The joy of photography

Lovely Observer column by David Mitchell.

At the high points of my childhood – holidays, birthdays, picnics, Christmas – my father took photographs. This took the shine off many of the high points. Watching my dad take a photo is exquisitely frustrating. Until about 1995, he still had the camera he'd been given for his 21st birthday. This was quite an expensive item in its day. Clearly capable of "proper"' photography, it should've made light work of capturing my mum, my brother and me in front of a castle or behind a knickerbocker glory.

But the ice cream would usually have melted by the time the snap was taken because the camera had dozens of dials and buttons to adjust. My father was uncomfortable doing this unobserved and would make everyone pose with the appropriate grins before he started to grapple with the settings. Just when you thought he was ready, and he'd put the camera to his eye – just when you really believed you were about to get your life back and actually enjoy the leisure experience he was attempting to immortalise – he'd remember there was one more knob to fiddle with and start studying the machine again while asking: "How far am I?" to which my mother would, in an exhausted monotone, invariably reply: "Ten feet."

These photos are a bizarre historical document. These were a people, future archaeologists will think, who spent their whole lives in weary celebration. Their dwellings were permanently festooned with greenery and tinsel, their children expected to spend hours digging aimlessly by the sea, using flimsy tools in a state of near nakedness. And their diet consisted almost entirely of ice cream, turkey and plum pudding…