On Museum Street Is A Camera Museum, Shop And Café Rolled Into One

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Camera Museum hosts an interesting display tracing the history of photography from the 1800s to the present.

There have been cameras in my life for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was an amateur photographer in his youth, and from him I took an interest in this art form. He taught me a few basics and, obsessive as ever, I spent most of my late childhood playing with leaky rangefinders unearthed from some cupboard. Later, when I was 13 and it became clear that I was "serious" about this passion, I borrowed some money from my mother and bought my first SLR – a used Minolta x300s. I still own this camera; it might be a cheap model but it was my favourite camera for years. And then along came digital photography and I became lazy, just like mostly everyone else I know.

Some weeks ago, while taking some pics with my DSLR, it dawned on me that I wasn't loving digital any more. For one thing I resented the immediacy between the moment of pressing the shutter and the moment of seeing the image – I was missing the expectation, the anxiety of finding out how your pictures come out, all the magic behind developing your own photographs. And I missed the grainy melancholia of film, the occasional scratches, all the possible accidents. But more importantly, in a moment where Instagram allows anyone to produce stunning digital photos with an entry-level smartphone, I felt I needed to take a step away from ones and zeros. Or else stop carrying around a heavy camera and just use my phone like everyone else.

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The following day I dug out my old Minolta and off I went to test it with some cheap B&W films. After being out of action for quite a long time, the shutter didn’t work very well – a proper service was due. As I was in Central London, after finishing the film and missing loads of what Cartier-Bresson would call “decisive moments”, I took it to a small café that moonlights as a camera shop (or vice versa): the Camera Museum.

The history of the Camera Museum café starts in 1999, when it opened as the Tang Café – named after the founders, the brothers Tang. One of the brothers is a camera collector, and soon a camera shop called Aperture was appended to the café.

Many people continue to refer to this café just a walk away from the British Museum as Aperture, and the old logo is still visible on the canopy outside. But this particular camera shop moved elsewhere in 2012. Since then the café has been renamed coherently with the exhibition of cameras it houses in the basement. This is an interesting display tracing the history of photography from the 1800s to the present – it can be visited for free during the normal open hours of the café.

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The current camera shop, recently relocated from the front to a room at the back, apart from repairs, specialises in Hasselblad equipment. If you don't know much about photography it will suffice to say that these medium format cameras aren't necessarily the most economic or popular choice. The Camera Museum, then, is a niche within a niche, and I mean this in a positive way.

On the day of my visit I took one of the tables overlooking Museum Street and had my usual short espresso while I gathered the courage to walk to the counter with my humble Minolta. There I was seen by a gentleman named Ward, who was quite impressed by the state of my old camera. He even praised the quality of the lenses, saying that they have little to envy Leicas. This was a welcome departure from the snobbery of many other camera shops in London where they can barely avoid laughing in your face when you turn up with anything but the most expensive piece of equipment.

Ward got some kind of pump from a tool box, blew air into the shutter area and explained that old cameras tend to get dusty – soon the shutter was as good as new. He checked the camera for light leaks – everything was perfect. He listened to the film advance lever and shot the camera a few more times until something made him happy. “That’s it,” he said after a few minutes, “this is ready to go!” I produced my wallet, conscious that in London everything has a price. But he refused to charge me, waving off my money saying that it had been nothing. I insisted, not many times; he declined. We shook hands and off I went, to shoot my second film.

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My visit to the Camera Museum was the perfect way to return to my first love, film photography. Later came the perfect way to end the day: playing alchemist at home, mixing liquids and substances, waiting for my films to develop during a precise amount of minutes, concocting images, summoning memories, for posterity, analogically.

I'm not sure how long this mood will last, to be fair. Very likely I'll end up opting for the easier (and cheaper) option once again. Because at least in photography and regardless of what McLullan might say, the medium isn't the message – it isn't about the camera but about the eyes.

So don’t wait until impractical melancholia hits you, and drop by the Camera Museum anyway. No excuses are required to enjoy a good cup of coffee or to visit a unique London spot.

Camera Museum, 44 Museum St, London WC1A 1LY. Phone: 020 7242 8681

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