Friday, 28 September 2012

Milan Centrale

Milano Centrale
Mamiya C3
Fuji Acros 100

Milan Central is actually about two miles away from the middle of Milan. It's an enormous, squared-off block that was finished in 1931, after having spent twenty years as presumably a make-work project. It's often cited as an example of fascist architecture, but construction began many years before Mussolini came to power. Nonetheless it probably appealed to him because it's built on a monumental scale. The enormous platform hall and waiting area make a certain amount of sense, because it's a busy station; but the entrance hall (above) and plaza are just ridiculous. They're very photogenic though.

The station has been covered in construction work for years. It's always put me in mind of Berlin's now-defunct Tempelhof Airport. They're built to the same oversized scale, although the architectural style is very different. They belong to separate eras. Milan Central dates from a time when a nation's railways were its pride and joy; Templehof's mid-30s expansion was intended to demonstrate Nazi Germany's mastery of the air. The new frontier.

Is there a modern equivalent of these ancient temples? Flying is still the most advanced form of mass transportation, and nations still judge their economic health against the size of their airports, but air transport no longer has much romantic appeal. Too many people have spent too long going through security gates - taking off their shoes and belts, wondering whether Marmite is a liquid or not - to wax romantic about air travel any more.

And we're entering an age when people travel space and time whilst sitting at a desk in front of a computer. I can't imagine server farms becoming the new temples of human endeavour. There's Kennedy Space Centre, I suppose, but there's a fin de si├Ęcle air about it. And Baikonur, but I mentally associate it with commercial resupply flights rather than daring missions to defeat the Treen menace. Perhaps in the future we'll, like, worship each other, or worship nothing at all.

Or we could worship Lana Del Rey, because that's Lana Del Rey up there (for H&M) towering over the railway people of Milan. Imagine if she broke out of the poster and ran amuk in some kind of berserker frenzy. Think of the amount of tranquilisers you'd need to bring down a fifty-foot-tall Lana Del Rey, think about that. You'd need at least one gallon of tranquilisers. One gallon.

Mamiya C3: Milan

I've spent the last couple of weeks on holiday in Italy, because it's nice; specifically the north, around Milan. I took along a Mamiya C3, a 65mm f/3.5, and a bag of film. And a lightmeter, because the camera doesn't have one built in.

The Mamiya twin lens reflex system had two wide lenses, a 65mm and a more modern 55mm. I can't speak for the 55mm, but the 65mm is mighty fine, sharp into the edges at f/8 and beyond. In 35mm film terms it's roughly 35mm-ish, with an equivalent depth of field of f/2-ish. The 55mm was closer to a 28mm. The 65mm tends to be shunned nowadays - it's not much wider than the standard 80mm f/2.8, and of course it's one stop slower - but I found one going cheap. It takes standard 49mm filters. Sadly there isn't room to have individual lens caps over both the taking and the composing lenses.

The image above is of a sculpture in Milan's financial district. The building on the right is Italy's main stock exchange. Make of it what you will; at least it's honest.

Does Milan make sense in black and white? It's not really a gritty city; I'm sure that horrible things go on there, just as horrible things go on everywhere, but it's not an especially horrible place. Colour suits it more. Black and white makes sense for the industrial landscape of 1950s Pittsburgh, or the nightmare hellscape of New York. Not Milan, with its clean boulevards and masses of tourists and shops that sell expensive nick-nacks and women who look like Victoria Beckham, e.g. no hips.

The images were all stand developed with rodinal for an hour and a half. Fuji Arcos 100, a good solid film with no quirks. Street photography with a completely manual TLR is an odd experience. On the one hand, it's bulky and heavy and awkward to carry around, because it's a rectangular box without any ergonomic handholds. The chest-level viewpoint makes it awkward to photograph things that are at eye level, or below you, and as you can see from the images in this article it's easy to end up with lots of photographs where the camera is looking up at things from below.

On the other hand, no-one notices you. You just hunch over and there's a snick noise. It's as if you're taking a swig from a cup of coffee, or munching on a croissant, or whatever it is the hell they have in Italy. If you were a really hardcore street journalist you could, in theory, put the camera in a paper bag, and pretend to be drinking bum wine. Determining the correct exposure is easier than it sounds, because there are really only two values you need to remember; full-on sunshine, and in the shade. If the sun goes behind a cloud, check again. But generally the sun is the sun, it doesn't change.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Again with the music, and another live-in-the-studio performance:

This time with a Thinkpad X61. I've upgraded my music equipment so that I now have a pair of old Thinkpads, which I'll write about at some point. Here they are, with the characteristic Thinklights turned on:

On the right, a Thinkpad X60, which has a 1.83ghz Core Duo; on the left, a Thinkpad X61, with a 2ghz Core 2 Duo. They date from 2006 and 2007 respectively and are now about £100 or so on the used market in decent condition. Which is quite frankly staggering. I can remember when second-hand laptops were either (a) dire rubbish with a memory ceiling of 192mb that could just cope with Windows 2000 or (b) very, very expensive. The Core (2) Duo was a major leap in performance over earlier generations and can still cut the mustard, even though it's a generation old.

By modern standards they're faster than any netbook and not much larger. The 4:3 screens are a refreshing change from ubiquitous modern-day widescreen displays although the 1024x768 resolution is limiting. It's amusing to read contemporary reviews lamenting the lack of a built-in DVD drive! Nowadays of course physical media are old-hat. The X60/X61 have a dock, the X6 Ultrabase, which adds a DVD drive and (intriguingly) support for a second battery, but it's really more sensible to go up a size and buy a used T60 instead.

Here's Audiomulch running with a second monitor on the X61:

I've been trying to think up a "rock name", because Ashley Pomeroy is too square. So far I've come up with Hellflower St Germain and the Very Large Array. Lot more distinctive than bloody U2 anyway. No-one will ever mistake me for a spy plane.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Agfa Box Cameras

I have a big pile of medium format film. Let's stick it into some things. Here's an Agfa Synchro Box, let's stick it into that:

It has a face! If it could talk, it would say snoooo. The "eyes" are actually viewfinders - one for portrait orientation, and one for landscape. They're simple one-piece lenses with a mirror behind them that's really just a piece of bent, polished metal. The camera came to me with cloudy optics and cloudy viewfinders, but it's easy to pop off the front plate and clean everything up. The circular piece of glass in the middle of the camera is a dust cover - the lens itself is behind the shutter. The lens is a one-element design that fits onto the front of the film cradle:

The whole cradle comes out of the back of the camera, like one of those Russian dolls. The camera takes standard 120 film - none of Kodak's deliberately non-standard 620 nonsense - although being German the advert on the side of the cradle calls it B-2:

Agfa advert, or early Kraftwerk album cover? You decide. The Synchro Box was part of Agfa's long-running box camera range, which used the same basic design but added features over time; the Synchro version has terminals for a flash unit, which synchronises with the shutter. If you can find a flash that still works, look after it.

The Synchro Box produces 6x9cm negatives, which are six times the size of 35mm. The camera has a fixed shutter speed of roughly 1/30th, a fixed-focus slightly wide f/11-ish lens, and a pull-out tab that can select (a) a smaller aperture, which instinct tells me might be f/16, but who knows? comma or (b) a yellow filter, which darkens blue skies and is generally a good thing on sunny days.

The slightly awkward controls make it hard to take a picture without wobbling the camera, but with such a large negative a little blur isn't apparent unless you look really close. In the distant past the expectation was that people would make simple 6x9cm contact prints rather than paying for enlargements, and at that size you could afford to be sloppy.

I was slightly disappointed with the Synchro Box's image quality. I was expecting Holga-esque instant art, but it's much better than that. If you don't jog the camera when you're taking a picture the middle of the image is nice and sharp, with the edges becoming progressively blurrier. Here's a negative scanned at 3000x4600, followed by a 100% crop from the middle, taken with the yellow filter:

That was shot with Kodak TMAX 100. At ISO 100, with a shutter speed of 1/30th, f/11, you're overexposing on a sunny day even if you use the yellow filter, but TMAX has more than enough latitude to cope. If Agfa had made the pictures 6x6cm instead of 6x9 the image quality would be even better across the frame.

Still, the practical consequence of the little Agfa's decent image quality is that it makes more sense as an ornament than a photographic tool. The image quality is too good to be distinctively novel, but the camera is too limited to carry around all the time. Compare the above with this shot, which was taken with a Holga and demonstrates (a) strong vignetting (b) distortion (c) curious focus:

It's a really good trinket, though, because the design is so chic. Here's the latest Ikea catalogue, cover on the left, inside front cover on the right:

Spot the Synchro Box. Ikea do not put bad things in their catalogues. Only good things. Never bad things. Not sharks, for example, or wasps, or poor people.

In its day Agfa was the German Kodak, a film manufacturer that sold cheap cameras as a loss-leader for their range of films. The company came through the Second World War relatively intact, although their eastern arm was swallowed up by the Soviets and became East Germany's ORWO, which apparently still exists. Agfa's box cameras were replaced in the 1960s by the popular Agfa Clack, which housed the same basic specification in a curvaceous plastic case. The Clack is almost as popular an objet d'art as the Box, although the design language is very different; much cuter, more toy-like, less deco.

From the 1960s onwards Agfa concentrated on 35mm point-and-shoots, such as the Agfa Silette, although the company's focus was always film and optical equipment rather than cameras, which they stopped making in the early 1980s. Among the last gasps was the handsome Optima Sensor, which resembles a kind of value engineered Leica CL / Minolta CLE. The company eventually split up and sold its consumer film business in 2004, which went bankrupt a year later. Old stock Agfa film remained on sale for several years afterwards. Nowadays Agfa is what Kodak will be in a few years; a network of co-branded businesses that sell industrial optical equipment and services to other businesses, with a small sideline manufacturing film for the few specialist markets that still buy it. They still make aerial photography film, for example, which is intermittently repackaged into 35mm canisters and sold under the Rollei brand. The company also makes print film for theatrical distribution, but apparently no longer manufactures motion picture negative film; it was one of the pioneers of European colour movie film stock, and it remained popular with certain cinematographers right until the early 1990s (on Out of Africa, Gorillas in the Mist, The Mission, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - apparently it was very good with browns and greens).

Still, box cameras. The Synchro box takes eight shots per roll, which is going to cost you plenty unless you develop it yourself; I used this method of stand development with R09. The Box itself is tiny - in photographs the handstrap makes it look much larger, but in real life the strap is more a kind of fingerstrap - and weighs almost nothing, so it's not a bother to carry around. Metal. The fixed focus distance runs from about three metres to infinity - the near end is slightly too distant for parties or individuals, it's more of a family group shot type of camera. Here's a short film:

When poked by a hairy white hand the Afga Synchro Box makes a noise the end.