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Mark Harwood - My Billingham Story

29.09.2023

 

We are pleased to announce the fourth winner of our Billingham 50th anniversary story competition. This submission was from Mark Harwood, a highly experienced commercial and studio photographer who now focuses on documentary and charity projects. We are grateful to him for sharing his story about how he started out in photography and his use of Billingham bags over the last few decades.

 

Old Billingham 550 Camera Bag and Billingham Hadley Original Camera Bag.
Mark's old 'System 1' Camera Bag (left - the first design of specialist camera bag we made - later renamed the Billingham 550 Camera Bag) and Billingham Hadley Original Camera Bag (right). Image by Mark Harwood.

 

Congratulations Billingham on entering your 50th year as premium bag makers and, since our careers have been concurrent, also to me, for making it through 50 years in Photography this year.

For you, as a high-quality manufacturer, this longevity is to be expected.

For me, in my career, it feels like a miracle!

The year was 1973 and I’m 18 years old, having become disillusioned with school and by this time managing a music shop and hoping for some sort of career in music.

I was chatting to the Saturday girl, an art student, saying that I didn’t plan to run a shop for the rest of my life but had no career direction in music and she said ‘what about your photography, you’re always carrying a camera, bringing in books and magazines and talking about pictures’. I really had no idea how to make that happen and she then said, ‘you can study Photography at Art College’. I explained that I had, for the most part, found school restrictive and stultifying and having escaped once, there was no way I was ever going back, but she convinced me that Art College was a rather different experience and that I could get a full grant. Well, sign me up!

 

Waiting Room - Image by Mark Harwood
'Waiting Room'. Image by Mark Harwood.

 

While I looked for a suitable course, I went to work in a photo store where I was able to build up some camera kit, I joined a photography club and went to art galleries, exhibitions, and talks. This was how I met Geoffrey Crawley, then editor of the British Journal of Photography, who was so helpful and instrumental in providing the information I needed about the various full-time courses available to me.

So, by 1976 I was enrolled at Art College and beginning the search for a larger bag for my ever-expanding camera kit. Cases and bags at that time, apart from the standard foam filled aluminium cases, were mostly not very good and poorly designed, often covered in leatherette with board partitions. I’d had those and wanted something more comfortable, flexible, and durable. This was how I ended up at Farlow’s in London, buying an olive-green canvas and leather fishing bag. The Nikon lenses had to nest in the open bag in their leatherette pouches and anything else was put into socks for protection, but it was comfortable and discreet for carrying a selected small outfit while the other gear sat in their clunky boxes. Meanwhile I was still on the look-out for something bigger and better, we were not well served with decent camera bags in those days.

I would scour the small ads in the photographic journals every week as soon as they were out for any used equipment cheap enough for a student to afford. One week, a tiny new classified ad stood out for me. It was just an inch or two in one narrow column at the back of the British Journal of Photography and it had a black and white illustration of a very large soft canvas bag with lots of pockets.

It was expensive at £32.95 (I was living on £20 a week at the time, so I remember the cost very well) but appeared to be just what I had been looking for, so I immediately called the telephone number on the advert. A helpful person told me that they had started a small, home based, kitchen table business making fishing bags and had noticed that some were being bought by photographers, (clearly my idea was not original), so they decided to try making a dedicated photographer’s bag.

 

The Extractors. Image by Mark Harwood.
'The Extractors'. Image by Mark Harwood.

 

I sent the money and the bag duly arrived. I don’t know if it was the actual very first one ever created but they had already explained to me that they were still putting together the partitions for it and although the bag was, and still is brilliant, the divider system that came appeared to be an early prototype, being made of slotted plywood. It wasn’t the most sophisticated design, but it was very solid and worked, and they were simply following the type of thing that was already in use in camera cases at that time, albeit a stronger version. The bag was huge, but just what I needed for all my kit.

Gradually Billingham developed a range of bags and one of the earliest and largest retailers for them was a shop called Fox Talbot on Tottenham Court Road, which, conveniently for me, was also a Nikon specialist store. I would buy the various new designs of Billingham bag as they came out, for this or that camera equipment and eventually ended up with a large collection of Billingham bags for different kits of gear.

When I started my own studio, I went on a shopping trip to Fox Talbot and returned with a new daily carry bag, now known as the Hadley.

I’m not exactly sure of the year I bought the Hadley, sometime around the mid 80’s, but it had a little extra leather panel which proudly announced the 25th Anniversary of the Fox Talbot store, so it could it be dated by this.

Over the years various Billingham bags have come and gone, to appreciative friends or assistants, as my requirements changed, and my daughter is now using one of my 80’s era bags for her own camera kit (see photo below).

 

Mark Harwood's Daughter's Old Billingham 225 Bag.
Mark Harwood's Daughter's Old Billingham 225 Bag. Image by Mark Harwood.

 

However, that very first large kit bag and the Hadley shoulder bag have been in constant use for decades now and show virtually no signs of any wear to the materials, apart from the general ‘worn in’ appearance, some grubbiness (I don’t clean them) and some leather trim cracking on the Hadley due to age and weathering and my failure to treat the leather and keep it supple. I look after cameras and lenses very carefully, but bags and cases are there to do a job and have a hard life. They have been soaked, (still nice and dry inside though ;-) frozen in snow and ice, fried in the desert sun and suffered every kind of maltreatment imaginable and remarkably are always ready for more.

The same Hadley is still my daily carry today and that very first ever big bag often became the main location kit bag. The enormous space would be filled with leads and cables, clips and clamps, small reflectors and flags, ties, gaffer tape etc. The four big outside pockets would contain all the film and Polaroid for the shoot (back in the day) and the two inner zipped pockets would hold an incident light meter, a spot meter, and a colour meter as well as useful small items like a compass, Swiss army knife, small tools, and cleaning kit. The rear pocket contained various documents and notes for the shoot.

This was the most important ‘mission critical’ bag for the job and I always had a wary eye on it and kept it close. It still often functions as the main location bag today, but of course the contents have changed somewhat. The old Hadley, well, it’s just my bag, I’d feel naked without it.

 

Blue Lady. Image by Mark Harwood.
'Blue Lady'. Image by Mark Harwood.

 

I can honestly say, hand on heart, that these bags have been the most durable and best value photographic items I have ever bought. It's incredible to think that they have all given an average of 40 years of daily service, are still in great condition and probably worth more than I paid for them.

They carry with them all my photographic history and memories, having travelled around with me as faithful companions for my life in photography and have constantly and safely stored and transported all the various kits of equipment that have come and gone over the years.

The technology changes but a good bag, apparently, is for life!

Thanks for being such a reliable partner on this journey Billingham, you will undoubtedly have another 50 years of success ahead.

I, most likely, barring miracles of medical science will not be here to witness your centenary, but the bags, I have no doubt, will still be around to see it, wherever they happen to be on their long continuing journeys.

My very best wishes to you on your birthday and golden anniversary and thank you for being a part of my world.

 

The Singer. Image by Mark Harwood.
'The Singer'. Image by Mark Harwood.

 

Postscript: After this article was selected, Billingham asked if I wanted to provide some more photographs to help illustrate it [Billingham: the photographs of the bags were supplied with the original submission]. Since I am now concentrating more on personal interest documentary projects than advertising commissions, I’ve included some portraits from a recent series made whilst shooting in Northern India for a medical aid charity. I would like to thank everyone involved for the great warmth and hospitality they extended to me during my stay with them. Should anyone wish to make a financial donation to their work, however modest (their facilities are minimal and the staff mostly volunteers) please visit their site here: https://barsanahealthcare.com/new/

I wish there were infinite time and opportunity to tell many more of these stories. Just working on my own with a couple of small prime lenses in a Billingham and producing straight, unmanipulated photographs offers a wonderful spontaneity and freedom that is very rare in commercial work.

Serving the soul rather than Mammon is not always the easiest of the two options though, but I’m enjoying the journey!

 

Mark Harwood's Old Billingham 550 Camera Bag and Billingham Hadley Original Camera Bag
Mark's old Old 'System 1' Camera Bag (bottom - later renamed the Billingham 550 Camera Bag) and Billingham Hadley Original Camera Bag. Image by Mark Harwood.

 

 

 The featured bag from this article:

 Billingham 550 Camera Bag

550 Camera Bag

 

 

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