Thursday, 18 May 2017

Nome, Alaska

There's something I want to get off my chest. A few weeks ago I read this great article about Nome, a town in Alaska where men are real men and women are hard-wearing. Nome is separated from the nearest McDonald's by hundreds of miles of bleak, frozen tundra. It is the hub of a small road network, but the road only leads to the nearest towns; the only way to get to Nome from civilisation is by sea or air.

It's very unlikely that I will ever visit Nome, but Google has mapped the place, so I can visit it virtually. It even has Street View, which was achieved by making a poor Google employee walk back and forth down Nome's frozen boulevards with a camera on his back.

Nome is a fishing village with very little tourism, but it has a certain appeal to motorcylists and offroaders who fancy a challenge. A century ago it was swamped by gold prospectors; half a century ago it was home to Marks AFB, what with it being just across the water from the Soviet Union. Today the population is slowly approaching 4,000, and on the whole it seems a pleasant place to rest and write a very long novel. But does it have broadband internet?

The Bob Blodgett Nome-Teller Memorial Highway leads to Teller, which is fifty miles away and has a school. One-third of the way from Nome to Teller the road goes over the Sinrock River. In 2016 someone stopped there and took a panoramic photograph. The place looks like Sweden:

Let's have a look at those rocks under the bridge, just visible in the right of the topmost image:

It's bleak. But hang on, what's that:

Let's take a closer look:

Really, I'm disappointed. Humanity has a spotty record with the environment but this is just embarrassing. Did Google's man throw the bottle away? Or was it a tourist?

Whoever it was, you're lazy. I ask you, the Internet - next time you're visiting Nome, pick up that bottle and put it in the bin. Otherwise it will haunt me until the end of my days.

That it's, that's all I wanted to say. Carry on. No, there's something else. It's 2017 and I've just found a discarded Powerade bottle seven thousand miles away, next to a bridge in Nome, Alaska. I didn't have to leave the privacy of my own drinking-room. I was just sitting in front of my computer. Truly, we live in the future.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Olympus XA3

My only hope is that the nightmares will cease when I die. But what if they continue? What if, without the moderating influence of my conscious mind, the nightmares are set free? So I have resolved to reverse the wheel and ram the ship through Cthulhu. I will activate every neuron in my mind, generating a furnace of anti-death so potent that it burn the nightmares out. To this end I'm going to have a look at the Olympus XA3, a compact camera from 1985. In my hands it has looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror and there is no escape for you.

For this post I decided to photograph blue things and red things.

I've written about the original Olympus XA before. It was a neat little rangefinder camera from 1979 with aperture-priority autoexposure and a proper split-image rangefinder housed in a tiny body, with a really good 35mm f/2.8 lens. The XA was sold alongside the budget-priced XA2, which had three-zone focusing and a 35mm f/3.5 lens, and the confusingly-named XA1, which had a fixed-focus 35mm f/4 lens and a selenium light meter. The XA1 was a bit naff.

They were all the brainchild of top God-genius Yoshihisa Maitani. While you're reading this post please listen to OOIOO's "Umo", which came out a while back but didn't we all:

Writing in 1928, H P Lovecraft imagined a future in which the scientific method's piecing together of dissociated knowledge would open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft underestimated the human spirit, however, and when Yoshihisa Maitani was confronted with the vast black emptiness of the universe he did not succumb to cosmic horror and go mad. Instead he produced a string of excellent cameras. I like to imagine that Lovecraft would have been pleased; pleased that he was wrong.

All of the XA cameras were manual focus, which was anachronistic by the mid-1980s. Nonetheless they sold well, and Olympus launched a second wave in 1985. The XA3 was essentially an XA2 with DX film encoding and a special quick-loading system; the XA4 was similar but had a 28mm f/2.8 wideangle lens that could focus down to a foot, with a special lanyard that could be used as a measuring aid or makeshift garrote.

London is full of billboards like this, on construction sites, where investment vehicles are constructed for people who won't live there.

Alas the XA3 and XA4 were not enough, and Olympus discontinued the range a year or so later. Olympus' early autofocus compacts didn't have much of an impact, but the Olympus Stylus and particularly the Olympus Stylus Epic of the 1990s were very popular and still have a following today. Over the last decade Olympus has revived many of its old brands to good effect, and it will be interesting to see if they ever dig up the old XA.

Of the lot I haven't tried the XA1, XA4, or original Stylus; their dead bodies told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. Of the others I prefer the XA, if only because the viewfinder is huge and it has more controls.

I actually shot all these pictures last year, when I went to see Barry Lyndon. I was so busy writing about Barry Lyndon that I completely forgot about them. When I am writing I forget about everything else, including food and sleep.

I don't know if it's the V500 scanner or Ektachrome or slide film in general, but it has a distinctive glow.

Compared to the XA the Stylus Epic has a slightly better lens - it vignettes much less - and used examples are much newer and less likely to go wrong. Furthermore the XA's soft-touch shutter button is an acquired taste.

The XA3 also has a soft-touch shutter button, but it has a bit of give so it's not too bad. As with the other XAs the shutter is really quiet - long exposures go snick (long pause) snick - but the thumbwheel winder is quite noisy, albeit that you can hide it in a jacket pocket while you advance the film, whereas with the later motorised cameras you have no choice.

The images in this post were shot with some Kodak Ektachrome that expired in 2007. Slide film tends to go purple as it ages, but the colours can be corrected with Photoshop. At the top, how it came out of the scanner (with the levels fixed); at the bottom, Photoshop.

Writing about the XA3 is difficult, firstly because it's basically the same as the XA2, secondly because I live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that I should voyage far.

The combination of 35mm and f/2.8 is more or less perfect; wide enough, narrow enough, fast enough, and it's easy to hold the XA3 steady. Exposures are spot-on. It is compatible with the standard XA flashes, which I will probably never use unless someone invites me to a party, which is unlikely, especially after the last time. It shares with the XA2 a design issue whereby whenever you open the sliding cover, the focus slider defaults to the mid-distance instead of the last position you selected. On a physical level the XA3 is slightly but noticeably larger than the XA. It's also harder to come by, as it was only sold for a short period and was overshadowed by the XA2 (cheaper) and the XA4 (wider).

You can't override the DX setting, but if the film doesn't have a DX code there is however a full range of ISO settings (from ISO 25 to ISO 1600). It shares with the XA a +1.5 stop backlight correction setting, which is selected with a little self-timer/battery check/miniature tripod good lever on the bottom of the camera, breathe out

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Blue Skied an' Clear: Slowdive

Let’s have a look at Morr Music's Blue Skied an’ Clear, a compilation album stroke label sampler from 2002. Disc one has covers of songs by top British shoegaze band Slowdive; disc two has original songs inspired by the band. So it was that in 2017 I was moved to write about an album of covers released in 2002 of a band that flourished and faded in the early 1990s, as if descending a staircase into the past. I gazed at translucent figures who could not see me; I studied their ways and surfaced gasping into the present. As I write these words I imagine invisible eyes from the future studying me.

Slowdive was a shoegaze band. What was shoegaze? In the gap between C86 and Britpop there emerged a generation of fey, pale teenagers whose guitars broadcast formless, distorted washes of sound to an audience that craved an aural comfort blanket. The genre had a good run but the leading lights split up, or ran out of ideas, or ground to a halt. Britpop absolutely obliterated it. Britpop was brash, populist, and highly commercial; shoegaze was none of those things. It had an air of passive self-absorption that was at odds with Britpop's extroverted anthemicism. Furthermore there was a romantic aspect to shoegaze - the musicians were aesthetes - that didn't sit well with Britpop's postmodern mood.

Slowdive passed me by at the time. I was into electronic music, and in those days it was difficult to become familiar with a wide range of different bands. You either had to borrow lots of records or have a lot of money. There was no Youtube, and Slowdive was never played on the radio. I could only read about them in the music press, except that I continually got them mixed up with Swervedriver, another shoegaze band - Slowdive and Swervedriver are the same colour, both red - so I can't be sure if my memories of the band are correct. From my point of view Slowdive and the shoegazing genre was a blip that came and went between Madchester, ambient house, and then Britpop and drum'n'bass. It was part of the sadly doomed and forgotten pre-Britpop era.

The only shoegaze band that approached a commercial breakthrough was Ride, who managed a couple of top ten albums and a top ten single, although nowadays they tend to be thought of as a pre-Britpop indie band that had a shoegazing phase rather than a fully-fledged shoegazing band. My Bloody Valentine’s second album, Loveless, is generally regarded as the high point of the genre - the loudest, most formless, most diffident of all shoegaze records, the genre’s Kind of Blue. Slowdive never had a commercial heyday, and fan favourite Souvlaki was a victim of unfortunate timing. By 1993 the music press had grown tired of shoegaze and was more interested in the likes of James, The Wonder Stuff, Suede and so forth, and of course a year later the one-two punch of Definitely Maybe and Parklife opened the floodgates that swept Slowdive and shoegaze away forever, or at least it seemed at the time.

For some reason – I know not why – Slowdive became internet-fashionable again in the 2000s. The group recently reformed and has released a new album. Surprisingly, it’s terrific; a moody, floaty ambient indie pop record that manages to be formless and tuneful at the same time. In a just world "Sugar for the Pill" would be a massive radio hit. Judging by Youtube views the band has gained a whole new following, including this blue-haired woman who was moved to tears by their cover of Syd Barrett’s "Golden Hair":

But what of Blue Skied an' Clear? The covers on Disc One are solid but sound a bit thin, as if the bands were all pushed for time. The problem is that Slowdive's music was inseparable from the production, with the result that, shorn of the band's wall of effects pedals, the music doesn't have the same impact. The exception is múm's cover of "Machine Gun". The song has a killer melody but Slowdive's production was plodding and unimaginative; múm's take is subtler, and the sound would have fit perfectly on Finally We Are No One.

There's another problem, highlighted by Limp's take on "Souvlaki Space Station". The compilation was released in the wake of Warp Records' glitch-pop heyday and consequently several of the tracks have pointless sub-Squarepusher glitchy treatments that don't fit the material, "Space Station" among them. Disc two's "Fade Out Your Eyes" is a particular bad offender.

Ulrich Schnauss' "Crazy for You" is the second best cover, adding twangy guitars and a shuffling beat to the original, which sounded as if it had been recorded in a tunnel. A few years later Schnauss' version of the song was used in a Lucozade advert, although sped-up:

I imagine Schnauss earned more from the advert than he did from Blue Skied an' Clear. During their career Slowdive tried to change their sound - they hired Brian Eno, although he didn't stick around for a whole album - but never really managed it. Their most recent album feels like the product of twenty years of gradual evolution rather than a sharp break, which is fine now but would have been disappointing if it was just Slowdive's fifteenth studio album. It's fascinating to imagine what might have happened if Slowdive and Eno had hit it off; say what you like about U2, Achtung Baby was a major leap for the band and it did give them a second wind. Solvent's cover of "When the Sun Hits" reimagines Slowdive as Add N to X while Lali Puma's version of "40 Days" has something of Garbage about it but neither of them convincingly reinvent the band. Skanfrom's version of "Here She Comes" sounds like a Brian Eno solo track from one of his non-ambient vocal albums.

Disc two is a lot more variable. Whereas Disc One is listenable throughout, Disc Two has some complete stinkers, although it gets off to a great start with Manual's "Summer Haze" and Isan's "My Last Journey". "House Full of Time" and "Fade Our Your Eyes" aren't very good at all and Solvent's "Discontinued Parts" is godawful. Limp's "Silent Running" is nice - it sounds like an instrumental cover of "40 Days" - but again has tonnes of indifferently-executed, now-badly-dated glitches. I bought the album after hearing Icebreaker International and Manual's "Into Forever", and for me it's the standout track. Schnauss' "Wherever You Are" is the other standout. The rest are basically inoffensive filler. That's (counts) four excellent tracks, three bad tracks, seven okay tracks. I find it hard to criticise the bands involved. They probably had six weeks to throw something together for the compilation and no extra money, so I imagine disc two is stuff with demos that they didn't want to put out as b-sides.

Morr Music still exists. Blue Skied an' Clear was released physically on compact disc and triple vinyl. The vinyl has a poster and some twee stickers that made me smile. It's still on sale today albeit only digitally. It's one really good album of mostly Slowdive covers with a handful of original tunes as a bonus, plus some rubbish that you can skip, the end.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Nikon F-301 / Nikon N2000

In a few days' time The White Stripes' "Fell in Love with a Girl" will be fifteen years old. It wasn't their first single - not by a long chalk - but it was the first I remember seeing on television. You remember the video. It was made with Lego pieces. Stop-motion Lego pieces. Today we're going to have a look at the Nikon F-301, a 35mm SLR that was sold in the United States as the Nikon N2000, although nowadays everybody calls it the Nikon F-301, albeit that no-one calls it anything because no-one remembers it or cares about it.

The F-301 was released in 1985, the same year as Madonna's "Into the Groove". Nikon sold it alongside the F-501 / N2020, which was essentially the same camera but with an autofocus motor. Autofocus was a big thing back then, but there was still room in the market for manual focus cameras. In November 1985 Popular Photography had a look at the F-301 and concluded that it was okay, I guess, although the reviewer basically describes the camera without passing judgement.

Also, check out the headline font, which is a good example of a proportional font, e.g. the letter I in NIKON is much narrower than the letter O - but also check out how the letter O actually overlaps the letter K. I think the font is ITC Avant Garde Gothic, but I'm not an expert. Obviously they must have hired a designer to push the letters close together. I assume the headline font is an imitation of Nikon's N2000 logo, in which the zeros overlap, just like the Olympic rings, although the F-301/N2000 had nothing to do with the Olympics:

Flight of ideas is a mental disorder characteristic of mania. Nikon sold the F-301 as an entry-level beginner's camera, although compared to the later F-50 and F-70 it feels a lot more substantial. The top plate is apparently made of plastic but the chassis is however metal, and overall the F-301 is heavier and more solid than I expected. Benoît Pioulard's music is fantastic. He is an ambient-indie musician (technically Benoît Pioulard is a "project"; his real name is Thomas). His ambient music mostly sticks to the same formula of evolving, distorted drones, and it sounds lovely:

"Sonic sculpture" is a massive cliche, but in this case it's true, the music is like an object to be contemplated or a mood that slowly passes through you rather than a quick buzz. Until recently I assumed that this was the entirety of his bag, but he has also made jangly indie pop and even ambient folk. Last year he broke his wrist! Unfortunately this incurred hefty medical costs. If only he had flown across the Atlantic to the UK, where he could have had the surgery for free, except that they won't let you fly if you have a broken wrist, scotch that idea. I'd love a scotch egg right now. I love savoury things. Sadly I don't have a scotch egg.

Nowadays the F-301's design smells of the 1980s. In those days it was fashionable to ask Porsche Design or Giorgetto Giugiaro to have a go at designing camera bodies; the F-301 looks like something Porsche or Giugiaro might have produced although apparently it is an in-house design.

F-301s are available on eBay for pennies. They have no real antique value. As with the early Canon EOS cameras the body is slightly more upmarket than it appears. I bought one so I could try out my 28mm f/2.8 AI-S on a period-correct AI-S-enabled Nikon film camera, because why not?

With an AI 20mm f/3.5. As always the most important part of the photographic system is the man holding the camera (or woman), specifically me.

Spec-wise the F-301 resembles the Pentax A3, Canon T50 and so forth. It uses Nikon's AI lens mount and is one of only four Nikon SLRs that supported AI-S; it is manual focus only; it has DX film encoding and manual film advance, but not rewind; it has a non-standard PPhiAM exposure matrix, oddly without S; it takes four AAA batteries, or four AA batteries with an optional baseplate.

I have this baseplate, and with four Eneloops the F-301 lasts forever. Which is good, because it's useless without batteries. It doesn't have a backup mechanical shutter speed, but even if it did there would be no way to wind the film on. Unlike some motor-equipped cameras it shoots until it detects film tension, rather than stopping at exactly 36 frames, so a few of my rolls had 37 exposures. When you insert film it winds on with three quick shots.

The F-301 has a beeper that beeps if the shutter speed is too slow. You can turn it off. The beeper and the motor drive are very loud.
The camera was sold as an entry-level model, but it still has some of Nikon's professional heritage. You need to press a small button before you can twist the PASM dial; ditto rewind. The motor drive runs at an unusually fast 3.5fps.
Beyond the AA baseplate there were no special accessories. No handgrip, no dedicated speedlight (the F-501 had the SB-20), no underwater case etc.

 The full caption is "black dudes, you can avoid the rain drops if you smoke".

So the story goes, during the making of The Fifth Element director Luc Besson came up with an imaginary alien language for Milla Jovovich's character, and by the end of filming the pair of them were so proficient in this language that they could have entire conversations. Humanity developed language for sound practical reasons, but to what extent does it shape our consciousness? Historically the F-301 was quickly overshadowed by Nikon's new autofocus cameras. In the 1990s and 2000s it was never prized by the cult camera crowd, who instead gravitated towards Nikon's older manual focus SLRs, such as the EM and F3 and so forth. On a technological level the F-301 is objectively more advanced than the F3, but the F3 has a much better viewfinder. The viewfinder is the F-301's biggest weakness. It feels cramped and I have to jam the camera against my face to see all of it.

My F-301 was actually broken when it arrived - the mirror and shutter were jammed - but after a bit of poking it started working again, so top marks to Nikon's early-1980s engineers. By the 1990s Nikon embraced cheapness to an alarming extent, and the F-301 was perhaps the last gasp of old-school grown-up Nikon.

If you want to experiment with film photography using old Nikon manual focus lenses the F-301 is an interesting value proposition - it can't depreciate any more, the only issue is liquidity - but you have to ask yourself if you'd rather fulfil a childhood dream and buy an F4 instead. The F-301, F-501, and FA do have one advantage over the F4 if you plan to use manual focus lenses however, in that they have a split-image viewfinder. Floordrobe, that's a good word.