Saturday, 21 May 2016

Unitor 28mm f/2.8: Everyone's Dreaming of All They've Got to Live For

"Smelly tongues looked just as they felt". So sang The Residents on their classic debut album Meet the Residents, which was released in 1974 to general critical indifference and poor sales.

Sometimes I think about The Residents. The band fills me with a profound melancholy. When I was young it seemed that there was an axis of strangeness, consisting of The Residents, Negativland, the Evolution Control Committee, the Church of the Subgenius etc etc, with Frank Zappa as their elderly patron saint, and on the fringes there were Stereolab and the Pizzicato Five and St Etienne - bands who briefly found a way to translate weirdness into record sales.

It was an age of videotape mash-up montages of televangelists and Gulf War footage, and multimedia CD-ROM projects that poked fun at the New World Order of George Bush - the George Bush - and also Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh and lots of other names that mean nothing nowadays. just as your world will mean nothing in a few years.

The axis of strangeness made the world less boring. There was no chance of it overwhelming the industrial might of the allied powers, but as a kid I assumed that it had been around forever and would continue to thrive in the modern world.

Dilworth is a strange and lovely man

Dragons do not grow old, but the same is not true of little boys, and as time went on the axis faded. The individual components of the axis still exist but they are obscurities whose time has passed. In retrospect they seemed more important than they really were at the time because they appealed to music writers, but that generation of cultural commentators has also grown old and retired. The new writers of the purple internet have a different set of idols.

Part of The Residents' mystique was that they were wilfully obscure, and even today they refuse to give out the real names of present and past members. The problem is that no-one cares any more. The Residents no longer have control over their own obscurity.

In the 1990s I imagined that The Residents earned enough money to get by, but over time members left and died, and as I write these words the band is just a sick old man sitting alone in a room with a cheap plastic mask, doing video podcasts. When he dies or gives up there will be no-one left behind the curtain to operate the machinery of Oz. There will be no Residents revival; kids will not seek out vinyl copies of Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats. Meanwhile the Church of the Subgenius left behind a videotape and some books, and not much else. As with The Residents they wanted to be famous for their obscurity, but now they are just obscure.

Think of all the other bands that were on Factory Records. Not Section 25 and Quando Quango - you've heard of them - but Minny Pops and Crawling Chaos. They are not forgotten in the way that Vashti Bunyan is forgotten; they are genuinely forgotten, and today we're going to have a look at the Unitor 28mm f/2.8, an utterly awful lens of no distinction. It's an M42 lens from a long time ago.

The Machinery of Oz would have been a good title for this blog post, shorter and more relevant than the one I eventually chose. There's something about Sarah Cracknell's voice on "Mario's Cafe", though. She has trouble hitting the notes but her voice has charm. That was the idea. She was an ordinary person pretending to be a pop star, just like us. She wasn't an inhuman monster like Whitney Houston. The song itself is warm and evokes an image, although of course it's a sham - there is a real Mario's Cafe, but Bob Stanley had never visited it when he wrote the song. He picked the name because it sounded good.

It's an art form. It's not supposed to be real. Juke box music. You're a fool if you base your life on a lie. I have visited cafes. They are illusions. Real people go to McDonald's, and perhaps in fifty years there will be folk songs about McDonald's. The only people who visit cafes are media types who are acting out a role. Bob Stanley wrote the song in 1991, and even then he was attracted more by the idea of eating in an authentic greasy spoon than by the food; for this writer in 1997, post-Britpop, the act of visiting a cafe was an adventure, not an organic part of everyday life.

I imagine there were features in The Face in the 1980s about cafes. George Orwell probably wrote about them in the 1940s. Rewind to the 1600s and you'll find noblemen visiting cafes for the novelty of visiting a cafe. Did they have fried bread in the 1600s? Yes, apparently so, at least in North America. I bet they didn't have squeezy tomato ketchup bottles. Plastic hadn't been invented yet.

The furry subculture has its roots in human self-consciousness. Unlike other animals we are aware of ourselves as actors on a stage, and some people are unsatisfied with what they have.
And perhaps it is also an echo of Alvin Toffler's concept of Future Shock. As we hurtle into the video age some people want to insulate themselves from the outside world, literally insulate themselves with layers of fur.
I make a point of writing these blog posts in the nude, so that no-one can accuse me of being terrified of The Future; my body is ready.

When was it released? The lens, I was talking about a lens. When was the lens released? I have no idea; it's one of those OEM lenses that was made in Japan and then imported by the rest of the world under a variety of different names. Late 1960s, early 1970s. I have found copies with Vivitar and Carenar badges. Twelve million years ago I got one free with a Fujica ST701 film SLR, and shot some film with it; even with my ordinary film scanner the poor quality of the lens was apparent, but how does it perform on a digital SLR?

There is Brasil. Thank you, Boris Johnson. London will miss you.

Not very well. In its defence, it's possible that something is broken inside the lens, but judging by the very few samples I have seen on the internet it really is very bad. On the positive side it's physically solid and well-made. It's big - so big that my ST701 won't sit flat on a table - heavy, made of metal, the focus is smooth and the aperture blades still work. In fact it's surprisingly attractive, especially the distinctive blue lens coating, but like so many things that are attractive on the outside it is rotten and empty on the inside.

I shot the following on a Canon 5D MkII with an M42 adapter. The lens focuses to infinity without hitting the mirror. Close focus is quite far, at about eighteen inches from the front of the lens. Wide open the lens has strong vignetting. It almost seems like mechanical vignetting, and as per the images elsewhere in this post the lens vignettes even with a slimline polarising filter:

The weather is depressing, even for England. The lens makes everything look depressing. Earlier on I took some photographs of a kitten playing with Cyndi Lauper's debut album She's So Unusual, and the lens made even this upbeat scene feel sick and wrong. Alas I cannot share those pictures with you. In the middle it's soft at f/2.8, sharp-er at f/8 but nothing to write home about:

I used Photoshop's "auto contrast" but no other editing. It's not a contrasty lens.

Performance in the corner is suboptimal, again at f/2.8, f/8:

Does it have a use? No. Any modern zoom lens outperforms it. The frustrating thing is that it doesn't even work as a special effect lens, because the corner softness doesn't look attractive, it just looks murky and depressing. Some lenses are soft around the edges but sharp in the middle in a way that draws you in, but the Unitor is just muddy. Indistinct. There weren't many good wide angle options for the M42 system, and the Unitor 28mm f/2.8 is not one of them. It is however a good paperweight and could be used by the military as a simple hand grenade training aid, the end.