Cop Shoot Cop had an unusual instrumental line-up - the band was a power trio with two bassists and a drummer, no lead guitarist. No keyboardist, no saxophonist, nobody played electric jug. One of the bassists was also the singer. They had an angry, grindy avant-grunge sound that resembled Ministry, but slower and less tinny, and they had a thing for odd time signatures.
The Nikon F50 was launched in 1994 as Nikon's new budget 35mm SLR. In its day it was a popular beginner's camera, and it sold in great quantities. It has a switch on the top marked SIMPLE/ADVANCED. In SIMPLE mode the camera is basically a program exposure point-and-shoot, in ADVANCED mode there are standard PASM exposure modes. Everything is controlled by a button-based menu system.
Over time I have accumulated a bunch of autofocus Nikon lenses, and I was keen to see what they were like on a film camera. On an emotional level I don't have any nostalgic memories of the F50. I didn't own one in the 1990s. I bought one in 2014 because, as far as I can tell, it's the cheapest late-period Nikon autofocus camera that supports G-type lenses.
On the used market the F50 suffers from a surplus of supply and a deficit of demand; it was built well enough to survive to the present day, but nobody wants them any more. For fans of Nikon film cameras the F100 or F4 is a more attractive proposition, for fans of film the F50 is a plastic relic from a regrettable age, for everybody else the F50 is pointless because film is dead.
Cop Shoot Cop is dead as well. The band died a long time ago, 1996 but you did not know. Their very brief heyday was the early 1990s. They were one of several uncommercial bands caught up in the alt-rock / grunge explosion, although unlike The Melvins (for example) they were never snapped up by a major record label. The band popped up on MTV a couple of times but didn't sell many records and never charted anywhere with anything. Have a listen:
The music scene was very different then. Nowadays coverage on television and in the printed media is restricted to a few artists who can bring in enough punters to justify the expense, but in the 1990s it was possible for an underground band with a very small following to appear on MTV and in the mainstream printed music press. There was a mainstream printed music press back then. Record labels released records in shops. Shops existed. There was music on television. There was diversity in the mainstream; there is still diversity today, a lot of diversity, but it has little impact because it is spread thinly and the mainstream never hears of it.
The thing about the Beatles was that they were on the radio and everybody loved them. People who might otherwise have never listened to Stockhausen got to hear "Revolution #9", and if only a small number of those people were turned on to Stockhausen, it was worth it; even if they didn't like Stockhausen, they had at least been elevated slightly from their humdrum lives. Non-drug people were exposed to "I Am the Walrus" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun" without having to walk around the back of the train station and ask a suspicious-looking man for some heroin, and some of them went on to develop a taste for a harder fix than lemonade. Without "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" there might never have been black people. Etc.
I hesitate to say "you don't get that nowadays". Perhaps my view of the past is rosy, and things were never that good; and I don't like the idea of dissing modern pop music, because I can remember when older people dissed my music. They said that Lifeforms was just bleepy noises. Actually was gay music for gay people. Sonic Youth was a stupid name because - get this - they were in their thirties, they weren't young, do you get it? They weren't Youth, you see? But my worry is that there's no longer an accessible mainstream quasi-underground. A strata of acts who interface with the mainstream but nonetheless act outside it or at least drawn from the sewers, the badlands, the skies. The modern "underground" - in the form Arcade Fire, Florence and the Machine and so forth - isn't really underground at all. It's massively more popular than the actual underground, which in turn has far more reach than the underground of the pre-internet era - YouTube is instant and free - but much less penetration.
As with society in general, popular music has stratified into a mass of poor people and a tiny cadre of multi-million-selling franchise artists such as Katy Perry, Beyonce and so forth, who are essentially the pop music equivalent of Neil Armstrong, in that they are the visible human face of a gigantic but mostly hidden infrastructure. Looking back on this paragraph, I think there was supposed to be a second clause to that final sentence. Something about how the modern underground has wide reach but no penetration, millions of bands with a few dozen YouTube followers. The costs involved in pushing a band into the shops and on television are such that the few remaining media outlets are unwilling to invest in an off chance.
Is culture worse off because of this? It's hard to say. Computer games and comics were as important to me when I was young as pop music; and writing now, as an adult, I cannot say that they were objectively important. LFO and Nightmares on Wax did not pay my mortgage, and in the end they amounted to content for dinner party conversations. But the same is true of all culture. Computer games have undergone the same process of stratification as well. The future we were promised was awash with money, wide open to all kinds of voices, but instead we have a future where the money is concentrated in a few pools around which lies a desert. It wasn't supposed to be this way. We were supposed to grow up in a land of plenty. And yet Andy Warhol predicted this when he said that we would all be famous for fifteen minutes; the implication being that in a media-saturated culture everything would be fleeting and transient.
Imitation of Life
Modern pop music is played in pound shops because it makes the shop seem like a real shop, and not just a converted garage with junk in it. It adds an air of legitimacy to a retail establishment. That is pop music's role in the modern world, and to be fair to modern society it was pop music's role in the 1960s as well. The Supremes were also the visible human face of a mostly hidden infrastructure and their music was also played in pound shops. Except that in the 1960s pound shops didn't exist. A pound was worth a lot more back then. Pound Shops would have actually been very dear in the 1960s. They would have been Shilling Shops. Which is a pretty snappy name. If only I had written this blog post in 1962. I could have done something with that idea. Forget that this paragraph ever existed, have a look at the camera. Despite predating budget digital SLRs by a decade it doesn't look particularly old-fashioned:
A modest setup, but the lens is the thing and it's pretty good. For most of the shots on this page I used a Nikon 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G, which postdates the camera by a couple of years but was aimed at the same market. The 28-80mm is toy-like but surprisingly sharp; the bokeh is nice, and it doubles as a quasi-macro lens. It's not much use indoors, too slow.
When I think of photography in the 1990s I think of having to use fast film and a flash whenever I went indoors, and lenses like the 28-80mm were the reason for this. Back then nobody wanted prime lenses, because they were old hat, and they didn't zoom.
Terry Richardson has built a career on imitating the look of 1990s snapshot photography, albeit that he uses top models; the irony is that what was originally supposed to be veracity is now an affectation, because there has been a subtle but definite trend away from slow zooms to faster primes, or at least people rate them more.
This blog makes a lot more sense if you read it at breakneck speed, because that's how I wrote it, that's how I thought it.
This blog makes a lot more sense if you read it at breakneck speed, because that's how I wrote it, that's how I thought it.
On the subject of in-store music, I've noticed a strange thing recently. Shops now play generic vocal pop music - it's not muzak, because it has vocals and the form resembles chart music. But the lyrics are generic, the production is lightweight, and each track has one idea lifted from a chart single of the last five years. In-store music resembles modern lightweight latin-style pop music of the Nelly Furtado / Shakira school, but it simply doesn't have the spark of personality and life that separates actual pop music from (say) the kind of imitation pop product that appears in Japanese computer games.
Is it because the licensing laws have changed? Is it just that I'm older? It's definitely not actual pop - I'm not so out-of-touch that I can't recognise real pop music. I might not enjoy having to listen to "Fighter" and "Call Me Maybe" for the hundredth time, but I can appreciate that they are genuine pop songs, catchy, with hooks and life. Genuine pop is never boring, whether you hate it or not. It provokes a reaction.
But so does in-store pop music; it provokes despair, because it is dead inside. It is the musical equivalent of one of those lifelike stuffed rubber sex dolls. No matter how much it resembles a real woman, it's inferior. In some respects. I will think of some and write them down.
The F50's interface is entirely button-driven. There are no dials at all, not even a PASM dial. You even change the aperture with buttons, because you can't use the aperture ring on the lens. If you want to add plus exposure compensation you have to go menu menu button button button button whilst looking at the LCD, which doesn't have a backlight so good luck if you're in the dark. Furthermore the buttons are unmarked.
Buttons were fashionable in the 1980s, because dials were thought of as old-hat. The popular Minolta 7000 of 1985 was the trendsetter, but by the time of the F50 there was a sense that people were hankering for dials again, and the subsequent Nikon F60 brought back a PASM dial and a thumb dial for aperture control. Nikon has stuck with a mixture of thumb and index finger dials ever since. Nowadays dials = classic = premium product, epitomised by the modern Nikon DF, which has dials literally on top of dials.
Pretty much the only piece of sustained writing about the F50 on the internet is this article by Alfred Klomp, which is ancient. He bought his F50 when he was a young kid. He saved his pennies or pfennigs or whatever because he wanted a proper, grown-up camera, just as kids before him had saved up money for a guitar/amp combo or a Commodore Amiga. Almost twenty years later the F50 is disposable junk, which goes to show that if you put your dreams on hold until you're too old to appreciate them... your life will be empty and bleak, but you'll never go hungry. I bought mine for £7.99 plus £3.50 post and packaging. Ironically used F50s are now cheaper than used Zenits and Prakticas, because unlike them it has absolutely no cult following, not even a tiny one.
Looking back through Google Books' archive of old Popular Photography magazines it seems that the F50 was either ignored or pooh-poohed by professionals in its day. Most reviews lump it in with other budget SLRs. It sold millions because the Nikon name had cachet, and it was a competent piece of work. Judging by old price lists it seems to have sold for about $450 or so with a kit lens, which was in line with equivalent EOS Elans. In contrast the F4 was "CALL", which takes me back to the days when online shopping was called mail order, and you paid for things with cheques, and you only ever used your debit card in the few large supermarkets that accepted debit cards. And you couldn't get A Clockwork Orange on video.
As a budget camera the F50 isn't bad at all. It wipes the floor with Canon's earlier, similar EOS 700, which also had a simple/advanced interface but was horribly crippled - there was a set of program exposure modes plus shutter priority, but nothing else. In my experience the F50's autofocus works, the film transport is slow but it works, it feels good in the hand, its limitations are tolerable. It's small and light and the design has aged gracefully. The shutter is a basic 1/2000 model, flash synch is 1/125, the handgrip tends to get sticky over time, it was introduced in tandem with the SB-26 Speedlight, although it doesn't support the most advanced flash modes, and there's no high-speed daylight fill flash (for example). It only has single-point autofocus. It works with G-type lenses, which is one thing it has over the F90. In the US it was sold as the N50, which is something Nikon stopped doing in the digital age. Other than cost, is there any reason to buy it over an F100? No.
Alfred Klomp's website is great fun. The earliest mirror on the Internet Archive is from 2004 but I remember reading his site long before then. It seems to have started in 1997 or so. Back then I worked for a website, and I remember being astonished to find that Alfred was younger than me. He was born in 1983. There simply weren't many visible young people on the internet in the early 2000s, presumably for the same reason there weren't many visible young people in newspapers; young people generally aren't very good at writing, and the few that are good at writing don't have enough experience to get a job at a newspaper. Back then the internet was the plaything of middle-aged software developers and a small but growing mainstream audience, but it was still something for us rather than them, and we were in our twenties.
Nowadays it isn't unusual for young-ish people to write for The Guardian's website (not the print edition, though) or Pitchfork and the like, but in the late 1990s media meant print media, which meant that you had to have years of experience before your photograph appeared next to the article. There were internet-only magazines, but nobody took them seriously. There is still a divide between print journalists and internet journalists; the former still outrank the latter. Alfred stopped updating his site more than ten years ago but, again, if you didn't know this you might not realise. Like Half-Life 2 the design is elegant and simple and it was built to last.
I used Agfa Vista, the cheapest film I could find, because I wanted the full-on low-budget experience. It's perfectly cromulent colour film, I guess repackaged Fuji Superia or something. It's much much better than Kodak Colorplus.
Digital Photography Comes of Age
While researching this article I stumbled on an article on digital photography from the September 1994 issue of Popular Photography, published just as the F50 was being launched. The images of the fish above were directly inspired by one of the pictures. I wonder if in 1994 the artist was thinking of Douglas Adams? Adams made fish seem futuristic and internetty, and the world is a less interesting place without him.
I also stumbled on the March/April 1996 issue of American Photo, which has an article on early photography websites that is illustrated by Naomi Campbell in a latex catsuit. The latex catsuit represented the future, because the internet was futuristic in 1996. The image was shot by Timothy White, from the same photoshoot as the photo in the middle here. It's striking not just because it's a shot of Naomi Campbell in a latex catsuit, but because the idea of a photography magazine hiring Naomi Campbell to illustrate a feature on something or other seems absurd nowadays (this is assuming of course that the pictures were taken exclusively for the magazine).
In 1994 digital photography meant film photography that had been run through early versions of Photoshop on a 486 or late 68K Macintosh - Apple was just transitioning to the new PowerPC - or some proprietary graphics package of a kind that ran on dedicated hardware. The article ends with an image of a town square, composed of photographs that were taken in 1917 and the modern day, which is an idea that resurfaced on the internet a year or so ago; there's nothing new under the sun.
The general standard of the editing is often very simplistic by modern standards, although Bob Elsdale's image of the world as a tree must have taken ages. Nonetheless the pictures were good enough to pass through the magazine's editorial process, and the images generally wipe the floor with the typical late-2000s HDR rubbish that flooded Flickr. I have long believed that when a new medium comes about, the possibilities are usually explored and sometimes exhausted in the first few years, or alternatively they were explored even before the medium came about, in science fiction. Everything that follows is just refinement, and beyond HDR I can't think of much in photography that has been fundamentally new since 1993, and HDR itself was probably a NASA invention from the 1970s. Focus stacking? Enormous panoramas? The bullet time effects in The Matrix were originally created with still cameras, so perhaps the locus of innovation has pivoted into the realm of the moving image. Can a locus pivot?
The article mentions Aldus PhotoStyler, a graphics package bought in by Aldus so that Aldus could round out their portfolio. Ironically Aldus itself was bought soon after by Adobe for exactly the same reason - Adobe wanted its hands on Pagemaker, although in the end this led nowhere, because Adobe developed its own desktop publishing application, InDesign, instead. Googling for PhotoStyler returned this image (NSFW), which is absolutely fucking awful and suggests that shitty digital photos of semi-naked women are as old as digital photography.
Imagine if half-way through that article there was an excerpt from a photography book from the 1930s, and inside that book there was a chunk of text lifted from an ancient stone tablet found in the ruins of Troy, and the stone can trace itself back to the origins of the universe, and imagine that this blog post is being viewed on a datacube in a starship a million years from now, and the starship is actually a digital model inside an imaginary universe inside the mind of a giant computer that exists as a virtual machine inside a much larger machine etc. Thus my words are part of the great chain of understanding that links the beginning of the universe with the end of time - and you, dear reader, you are sandwiched within a stack of past and future selves as well.
Think about that for a second while I go back and rewrite the paragraph about buttons so that it's not quite so boring. I have to strike a balance between thoroughness and entertainment, but sometimes I just have to blurt out a mass of unentertaining facts. That's why magazines tend to put the technical data in a little table somewhere, so that the writer is then free to launch himself at the page, like an eager lover returning home after six months at sea.
In a way the F50 has a melancholic aspect. It was young once, and people cared about it. Happy people were given F50s for Christmas, and took shots of parties and holidays and had fun, and the F50 was their little button-heavy friend, their photographic BMO. "I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture."
Now the F50 is not only trash, it belongs to a bygone era. 35mm is not quite as dead and gone as APS, which was launched mid-way through the F50's sales cycle, but it is on its last legs. The F50 was essentially part of the last-but-one generation of film SLRs - the last generation of film SLRs that was launched with a major marketing push; the last generation that Nikon, Canon and the like sold as their core product. In 1998, when the F50 was replaced by the F60, the only digital SLRs were horribly expensive Kodak DCS models that sold exclusively to news agencies, but within a few years the market had turned its gaze elsewhere. As far as I can tell the last of the F50's family line was the F55, a cheap model launched in 2002 to no fanfare, nobody cared by then.
Amongst Nikon fans the F50 is neither a fondly-remembered classic or a horrible dog like the FM10, it is just an anonymous nothing. For Alfred Klomp and people like him it was their first grown-up camera, so perhaps there is a generation of Nikon fans for whom it is their old shame. I imagine there are lots of Nikon people who claim to have begun their photographic career with a second-hand Nikon FM2 passed down to them by a retired war photographer, whereas the reality is that they got an F50 for Christmas '94 and loved it, but resolved never to admit that it was their first camera. It is an embarrassment now, like a teddy bear or a Bugs Bunny playsuit.
Cop Shoot Cop - remember them, from the first paragraph? - were angry young men. Anger was fashionable in the early 1990s. Anger was (pause) all the rage. This is another thing that separates then from now. White person rock music and culture of the post-grunge era has on the whole rejected anger and embraced poetic melancholy. There are still plenty of things to be angry about in the world, but they tend to be drab and depressing things rather than epic and otherworldly, and we are supposed to be more accepting nowadays. In a world where people actually really do behead strangers for trivial reasons the anger of grunge-era rock seems ridiculous. Beheading is one of those things that seems hilarious until it actually happens, in which case it's just depressing.
Back then grunge bands had a kind of unfocused anger at modern society. They were angry about the World Trade Organisation, angry about the bourgeoisie, angry that Rush Limbaugh was allowed to have a radio programme. They were angry that people - stupid people - listened to him. Rush Limbaugh seemed to be a massive deal at the time. As a British person I had no idea who Rush Limbaugh was, but even so it seemed odd to be angry about him. He was just on the radio, right? Nobody listens to the radio. Unbeknownst to me talk radio was enormously popular in the US, which is just another example of the kind of cultural misunderstanding that makes it impossible for human beings to get along. Beyond that, what were Cop Shoot Cop and Ministry angry about? I think they were just angry, because young people are energetic and anger is an energy.
Writing about the 1990s is difficult. The decade was transmitted in colour, and some of it still looks modern. For people my age it's hard not to think of the 1990s as the previous decade, as if the 2000s were a lot of zeroes. And the early 1990s was not like the late 1990s, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly what had changed. I prefer to think of history as a forest, with millions of trees growing upwards. In order to understand history a horizontal slice is not enough. A slice does not show how the trees began, it does not show the sun above them to which they are drawn.
Instead, if you want to understand the past you have to create a detailed four-dimensional model which encompasses height and width and time, and ultimately I am not convinced it is possible to understand the past at all. As history red-shifts away the image loses its definition. It is too complex to model, and ultimately it's a futile quest. They did things differently then, they reacted to a different set of inputs, they had assumptions that seemed obvious at the time and were not written down, they had aspirations that are no longer relevant. They were blundering in the dark as well, in a different room, and they were looking for a different exit. It is impossible for a smartphone owner of 2014 to understand the pain, the misery, the hopelessness of life in the era of Computing Across America, a popular book from 1988 about a man who cycled across the US with a bicycle that had a computer and some solar panels to power it.
Why pain and misery and hopelessness? Because in the 1990s I knew that Steven Roberts' "technomad" lifestyle would be obsolete in a few years, and that it was just a sham. The smartphones of today had been anticipated years before they instantiated, which was awful because we all knew that the technology we had in the 1990s was inadequate and soon to be cast aside. We had to tolerate it. We were cursed with the gift of prophecy; a curse, because it brought the paucity of the present into sharp relief. When the dream was other we had to live in the present.
There was a second thing. Steven Roberts' bike did not represent freedom or futurism at all; it represented narrowness and elitism and wealth. It was not Steven Roberts' visionary nature or wisdom or taste that allowed him to cycle across America on a computerised bicycle, it was his money. His bike and computer and solar panels cost a fortune and were intended to show off that fortune, and the nomadic lifestyle was just rubbish. Supposedly he wrote books and articles for magazines literally whilst cycling along the road, but the reality is that he was a self-publicist who had earned his fortune from working in engineering. The writing was pointless and circular, and when he came to actually jot something down - essentially a book about his bicycle - he stopped in at a hotel. The bicycle computer was just an affectation.
The message I got from Computing Across America was that the world consists of a small gang of wealthy people who know each other, and a much larger strata of poor people who are either pests or background extras of no importance, and the wealthy people are dimly aware that they should not boast but are nonetheless driven to do so. Roberts' next project was the MicroShip, a boat with a computer in it, which seems to have flopped because by the 1990s it was not unusual for boats to have computers in them. He was the computing world's equivalent of Hello Kitty, a marketing exercise designed to sell itself. Underneath the surface there was nothing.
"The unplanned organism is a question asked by Nature and answered by Death."
The End of History, Again
In the West there was a general assumption that religion died off in the 1960s. By the 1970s we were living in a post-religious New Age. People worshipped aliens and spiritual gurus instead of old-fashioned arbitrary pre-science gods. The idea of worshipping God - the old-school God-God - was silly. For the characters in a late-70s Woody Allen film religion was a backwards load of rubbish of no relevance in contemporary New York. It was okay for cute foreign people to worship, because cute foreign people were simple and pure, but for us it was a sign of stupidity.
Hollywood films of the 1980s did not generally have a religious dimension; ET is often held as an example of a covert Christian film, because ET dies and is reborn, but in my opinion it simply draws from the archetype of the fallen warrior who comes back from certain death, which dates from before the time of Christ. The film otherwise does not deal with faith. ET's miracles are there, on the screen, there is no need for faith. Whatever religious dimension present in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Predator passed me by. Pop music of the 1980s avoided religion or dealt with it in a chocolate-box / picture postcard way. U2 were the most visible overtly-religions band of the 1980s, but even though their early records are packed with faith it is an aspect that the rock music press generally ignored. For the NME and Paul Morley and so forth U2's faith was probably a shrewd marketing exercise, or a regrettable throwback to their rural roots (they must have had rural roots because they were from Ireland. The other Ireland. Eire, whatever.)
The reality is that people in Britain and America and other western nations largely gave up going to church by the middle of the 20th Century, and because western people tend to assume that they are the model to which the world aspires, it followed that foreigners had also given up on religion, or that their religions were trivial and unimportant. Thus for bands such as Cop Shoot Cop and Ministry the persistence of evangelical Christians in the 1980s and 1990s seemed absurd and dangerous. For them, Christianity was the only religion that had meaning, because the members of alternative rock bands had been born into a culture that saw foreigners and their foreign religions as cute novelties. The thought that other religions were just as meaningful to their adherents, and that within a few years Western society would be forced to care about religion was ridiculous. It was over.
But are ISIS and the like driven by religion, or do they just use it as a justification for their brutality? Otherwise they would have to admit that they kill people for amusement, and some people are not prepared to go that far. Some people are, but they tend to die quickly; their officers and politicians want more than a cheap thrill. People will eagerly kill for financial gain, but I have the impression that ISIS do not expect to live long enough to spend their money. Some of them will end up owning expensive houses in London, but it seems a roundabout way of making a fortune.
In the 1980s the Great World Menace was the nuclear bomb, which existed as much in the realm of metaphor as reality. The Bomb was an elemental force of nature poised to wipe us out, a technological incarnation of the Old Testament God. Religious strife had given way to an ideological conflict between the scientific religions of democracy and communism. One the one side was the pragmatism of the free market, which aspired to leave human affairs to the evolutionary forces of chaos. If some people died it was merely a necessary correction. On the other side was the iron discipline of a planned economy, which tried to order society in the most efficient way possible, and if some people died it was because they were an inefficiency. Ultimately it boiled down to competing economic models, because money was our God. And it was all our fault. By the 1990s The Bomb had diminished as a present threat, but religious warfare was still just a novelty, a foreign thing for insignificant foreigners driving Toyotas to and fro in the desert. The F50 was launched into a period of transition, in which people dreamed up threats to add to the threats that remained when we awoke.
In the words of the captive computer from Deus Ex, "the human being created civilization not because of willingness but of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning; God was a dream of good government." If the dream of God was real, I imagine He would be horrified by our behaviour. He would publicly commit suicide in order to free us from our craving for control, and perhaps He did. As the noose tightened we turned away, and now we dance to the silent music of a broken radio, and there are armed men who will shoot us if we do not dance. Like the absent parent of an unwanted child, God either did not realise or chose to ignore the void he left behind; we could have filled it with flowers and puppies, instead we fill it with beheadings and eternal war. It is our nature.
And that's the Nikon F50.