Saturday, 7 May 2016

Cosina CX-2: Sick for a Newer Ghost

"Wrap me in your blanket, dance me around". So sang Buffy Sainte-Marie in "Qu'appelle Valley, Saskatchewan", a classic deep cut from her 1974 album Sweet America. Sainte-Marie's discography is full of deep cuts, notably her 1969 record Illuminations, a pioneering blend of acoustic folk and experimental electronics.

Why I am thinking about Buffy Sainte-Marie all of a sudden? As I write these words Canada has caught fire, which will no doubt lead to a massive refugee crisis. Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on a spot of land that had Canada built on top of it, but she is safe from the flames because she now lives in Hawaii. Which, ironically, is a volcano. You'd think that Canada would be too cold to catch fire, but obviously it is not.

As a child growing up in the UK I assumed that Sainte-Marie was a big star, but reading about her life and work I am surprised to find that her albums barely scraped into Billboard's top hundred-and-fifty in the United States. Here in the UK the theme for Soldier Blue was a top ten hit in 1971, and most British people over the age of fifty can put a face to her name, but only her 1992 comeback record Coincidence and Likely Stories actually charted.

She is of course familiar to one and all for her appearances in Sesame Street, which might explain why I recognise her. Like Marxists and Johnny Ball, she knew that if you win over the children, you win over the future. Perhaps her record sales will explode in the 2040s.

The internet has several explanations for Sainte-Marie's poor sales. None of them really convince me. The early 1970s was hot for female singer-songwriters. The likes of Carole King, Phoebe Snow, and even Laura Nyro outsold Buffy Sainte-Marie many times over, and even 60s throwbacks such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez retained a following. Her distinctive deep warbly voice was light-years from Karen Carpenter, but it wasn't that odd, besides which having a deep voice didn't hurt Cher. On a physical level she was good-looking in a friendly way. I'm not an expert on modern America's relationship with its former landlords, but I have the impression that Native Americans were thought of in the 1960s as either non-entities who only existed in cowboy films, or as cute novelties - which is patronising, but it's a lot better than being spat on and treated like an animal.

It wasn't her songwriting. "Universal Soldier" was a peacenik standard, "Until it's Time for You to Go" was a late-period hit for Elvis Presley in 1972, and "Up Where we Belong", which she co-wrote, was a chart-topper that won an Academy Award. By all accounts her songwriting has left her comfortably well-off. She is doing a lot better than e.g. Dionne Warwick, who is bankrupt, and of course Janis Joplin, who is dead. The Blogger platform used to have no problem embedding content from Google Books. Now it frustrates me. There's supposed to be a feature about Sainte-Marie from Time magazine circa 1965 and an article about little cameras from 1981, but I'm worried that as soon as I hit "publish" there will just be an empty space (as indeed there was - ed).

The XA and CX-2 had these cute add-on flash units. The XA's flash screws into the side; the CX-2 has a proper hot shoe. With the CX-11 attached the CX-2 resembles the Minox 35.

On an ergonomic level the XA is superior, although the CX-2 has this neat touch.

Sainte-Marie herself believes that the Johnson and Nixon administrations blacklisted her from the radio. Given that she aspired to be a mainstream pop star rather than an underground hero a la Gil Scott-Heron or Phil Ochs this would have been disastrous.

In 1969 a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island, and in 1973 there was an armed uprising at Wounded Knee, but the Wounded Knee incident was an internal political matter and the Alcatraz occupation fizzled out. Nonetheless there is something seductively plausible about the idea of Nixon trying to squelch Buffy Sainte-Marie. It sounds like the kind of petty thing he would do. I can picture him asking G Gordon Liddy to shut that goddamn woman up, just get her off the fucking radio, she's got to learn that she's an American first and a Native American second YES I KNOW that they were here first goddamn it's our country now I'm not giving it back to a bunch of drunks you hear me Gordon during a bout of paranoid mania.

Furthermore the stereotype of Native Americans as smart, organised guerilla warriors was probably still fresh in the minds of middle-aged, ruling-class America at the time. Whereas the Black Panthers could be dismissed as a rabble who would merely burn down worthless patches of Detroit, the Native Americans were serious. Their cause was easy to understand and sympathise with, but it cut to the heart of all that Western society is built upon; property rights. The state exists to uphold property rights, and will squander its treasure and kill people to ensure ownership of a patch of land.

HMS Belfast's guns are apparently pointed at a motorway service station eleven miles to the north-west. There doesn't have to be a reason.

The thought of armed US Forest Service helicopters re-enacting Vietnam in Alberta and Nevada might have preyed on Nixon's mind. But why did Nixon only target Buffy Sainte-Marie, and not other subversives? In Nixon's world everybody was a subversive. And if he had ordered his underlings to suppress the music of John Baez as well as Buffy Sainte-Marie, how come the blacklist affected Sainte-Marie so badly?

And that's the Cosina CX-2. A small, auto-exposure, manual-focus, electronic 35mm camera from the early 1980s. Released in the wake of the Minox 35 and particularly the Olympus XA. It's essentially a hybrid of the two, with the basic shape of a Minox plus some styling cues from the XA, and a clever twisting lens cover that works surprisingly well (and is more robust than I expected). The images in this post were taken with a mixture of expired black-and-white Phototec 100 and expired, badly-stored Fuji 200.

I owned one a long time ago but sold it; I bought another one. My recollection is that the lens had masses of distortion and wasn't very sharp around the edges, but it was solidly built and the autoexposure system could do really long night-time exposures. Having used one again I haven't changed my opinion. The 35mm f/2.8 lens isn't a patch on the one in the XA but it has a certain amount of charm. The State is like a non-Newtonian fluid. If you hit it with a hammer, it stiffens up and resists. You have to slowly push a knife into it. But as the knife goes in, it dissolves, and eventually it becomes part of the problem. It doesn't matter that the majority of people sit in front of the television doing nothing with their lives. They would do that anyway. It's the tip of the blade that penetrates, the rest merely has to go with the flow.

Cosina is mostly famous as an OEM manufacturer. It builds camera gear for other companies, and occasionally sells stuff directly under its own name - usually cheap autofocus telezooms - or under names it has licensed, notably Voigtländer. The Voigtländer Bessa rangefinders of the early 2000s were very popular with discerning gentlepeople, and modern Voigtländer lenses for mirrorless compacts regularly attract plaudits in the photographic press. Why doesn't Cosina change its name to Voigtländer and start again, hmm?

The CX-2 was sold in a plastic box with a motordrive and a flash unit. There was also an underwater housing, the CX-M, so obviously Cosina tried, but on the whole the CX-2 seems to have sold in very small quantities. Price-wise it was parked in between the XA2 and the more capable XA, which had a head start.

The State exists to enforce property rights - and arbitrary laws that it creates.

The CX-2 was launched in parallel with the cheaper CX-1. They share the same instruction book. The CX-1 had a 32mm f/3.5 lens and no provision for a motor drive. They were also sold under the name of German department store Porst, and Petri, Praktica, possibly others, the end.