Monday, 24 October 2016

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Off to Venice again. You've seen San Giorgio Maggiore before. It's an island just across the water from St Mark's Square, visible in the shot above. Look at those people. Little did they know what fate had in store for them. I went back to Venice last month; all those people were gone. In their place were other people, different people. Only I remained.

San Giorgio Maggiore is Italian for Saint George Major, or Saint George The Biggest if you want to be formal. There are two islands called San Giorgio in the Venetian lagoon. The other one - San Giorgio in Alga, or "Saint George in the Seaweed" - was swept by fire in 1799. During the Second World War it was used to train German frogmen, but nowadays it is abandoned. There's not much to see; it's surprising how many of Venice's islands are abandoned. I imagine that the cost of plumbing and wiring them up is prohibitive, and the necessary building permits are unobtainable.

Furthermore I have to assume that the abandoned islands of Venice are used to smuggle drugs - they would also be awesome locations for a brothel - so I wouldn't want to visit any of them after dark. I'd be shot and stabbed and dumped in the lagoon.

The view from atop the church.

But I digress. I visited Venice several times before popping over the water to San Giorgio Maggiore. It was always there in the background but I never thought about it. You take the number 2 from San Zaccaria. The island amounts to a church, an arts gallery, some boats, and a former monastery which is now the home of the Cini Foundation.

These people were there already. Little did they know what fate had in store for them.

The foundation was created by Vittorio Cini, who was comfortable with fascism but managed to sail through the Second World War without being beaten to death and hung from the forecourt of a petrol station. The foundation also owns the Palazzo Cini, just along from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and part of me wonders if the foundation is in fact a tax dodge. It hosted the G7 twice, so presumably the current owners are pally with the world's great and good.

Both taken with an Olympus Stylus Epic and some Fuji Velvia last year. This is Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Glass Tea House Mondrian". If you have been bad, they lock you inside it until you starve, like in that episode of Space: 1999.

This was back when the G7 was called the G7 (and not the G6). For a while it was called the G8, but then it was discovered that Russia is no larger than many other planets out in the Kuiper belt - in fact it is considerably smaller than most planets - and so the G8 is now called the G7 again.

The view north-northeast. There were people on the boat. They knew what fate had in store for them.

The G7 comprises France, Germany, Italy, and of course the United Kingdom, plus Canada and the United States, and plucky little Japan. Together we account for almost half of the world's GDP. The other 189 countries chip in, but we are the masters. The wise men who guide humanity into a golden future. And women. Perhaps one day there will be a G196, but hopefully with the G7 in charge that will never happen.

The back half of the island has a guided tour which I didn't attend, but the front half has an interesting arts gallery and of course the church, which is essentially the main event. There are no shops and if you want a picnic you'll need to bring a packed lunch. Or a fishing rod. Or an air rifle. Or some livestock.

The church has a floating metal hand; last year it had a metal head, but not this year.

The opposite direction. Dead ahead the islands of La Grazia (formerly a rubbish heap, now abandoned, although imminently the site of a hotel), and San Clemente, which actually is a hotel. Imagine all the people in centuries gone by, in little boats, who got lost in fog and kept going, never to be seen again.

Access to the top of the church is via a lift, and only a lift. It costs €6 or so although I wasn't paying attention. The top has views in all four directions, and it shuts at 18:00, which is just before sunset in late September. There isn't usually a queue; it's totally hardcore. In fact returning to mainland Venice is a bit depressing, because once more you are surrounded by teeming crowds of tourists, and you are one of them. The illusion is shattered.

Bonus Beats: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Peggy Guggenheim had a neat art collection which she housed in a neat house. She is buried in the grounds along with her dogs; the last dog has painlessly euthanised in order to be with her forever. It's romantic to imagine travelling the world, collecting art and houses along the way, but alas even in the mid-20th Century that was very expensive.

The house is a highly effective piece of show-offery and on another level it's also a battleground of warring financial entities, because it's slowly being taken over by the Rudolph B Schulhof collection. It's always entertaining when rich people fight each other.

The collection has a cafe, which I didn't visit because I was starting to run out of change, and a gift shop. I'm not sure if it's naff or kitsch. Perhaps it's both. Nitsch.

Peggy Guggenheim famously had a lot of sex. For all the snark present in this post she *did* have fantastic taste in art; and speaking as a man that's quite a compliment.

De Chirico's The Red Tower is fascinating. I want to explore that world. The absence of people. The long shadows. The way that the horse statue is only just visible, as if we were moving forward, and the painting is a still frame.
On closer inspection the tower's door is enormous, but is it very close? What is it for?
Many years later the haunting emptiness of De Chirico's work inspired the cover art of the Japanese video game Ico (famously the international artwork was rubbish).

Friday, 21 October 2016

Pentax Espio 80V

Let's have a look at the Pentax Espio 80V.

There are spirits in the sea, and every ocean has a soul. We sense it in our sleep. I have never seen the Arctic Ocean but its distant chill haunts my dreams. A few months ago I wrote about Cerro Torre, in the Andes. Rock spike stabbing two miles high. If God tripped he would run himself through.

Some mountains bore men; others excite them; a few terrify. Cerro Torre's death toll is in the low single figures, not because the mountain is easy, but because it is so hard only the most committed make the attempt.

A while back I had a look at the Olympus Stylus Epic, a terrific compact film camera from the 1990s. The Stylus' fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens was excellent, but in the actual 1990s people wanted zoom lenses instead. What were those zoomy compacts like? A Pentax 80V came to me for nothing so I decided to try it out. It was actually launched in 2002, which is the 1990s (this is official).

From the sky to the ocean depths. The most challenging dives have also claimed the fewest souls. The deepest stretch of ocean is the Marianas Trench in the Challenger Deep of the Western Pacific. The only corpses down there died long before they hit bottom; only three men have made the descent, and they all made it back. Not the same but alive. Above them the ocean, and above that an infrastructure, a lifeline of support ships and cold hard cash.

Here's the little bastard. It's chunky but the ergonomics are decent. There was also an Espio 80 with a similar specification but a more attractive body and a faster lens. The 80V has a typically useless 1990s-style viewfinder. DX film encoding, motorised everything, active infrared autofocus, no manual overrides. CR123A battery. It leaves the film leader out.

The Marianas Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall, but the conditions are not comparable. The equipment required for human survival at high altitudes is relatively simple. Some mountaineers have even trained themselves to tackle Everest's final ascent without oxygen. It can be done.

But at 35,000 feet below sea level no amount of training can acclimatise the human body to the pressure of millions of tonnes of water. Even at shallower depths no man has held his breath for more than twenty-four minutes; people drown in the bath.

Image-quality-wise the 35-80mm lens is surprisingly good, although f/6.3-12.5 is incredibly slow. As a daylight snapshot camera the 80V is fine, but it has no character, and in 2016 why bother with it? The simple viewfinder and narrow aperture limit your creative options.

Diving is difficult and the sea is deadly, the old grey widowmaker of legend. Its vast, featureless expanse confounds navigation, and without cover the elements are pitiless. At great depth rigid diving suits eliminate the problems that arise from compression, but they are clumsy and expensive. A spacesuit only has to keep the pressure of less than one atmosphere in, whereas at a depth of five hundred metres a rigid diving suit must keep the pressure of fifty atmospheres out, while allowing the diver sufficient flexibility to use his limbs.

There's noticeable barrel distortion wide open; the telephoto range is better. 2002, 2003 was the last gasp of film compacts. The unusually wide Pentax 24EW and the Nikon Lite-Touch 70Ws, with a 28-70mm f/5.6-10 lens, were typical of the best, but they still weren't good enough. The shift to digital also meant a shift to smaller sensors, which allowed for faster lenses; at first the noise and unsubtle sharpening of early digital cameras nullified this advantage, but within a few years digital compacts had with a very few exceptions overhauled their film ancestors.

Rigid suits are relatively safe, but the operators are forced to use metal pincers, or entirely mechanical manipulator systems; no-one has managed to create gloves that will work at great depths. The alternative to a rigid suit is to use traditional wet- or dry-suits, but this requires increasingly esoteric mixtures of breathing gasses combined with staged ascents, to allow time for the gasses to diffuse throughout the body.

After enough time at depth the human metabolism begins to resemble fizzy lemonade; unless the cap is released slowly there is an explosion of bubbles. The formation of bubbles inside the body can be fatal, and even experienced divers make mistakes, especially given that diving gases under pressure can have a narcotic effect. Astronauts have it easy; once through the airlock they can remove their spacesuit and carry on with their work.

It says "no photo", but I took a photo, because each man is a god. Typically with old film compacts the ur-model was the simplest and best. The later zoomy spin-offs were boring. The pinnacle of the Espio range was the Espio Mini, which had a fixed 32mm f/3.5 lens - slightly wider and slightly slower than the Stylus Epic's 35mm f/2.8, but still miles better than a zoom, especially in the right hands.

Even after reaching the surface, deep-sea divers must pause for several hours until they can consider another dive. Furthermore the need for a staged ascent introduces a new set of risks; if the diver has miscalculated his gas reserves, or if a medical emergency compels a rapid ascent, his only hope is a decompression chamber. But even that solution can be fraught. During the Piper Alpha fire of 1988 the rig's divers were lucky enough to exit the chambers before the fire destroyed their oxygen supply; if the timing had been wrong, they would have been faced with a choice between two equally nasty deaths. The Byford Dolphin decompression incident of 1983 - during which one unfortunate diver was almost entirely degloved - is the stuff of internet legend.

This post was brought to you by Kodak Ektachrome 100; nine-year-old Kodak Ektachrome that expired in 2007.

We live in a narrow band of warmth and light. Outside our comfort zone we die; the whales gaze as our corpses fall. We came from the sea, inherited the Earth, and perhaps one day the sky will be ours.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Agfa Clack

Agfa Clack, Fuji Velvia 100

Let's have a look at the Agfa Clack. It's a simple, toy-like camera from the late 1950s, essentially an update of the company's earlier range of box cameras, but with an eye-level viewfinder.

It's cute:

Shown here with red Rollei bayonet filter, which fits neatly over the lens, although it doesn't stay on unless you use blu-tak. The Clack shoots in 6x9cm format with standard 120 film. The shutter speed is around 1/30 second, plus bulb, and it has two selectable apertures - apparently f/11 and another one, either f/13, f/16, f/12.5 depending on who you ask. There is also a close-up lens. There was a flash unit, which attached to the metal prongs on top of the camera.

The inside of the camera advertises Agfa's film:

In my experience any black and white film will produce usable images in daylight; don't worry about that. I shot a mixture of Ilford 125, Fuji 400, and even a roll of Ilford 3200 and they all came out fine. I stand developed them with Rodinal. I haven't tried colour print film.

I shot some Velvia 100, which was overexposed in bright sun but spot-on in the shade. My suggestion is that if you plan to shoot slide film on a sunny day you should use Velvia 100 with a polarising filter, or Velvia 50 without a polarising filter. Remember to shade yourself from the sun, and also remember that a technically wonky image of something interesting is far better than a technically perfect shot of something boring.

The Clack's image quality disappointed me. Not because it's awful, but because it's too good. The Holga has a cult following because of its ropey plastic lens, which is sharp in the middle but soft and dreamy around the edges, with tonnes of distortion and vignetting.

In contrast the Clack's simple lens is pretty good. It has mild vignetting and is decently sharp across the whole frame. With colour film there is noticeable CA but in Agfa's defence they probably didn't expect that people would use expensive colour film in their cheap camera. Contemplate the following:

With a sharp eye you can pick out the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Here's a 100% crop from the middle of the image, which I have sized down to 3000 pixels wide:

And here's the extreme corner:

Optically that's excellent for a cheap box camera. As the internet is wont to point out, the Clack's box doesn't hold the film flat, instead the film curves to fit the chassis, which apparently helps combat field curvature of the lens. I had alway assumed this was internet rubbish, but perhaps it is true.

Marino Marini's "The Angel of the City", photographed with a Moto G. You have to wonder if Peggy Guggenheim ever... you know, test-drove the sculpture. I imagine it was cold.

The 6x9cm format fits eight shots on a roll of 120, so it pays to develop your own film. The Clack's only other control is a winding knob, and as with the Holga you have to check the film count by looking through a small red window at the frame numbers on the back of the film. If you forget to wind the film on, you get multiple exposures:

Do I have anything else to say about the Clack? You can fit four rolls of 120 film inside the camera - one in each spool and two in the light chamber. With a bulb setting and a tripod mount the Clack is a popular pinhole conversion. It's surprisingly hard to press the shutter button without jogging the camera. There is a tiny handstrap running along the left side of the camera, but it's too small to use unless you have tiny hands. My Clack's shutter was intermittent at first, so I opened up the lens and fixed it. The shutter is triggered by a piece of metal sliding along another piece of metal, so I polished the two pieces of metal and then it worked.

Also, the Agfa Clack is one of the few cameras named after a sound. The only others I can think of are the Konica Pop, the Canon XapShot, and the short-lived Nikon Crackle-gurgle-bang-hiss-roar-throb, which was pulled from the market in the wake of 9/11, for obvious reasons. Have you ever read about the Italian futurists? They were hot for noise-sounds. Luigi Russolo's 1913 essay "The Art of Noises" envisaged a future in which musicians could use all kinds of sounds to make music - not just the melodic scrapings of violins, but also whispers, animal noises, and hissing, and today we have Bjork. How could they have known?

Furthermore, in his classic work "Zang Tumb Tumb", published in 1914, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote "pic pam pam crépitation d'incendie TOUM TOUM couchez-vous c'est le Brion quit tire ssssrrrrappnells... PIIING... sssrrr zit zit zit PAAC", and that is all I have to say about the Agfa Clack.

Friday, 7 October 2016


Off to Cordoba, which is a short train ride from Seville. Like much of this part of Spain it resembles Morocco, but less hardcore. It is searingly, bakingly, shakingly hot in October, as if designed to weed out and evaporate any British people who visit the place, but I am made of sterner stuff, and furthermore I have a sun hat.

I laugh at the sun! Because I have a sun hat. The sun has made the planet Venus inhospitable to all known forms of life but it has no power over my head. The atmosphere of Venus is hot and full of carbon dioxide. It's a lot like putting a heavy blanket over your head and not sticking your head out for air, and then periodically Soviet space probes invade your blanket and their lens caps don't fall off.

I have found that if you tip your sun hat at women and call them "m'lady" they enjoy that - they laugh and laugh, and laugh. I have some advice - instead of directly asking women if they have a boyfriend, ask them a question about their boyfriend. e.g. "You are very attractive, YOUR BOYFRIEND is a lucky man".

If it turns out that they don't have a boyfriend, follow them around until you become their boyfriend. It has not worked for me yet, but there are still some places where the local police do not recognise me.

The Kodak sign has become a legacy symbol, akin to the floppy disk icon

In the limited time I had in Cordoba I made a beeline for the main event, which is the Mezquita. This is a fascinating building. It's a former mosque with a cathedral built in the middle of it. One moment you are walking through a forest of pillars, the next moment you are confronted with a cathedral.

The effect is striking. I'm not sure it works. The cathedral is very tall but not very large, and when I was there the whole place was packed with tourists, including me, although of course I am a traveller, because I once washed a pair of socks in the hotel sink. I am better than the other people. On a scale of ten, I am seven or eight out of ten - they are three, or fewer.

As in the previous post I used a Fuji S5 and a Peleng fisheye lens and some software. The lighting conditions made me wish that Fuji had persisted with the S5's SuperCCD SR sensor. Even at ISO 1600 the camera can retain highlights like nobody's business, but it gets very noisy. Alas the S5 was the end of the line. It has aged well, resolution notwithstanding.

I'm in two minds as to whether a tripod makes a person a tourist or a traveller. On the one hand a tripod is genuinely useful, on the other hand it smacks of trying too hard. It's the kind of thing a landscape photographer might carry around, and no-one wants to be a landscape photographer. They're nerds.

Furthermore the combination of rigidity and mass required by a decent tripod makes it difficult to transport a tripod abroad, and of course most places frown on tripods. I remember trying to set one up in the toilet of a Burger King on the Edgware Road, and despite the fact that there were no signs forbidding tripods the security guard insisted that I leave. This was before I really got to grips with the alcoholism.

But if God had intended for mankind to remain sober, why did he make the world so bad?

This is snek. He's just outside Seville's Santa Justa train station and has presumably been around since 2010. I wonder what graffiti artists think about council-endorsed graffiti. The council tends to pick the most skillful artists, and their work persists for several years - but graffiti is a transient art form, and without constant regeneration and replacement it loses its power to shock, it becomes part of the furniture, unnoticed, anonymous.