Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Cheerio, Charing Cross Road

I call it "the churn". London is a framework of buildings that are temporarily occupied by businesses that come and go; and over a longer timescale the buildings themselves are modified and demolished, as if the city itself was a living creature.

So wrote me back in mid-2014. It's bad form to quote yourself, but I am a very good writer, or at least I have moments of brilliance, although I would benefit from an editor, in particular I tend to use too many commas and the sentences go on too long, suffice it to say there are only so many ways I can express the same idea without going all naff, next paragraph.

London sits on land which was once owned by the King, who was given his power by God. That was the theory. In practice tribal leaders from the pre-King period fought their way to local dominance, and then to regional dominance, and eventually one of them fought his way to national dominance. From that point onwards the King's advisors realised that being King was risky business, thus the modern monarchy.

All but two of the images in this post were shot with an Olympus OM-1 using Kodak TMAX 400. I like to use small cameras because buildings scare easily.

Nikon Coolpix 900

Did people really believe that the King was chosen by God? The King was a little boy once, crying for his mum and shitting in a pot; why didn't God make him twelve feet tall, with the power to shoot lasers from his eyes? Yes, I know that lasers didn't exist during Britain's first feudal period, humour me.

Nonetheless, throughout human history entire populations have been coerced into monitoring and executing each other so that a few wealthy men could have a large property portfolio for themselves and their lady wives. From the point of view of the men who owned the land, the people did not have meaning. Their lives did not have meaning. The great mass of people were not significant. Their obituaries did not appear in The Times and they were not related to anybody. And to be fair, a lot of them were very stupid; lots of people are stupid. If more people were smart, the world would be a better place, and it's not.

Europe fought and won a war against God in the nineteenth century, and then spent the twentieth demonstrating that people would fight and die for ideas instead. There was a brief experiment whereby we were supposed to imagine that everybody was significant, and that people's lives did matter, and that everybody was equal. All that is gone now, and society is reverting back to a model where there is a small elite with large property portfolios, and perhaps egalitarianism was just an illusion anyway. I have a sense that the modern masters of the universe no longer feel the need to pretend.

What is property? Property is money plus time. Money given physical form and extruded through the fourth dimension.

As a young man you resist this. Surely there is more than money. But as you grow older it dawns on you that, no, there is not. Money is not the most important thing in our world; it is not the only important thing; it is the only thing. Everything else is a side-effect, or a product, or an obstacle.

Money is not paper, or coins; it is not even precious metal. It is that which has value in the eyes of others; your attractive daughter is money. But what if others murder you and kidnap her, and have their way with her? She is still money, but she is no longer your money. There must be ownership, and ownership is nothing if you cannot enforce this, ultimately with actual physical force, although in the modern world only the authorities are allowed to use force. You must therefore use some of your money to pay the authorities to act on your behalf.

Olympus XA3 / TMAX 400

Property is worth more than people and the land on which it sits is worth more than entire populations. Even if the property collapses, the land is still there. London's land is owned by early adopters, the property is owned by arrivistes, and between them they are London. Everybody else is just a tenant or a caretaker, people who are just passing through.

Charing Cross road is one of the shortest of London's famous streets, or at least it feels that way. The actual road - the A400 - is several miles long, and extends from Charing Cross through Tottenham Court Road, past Mornington Crescent up to Camden, before finishing God-knows-where. Some awful stabsville. You can walk from the start of Charing Cross road all the way up TCR to Camden, although it's a bleak and boring walk. As you approach Mornington Crescent, remember that if you're using standard Livingstone rules Bloomsbury gives you double points, and try not to play Dollis Hill too early; get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag.

However when people think of Charing Cross road they think of the patch of road that extends down from Centre Point to the side of Leicester Square, and they divide that into two sections; the more modern, chainstore, Soho-y bit with Foyles and the music shops, and the fustier older bit with the used book stores sited just at the outflow of Chinatown.

Where they used to be. The steep rise in property prices over the last twenty years has led to a situation whereby it is barely less cost-effective to have the buildings empty than to rent them out, and so the small number of wealthy men who actually own Charing Cross road have spent the last few years raising rents so as to squeeze a few drops of money out of the used bookshops. Which are on their way out. Tenaciously they cling on, and perhaps I'm being melodramatic. It seems that the bookshops of Charing Cross road have been in decline forever. In this blog post from 2002, just three short years thirteen years ago, the author dates the decline to the 1990s. I'm nostalgic for the Borders-and-synthesisers-and-DJ-equipment Charing Cross road that obliterated his past, his past of left-wing bookshops and... well, actually buying books instead of remembering the names and then looking them up on eBay. The blog post mentions bomb attacks against a bookshop that stocked Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which is one of those things that seemed very important a long time ago but is nowadays gone and forgotten.

Simultaneously the new Crossrail extension has smashed up the newer, Soho-y part of Charing Cross Road, and all of a sudden a bunch of shops and takeaways have closed. It's not that they were destroyed, it's that they're next to a building site and slightly harder to reach, and if that meant a few hundred people fewer people visited, that's the difference between treading water and drowning. Furthermore the very same internet that powers this blog dear reader has ripped the heart out of the used musical instrument shops; it killed off the Borders flagship that used to be across the road from Foyles.

Foyles itself has moved up the street a little bit. The new store is, as mentioned in the previous post, a gorgeous but understated palace of books. The old Foyles had a certain charm (it resembled a jumbled second hand bookshop writ large, with decor that was straight out of the modernist 1960s) but the new one is lovely on a sincere, unironic level. I wonder how long it will last. The move must have been costly, and what future is there for a huge physical bookshop in London?

What can you do to stop this, dear reader? Nothing. I don't miss the old Charing Cross road, or the old Soho, or the old anything. Soho and Charing Cross Road displaced something else, remembered only by the dead; they are just the latest occupants of that patch of land, and our nostalgic memories of the past are really just memories of our younger days, when the world was infinite and oh that magic feeling. London was built on the backs of bastards, clambering over each other to win the future.

One day all the people will be dead. The property will remain, occupied by new tenants. Shoe shops, Pound Shops, clothes shops, the few shops that find a way to claw money from the unsympathetic soil. The odd thing is that Soho and its environment are famous for targeting mankind's most primal desires - it has jazz clubs, strip clubs, and prostitutes - but even Soho is in decline. Internet porn? Drinking at home? My theory is that London's conventional consumer economic model is being replaced by a kind of property event horizon, where the only game in town is property, where the city becomes an collection of contracts.

In my vision of London's future there are streets, but they exist purely for maintenance access; there are buildings, but they are hollow, faceless cubes of concrete, erected merely to stake a claim on some land, or as a store of value. Buildings not intended to live in or to house shops, just blocks of concrete built as contractural obligations. The gas pipes and electricity pipes and fibre optics have been ripped out or left to rot, the London Underground no longer runs. There are no people in London's future, just empty streets with the occasional maintenance worker, and flat blank empty buildings, like in a computer game from the early 3D era, just flat untextured polygons. That is what I photograph. Empty streets and empty buildings, the void left behind when the party moved on.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Olympus OM-1

It used to be that people moved to the shining city on the hill, lived in squalor, did the work, saved up, and then bought houses and became the general population; but that's all broken. Now people live in squalor, do the work, work in squalor, never earn enough to save, never earn enough to leave a mark, live in squalor, die in squalor. Their bodies are thrown into a mass grave. Repeat.

An OM-1n (left) next to an OM-2n, its auto-exposure brother.

Just like New York. And New York still exists and is an economic powerhouse, and Rio de Janeiro still exists and has its favelas, which still exist, and if that model works why not London? Why not everywhere? For thirty years Belfast was a war zone of barricades and petrol bombs, but Britain survived; what does it matter if poor people kill each other? They breed, and some of them are good-looking.

And Detroit and Chicago, there are bubbles within bubbles. The counteracting force of gentrification simply pushes poverty off the edge of the page, where it becomes invisible. The inner-city slums become suburban slums, and then the wasteland, with the shining city on the hill not a beacon of hope but a meat grinder.

Today we're going to look at the Olympus OM-1, which was launched with great fanfare in 1972. It was Olympus' first heartfelt stab at making a conventional 35mm SLR, and was very influential in its day. On a conceptual level it was a bit like the first Half-Life game, in the sense that none of its elements were new, but everything had been stripped down and polished and redesigned and assembled with fresh ideas and modern materials.

Top late design genius Yoshihisa Maitani managed to squeeze a professional-level SLR into a body that was lighter and about half a centimetre smaller in all dimensions than competing designs, without compromising its functionality. This extended to the rest of the expansive OM system; the motor drives, flash units and particularly the lenses were all very compact. The OM-1 and its heirs sold well, and within a short time compact was in - the Pentax ME and Nikon EM followed a couple of years later. On a broader level the 1970s saw the SLR become a popular consumer gadget, and if the 1960s was the golden age of the posh SLR then the 1970s was the heyday of the SLR-as-Package Holiday-Accompaniment, with half of them bought by dads who imagined that one day they might be top fashion photographers.

The old Foyles has now become a tat bazaar / sushi bar / laser tag arena (!) called O YES, which is both a clever reuse of the original sign and utterly naff. On the positive side, the new Foyles (just up the road) is fantastic, but it's now surrounded by boarded-up shops, and what future is there for a big prestige physical bookshop on Charing Cross road? Since when did it make sense to put a bookshop in the middle of London? The city's residents are split between people who don't read books and people who don't go to shops or read books.

I was originally exposed to the OM system via its lenses, which are tiny and can be adapted to work with modern digital cameras; I picked up an OM-2 and liked it, but I was always curious about the OM-1. The OM-2 has aperture-priority autoexposure and requires batteries to work, whereas the OM-1 is mechanical and only requires batteries for the built-in light meter, which drives an indicator needle in the viewfinder. The needle is perhaps the camera's only flaw; it's a bit too small to see easily in dim light, and this being 1972 it's not illuminated. Having said that the viewfinder is enormous and (again, this is 1972) unencumbered by readouts of any kind. It doesn't matter what you wear, just so long as you are there.

The OM-1 was sold from 1972 right up until the mid-late 1980s, although there were different models, each one more advanced than the last. The first OM-1 was actually the Olympus M-1, but after a complaint from Leica Olympus changed the name. There is some debate as to how many M-1s were sold, with estimates extended into the tens of thousands based on the serial numbers of surviving units. This fan site has lots of images of lens boxes and the like, which reveal that the M-1 was part of the M-System. It must have been a bother having to redesign everything. The system's logotype was originally a slanted-forward M. The OM system dropped the slant, perhaps because the letter O looks odd when it's slanted. OOOOOOOOOOOO, see what I mean?

The M-1 brochure has an addendum pointing out that the system's name will be changed for trademark reasons, so the change must have been unexpected and sudden. The brochure also lists an impressive range of lenses:

On the whole the OM lens range didn't expand all that much over its production run; it seemed to stagnate in the 1980s. The original OM-1 was replaced in 1974 by a new OM-1, unofficially known as the OM-1MD although never badged as such, which could accept motor drives. The MD was replaced in 1978 by the OM-1n, which added a flash ready light in the viewfinder (mine is very faint, but still works) and a modified wind lever.

As far as I can tell there's no reason other than nostalgia to buy one of the pre-1n models. The 1n was discontinued in the mid-late 1980s. Most sources say 1987, but my hunch is that Olympus gave up on it in the middle of the decade in favour of the OM-4, and sales beyond 1985 or so were just a trickle from Olympus' stockpile. Judging by Google Books' archive of old magazines, the price had fallen to budget level by 1985. I was only a kid at the time, but I imagine that the OM-1 would have felt a bit naff in the late 1980s.

The OM-1 was very fresh and new in the 1970s; Olympus' adverts big it up as a state-of-the-art SLR embodying the latest technology in electronics, metallurgy and optics. It lived long enough to become a modern classic, and ironically Olympus' print adverts of the 1980s tout its conservatism:

It's a camera, not a computer made of metal, not plastic. Olympus struggled with its SLR range in the 1980s. The OM-3 was an improved OM-1n that nonetheless felt superfluous and was discontinued quickly, before being revived with an expensive titanium body in the 1990s; the OM-4 was an improved OM-2 with a clever multi-spot metering system that must have been difficult for camera shop employees to sell. The company's attempts to sell a plastic, autofocus SLR were half-hearted, and eventually Olympus concentrated on the compact market instead. It's often said in marketing circles that you should sell benefits, not features, and Olympus seems to have a problem with this; the Four-Thirds system was sold as the first-ever native digital SLR system that was a marvel of modern technology, but the cameras were initially no smaller than the competition and did nothing better.

My OM-1n must be around thirty years old, and has a patina, but the shutter still fires with a reassuringly dampened cuh-chunk sound. The adverts also tout the camera's ruggedness, although as far as I can tell Olympus never seriously attempted to take on Nikon for the professional photojournalist market. There were a couple of fast telephotos - including a 250mm f/2.0 which still sounds impressive nowadays - but otherwise the company seemed to be content with the macro / scientific market. Olympus also sells medical equipment, and there was an extensive range of OM macro bellows and lenses.

For the images in this post I used a Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8, which is bigger than the camera and large enough to act as its own carrying handle.

It's the year of the sheep. We're going to be sick of "you're all sheeple" by the end of the year. Yeah, and what if the sheeple DO rise, and we don't like it?
I mean, the Daily Mail is the best-selling newspaper and most popular news website in the UK. *They* outnumber *you*, isn't it likely that a popular revolution would sweep *them* into power?
That's why democracy doesn't work, and that's why you don't have it.

And also why you can't be trusted with scissors. Physically the lens is awkward. It's one of Vivitar's auto variable focusing designs, built by Kiron in Japan. You grab the barrel and pull back to zoom out, push forward to zoom in, twist to focus, and as you focus it zooms a little bit, and as you zoom the focus changes, and ultimately it's a bit like flying a helicopter or playing the bagpipes, you have to use all of your limbs plus your mouth.

As far as I know it's a late 1970s / early 1980s design, unusually fast and wide for the period. It focuses very closely at 28mm and throughout the range until 85mm, at which point the minimum focus distance abruptly goes up a few feet; there's noticeable barrel distortion at the wider end and some obvious vignetting, but otherwise I don't have a problem with it. I use it as a 28mm that zooms in a bit.

On the negative side, it turns the compact OM-1 into a large, heavy lump. On the positive side, Olympus never made a lens with the same specification - the company concentrated on primes instead - but on the negative side again I could probably have got by with a 28mm f/2.8 and some footwork and a piano and some drugs.

It's London Fashion Week. There it is, right there. Somerset House had a crowd of youths with cameras near the entrance. My hunch is that when an attractive lady comes along, they jump out and say that they're the official photographer; their goal is to get her number and put her into an environment where it's easier and less painful to just get naked than resist.
Eventually you come to despise the poor and the weak. They can't be bothered to help themselves, let them perish.

Film-wise I used HP5 and TMAX 400. Which is which? Cast your eyes over the images in this post; the grey images are HP5, the black images are TMAX. The meter was accurate enough for them. The OM uses long-discontinued PX mercury cells, but luckily I have an adapter that lets me use modern batteries. The meter needle goes snick-snick-snick instead of waving about.

Did I like the OM-1? I think I was spoiled by the OM-2, which is physically almost identical but has autoexposure. The OM-1's only real advantage is that it will work without electricity, but in 2014 the chances of me being without electricity are very small.

The OM-1 also has a mirror lock up, but again in 2014 the chances of me using the camera for astronomy or macro photography are very small. The problem is that if I have to grab a 35mm film SLR, why not the OM-2?

The OM-1 has essentially just one usability quirk. The shutter speed dial goes around the lens mount, shown here on an OM-2:

Nikon used this idea in the Nikkormat FT of 1965, but gave up on it thereafter. The OM-1's implementation is much better - the OM system puts the aperture ring at the end of the lens, away from the body - but it's a shame the two finger-grabs aren't larger. If they were a little bit bigger and projected further forwards the camera would be easier to use; in practice I left it at 1/125 and changed the aperture instead.

Electronics-wise the OM-2 supports automatic flash whereas the OM-1 doesn't, but again I doubt I'll ever use the OM's flash system except to test that it works. The OM-1 seems to have had no design faults or reliability issues (later OMs had electrical gremlins).

It's good that Facebook has billboard advertisements. I might never have heard of them otherwise. Also, friends are useful. Are we on the verge of something? And if so, what?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Indigo Bunting

Yet more music. This was conceived whilst listening to Dukes of Stratosphear's psychedelic masterpiece Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, and was also inspired by the cover of Mike Batt's Waves, which I haven't heard, although the cover is nice. I wonder who painted it? If only there was an electronic directory of facts that I could consult.

(looks it up)

It was painted by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, an Australian children's book painter woman lady who lived from 1888 to 1960. Her paintings put me in mind of Winsor Mccay and Alfons Mucha. Why do they appeal to me? As with Tangerine Dream a few posts ago, it's because their work is unlike the art I grew up with; not just stylistically, but conceptually. Mucha's paintings don't have a political dimension, and they don't look like a Japanese cartoon.

People in the medium past - in the dip between the ancient past and yesterday - probably thought that Mucha and Beardsley etc were old-fashioned, but to my eyes their work seems fresh and new. For all I know they may have been derivative hacks in their day; if they were, history does not record the giants on whose shoulders on which they stood. On.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Expired Kodak Plus-X: March 1977

Another unboxing video. This time, some Kodak Plus-X that expired in March 1977, when I was one year old:

For fifteen minutes you can listen to me talking about some old film, and imagine that you have a witty, amusing English friend. Plus-X was discontinued in 2011, by which time it was ancient, having been introduced in the late 1930s. The April 1956 Popular Photography has an interesting and very wordy advert for Kodak that describes the company's contemporary film range, with Plus-X touted as an all-round high-speed film (which in those days meant ISO 80):

"Great things are doing in Kodak Films" doesn't make sense. Google Books is overwhelmed with results from the 1940s and 1950s but nothing beyond that, as if Kodak simply forgot about Plus-X for the next sixty years before suddenly realising that it was still on sale. It seems to have been a boring film that nobody particularly cared about. The early adverts emphasise its availability in 35mm, so I assume that 120 spools came later, and presumably the ISO 125 rolls I have were a later development as well.

My guess is that its middle-of-the-road nature doomed it; Tri-X is faster and TMAX is finer-grained. Is Plus-X Professional the same film as the consumer-orientated Plus-X mentioned in the advert? Is Plus-X of the 1970s the same as Plus-X of the 1950s? I have no idea.

As before, send your answers on a postcard to Iain Duncan Smith c/o the Houses of Parliament, and just write "yes" or "no" on the postcard with no return address or identifying marks. He will find you.

OM2 / Velvia 100F / 24mm f/2 / This has nothing to do with the rest of the post, I just have lots of photos that don't fit elsewhere.

To confuse things there was also a Plus-X Pan, which is presumably the same film in a different box, because Plus-X was always panchromatic. That's what distinguished it from Verichrome, which was Plus-X's orthochromatic sister, at least until 1956 when Verichrome Pan was introduced.

At which point Kodak had a confusing range of similar black and white films, and it's surprising that the company didn't slim the range down earlier. Plus-X was also sold as 16mm and 35mm motion picture film (Plus-X 7231 and Plus-X 5231 respectively). Were any major movies or television shows filmed with it? Again, I have no idea.

And spare a thought for 1977, the debut album by Ash. Who will forevermore be remembered as "teenage Britpop legends Ash", except that they weren't really Britpop. They were fellow travellers of the Britpop movement, cobelligerents waging their own continuation war, like Teenage Fanclub or Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, or the Cardigans or Björk.

Nowadays people want to forget about Britpop because it reminds them of Tony Blair having drinks with Noel Gallagher, and there was a lot of rubbish, but as the saying goes "90% of science fiction is crap because 90% of everything is crap". And the same is true of Britpop. Ninety per cent of Britpop was actually science fiction, which is crap.

The Britpop mainstream was full of bands that wanted desperately to channel the 1960s, but Ash were inspired by the late-70s pop-punk of the Ramones / Undertones / Buzzcocks variety. The band started out playing Iron Maiden covers, and 1977's lead track "Lose Control" has something of the early-1980s speed metal scene about it. You remember it from the first Gran Turismo game. If you asked me to compile a list of really good album opening tracks, "Lose Control" would be on that list.

The rest of the album - "Girl from Mars" and "Angel Interceptor" were the hits - is a bit one-note although thankfully they didn't bother with a rote Britpop slow-dancing strings ballad. Looking back, 1977 seems a few years ahead of its time, and I'm saddened that it wasn't a massive hit in the United States, where Ash's brand of bouncy pop-punk was just coming into vogue. This has nothing to do with Plus-X. Does the film still work? It'll be interested to find out.

Interesting, or depressing, because if it doesn't work the next post will consist of the word NO and then I'll have to think of something else.

EDIT: After a bit of experimentation I determined that ISO 50 is a good start:

But ISO 10 is better. Ulp. Rather like the Rollei ATO I shot a while back, it doesn't capture shadow detail at all. Forty years of accumulated cosmic radiation has aged it, filled it with with disappointment and dread.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Generation Yet

The baby boomers broke their toys
and threw them to the ground, and as they shuffle off
to homes of careless care, in
respite homes the spit will flow

Like whales they beach and roll and loll;
they lived their lives beneath the sun
that dries their skin
and fat, well-fed and all the hate within
and you and I, dear reader, we will live
and learn to put the knife in

The elderly, our enemy
at zero hour the zero hours
will look into their eyes and gaze into a past
of care-free lives, of holidays
and pension pots and buy-to-let and
hope you rot;

In careless homes of careless care
the baby boomers make their stand
and contemplate the God they killed
the authors that they killed, how smart they were;
they dodged the bullets but there was
one bullet that they could not dodge

Time has a trajectory
ballistics of its own; and as their fingers weaken
they grow sick and lose their grip
and we will take the whip
and flay their skin
and strip away the armour plate
and stab and put the knife in

our children, they will do
the same to me and you
and thus the rats consume their young
for fear that they will be consumed;
they grew fat on burning flesh
and there will be a bonfire