john-dwyer1BY JOHN DWYER

My interest in photography first surfaced at around the age of five. My father was a cinema operator at the Princess Cinema in Kirkdale. There I was allowed into the projection room where I could see how it all worked. Film fascinated me. As time went by, my father changed jobs and became a bus driver, but my interest in cinema and the visual image never changed. Photography was expensive in those days and the only camera I could aspire to was a box Brownie, which was given to me by an uncle when I was 14 years old. I also became a cinema operator at that age so that I was able to indulge in my passion for film and the wonders of moving pictures projected onto a big screen.

By the time I was 15, I was working as an invoice carrier in the British Enka Silk works (which is now a large outlet alongside Aintree Racecourse). My camera by this time was a larger box camera, which used 118 format – eight exposures on a roll, with a negative size that was almost as big as a quarter plate.

john-dwyer2By this time I was processing my own films and enlarging them (courtesy of the firm’s darkroom, which they furnished for their workers’ pleasure). I didn’t have a developing tank so would develop the films by holding both ends in the dark and running one end to the other through a bath of developer (following the same process immediately after with the fix).


I joined the Royal Navy when I was 17 and a half, and after the initial six months training aboard HMS King George V in Portland Harbour, I was assigned to a Destroyer HMS Wizard (which came to Liverpool twice) where I started my photography in earnest. Small ships in those days didn’t carry an official photographer, so I quickly realized that there was an opening for a budding young cameraman. Seizing the opportunity, I asked to speak to the captain for permission to be the ship’s official photographer. My wish was granted.

Moving on from there, my next ship was a cruiser, HMS Bermuda, which did carry a photographer and had a wonderful darkroom. We were on our way to Cape Town via Malta, and were not destined to see England again for two and a half years.

In Malta during trials I visited a photography shop, and there my eyes almost popped out of their sockets at the site of the biggest array of cameras I had ever seen. I certainly had never seen the like in the UK. My eyes settled on a Rolleicord (which everyone is by now familiar with). The cost was £55 including leather case. To put this into context, my wages in the Navy at the time were £7 every two weeks (Gulp!). I solved this by buying it “on the drip” (Navy allotment).


I now had a camera that would do all things I wanted from a camera. On the way back to the ship, which was at anchor, I took some photos of the ship with my new purchase. Pretty certain I was getting some cracking pictures, I couldn’t wait to get on board to develop them and see my masterpieces.
It was then that I got the shock of my life – all 12 negatives where grossly overexposed, something I had never experienced before! “What had gone wrong?”, I asked myself. Then came the dawn. I was used to shooting pictures at 25th of a second on practically a pinhole camera. This Rollie was a whole different ball game. I suddenly realized that I knew nothing about taking pictures at all!

Anyway, it didn’t take too long to learn about light and speed, etc. I soon got the hang of things and was making extra money to fund my new camera by taking views of places we visited and selling sets of eight for half a crown. Three other people where doing the same, so I had competition.

During my two and half years in the South Atlantic (stationed at Simons Town) we cruised both coasts of Africa four times, calling at places that most people in the 1950s could only dream about. Unfortunately, my photography was confined to taking places of interest for commercial gain, so I never gave any thought to competitions and didn’t produce any large format prints. It was a bit difficult anyway because the ship was moving about all the time and it was all I could do to keep my enlarger still.

On my last ship, HMS Salisbury, I had quite a few good photo shoots. When we where visiting London, moored in the pool near Tower Bridge, I photographed the then Mayor of London inspecting the ships’ company, and the cast of “Sailor Beware” (Peggy Mount was the star). They all came aboard for cocktails, where I was given carte blanche to wonder among them, changing the film every 12 shots. I was the photographer of the day when we visited Salisbury, to present the ship’s Ensign to Salisbury Cathedral. I could go on forever, but I know space is limited.

I served nine years altogether and saw many wonderful places. I was married with one child by this time and my photography suffered somewhat due to the lack of cash. So on leaving the Navy I was more into bringing up a family, and took pictures mostly of my three boys growing up … until 20 years ago.

john-dwyer8I was talking to Anne (nee Farrar) Stanford one day and she suggested I come along to the SLPS, which was held then at Olive Mount Hospital hall. I bought myself a 35 mm camera (Pentax ME Super) and started photography once again using the knowledge I had gained in the Navy. I even set up a dark room, started developing colour, entered competitions, and notched a few small successes. My biggest success was winning the Mersey River Festival Monochrome print category in 2003, and the 200 quid and glass trophy weren’t bad either. Also notable, with my son working as a journalist in East Asia during the 1990s, I had photo essays printed in major English language daily newspapers in Hong Kong and Tokyo to accompany his travel articles.

Today I just battle on with no great ambition and continue to enter some competitions – mostly monthlies. Maybe I will regain some motivation and get cracking again, who knows? Whether it is entering (and hopefully winning) competitions, or just snapping my grandchildren, there will certainly never be a camera far from my reach wherever I go.

My equipment today: I am using a Nikon D70, and all my old lenses from my previous Nikons. I still have my faithful Rollie–it’s a bit battered but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.