room as a dark room, he arranged for a network of milk bars to act as collection points for films. Morris (and later his staff) would drive as far as Pakenham and Cranbourne in one direction and Meeniyan and Dumbalk in the other to collect the films each day, process them overnight and deliver them back the next day. After the previous system of a week-long turnaround, it was a successful formula.
Of course the technology didn’t stand still and it wasn’t long before in-house mini labs were developed. Morris entered the fold and bought several. At one stage the business employed 35 people.
There was really no option but for Trevor and his brother Alan but to become part of the photography business. However, Morris wanted to make sure both his sons had a really sound basis and sent them both to Melbourne’s RMIT to study for a bachelor of photography.
They both loved the opportunity to learn. As Trevor says, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.” It was a wonderful grounding and taught them how to solve problems.
As their father retired and Trevor and Alan took on the business with their wives, they found they needed to pare the operation back to its core business and so consolidated in their current heritage-listed building on McBride Avenue. They also found themselves swept into the digital age. With their solid understanding of lighting, exposure and composition from their studies, they were well placed to enter the now very competitive business. Anyone can buy a digital camera and snap away, but in so many instances they have no idea what this highly complex piece of machinery is doing.
While Trevor and Alan embraced the revolution and are now highly regarded for their wonderful portraiture and landscapes using digital technology, for Trevor it also became a time of sadness. He saw many professional photographers throw away their old cameras and then saw the demise of Kodak. He feared the day when the old cameras would become obsolete and be nothing more than museum pieces. It was at that time that he determined to keep the old processes alive.
He bought his own chemicals and made his own film and started to create beautiful images. There is something quite magical, he says, when an image is created with the pure metallic silver, which is the basis of the tin type process that he uses. “Just think of the longevity of this precious metal on a plate,” Trevor enthuses as he shows me a camera that he built just because he needed a larger negative.
Trevor takes photographs in colour as well as black and white. The advantage of black and white, he tells me, is that the resulting photograph is all about the subject, not about the fashion. By taking out the colour, if a photograph is taken well, it is the mood that draws the viewer in.
ArtSpace Wonthaggi is fortunate in having the time-poor Trevor exhibit in its inaugural abstract photographic exhibition. For an additional twist, Trevor is displaying his photographs in a three-dimensional way. He is enjoying the opportunity to see his work amongst others who also have a creative bent.
It is probably 50 years since Trevor first picked up the Kodak instamatic and I asked him what he saw for the next 50 years. He paused a long time and shook his head. “I have no idea – absolutely no idea – but what I do know is that it won’t be the hard drives full of photos that people will look at when I die. It will be the special photographs that are printed that are the memories shared.”
Abstract Images: Photographic exhibition, ArtSpace Wonthaggi, opening Sunday, April 8, 2-4pm, runs to May 7.