Monday, 10 June 2013

Bencini Koroll: Kill Robin Once

Kodak TMAX 100

In the last couple of posts I've had a look at the Holga, a cheap plastic toy camera from the early 1980s that was embraced by hipsters in the 1990s. It's an unusual example of a retro novelty toy that actually has a genuine pedigree, although even when it was new it was an anachronism. I was curious to see how it compared to a cheap camera from the even-more-distant past.

Ilford Delta 100

To this end I journeyed back to the 1960s, back before I was born, which was a terrifying experience. Exploring the great empty void that came before the awakening of consciousness is very much like being dead, and it takes a strong - or very simple - mind to contemplate death without falling into a deep depression.

Epicurus maintained that the eternity of a man's death was identical to the eternity that existed before a man's birth. Not endless heaven, but instead endless unconsciousness, with the sadistic touch that the twin processes of coming to life and dying do not mirror each other. Consciousness grows slowly, but ends quickly, and the subject is aware of the fate that awaits him.

Heavy Metal Holga, shot with a Mamiya RB67 using Ilford 125

And there is no escape. Contemplate an immortal man. One who is not just long-lived, but indestructible. He will live to see the Earth die. There is the concept of the heat death of the universe, which is the most plausible view of the future. It holds that although time and the universe itself may continue to exist forever, the universe of objects and things will not. The Big Bang only created a certain amount of order and although there are trillions of stars in the universe they will eventually use up their fuel, radiate away all their energy, and die.

The same will happen to black holes, over an unimaginably lengthy period of time, because black holes also radiate energy, albeit at an extremely slow rate. The expansion of the universe will ensure that far, far into the future the remaining matter in the universe will be spread so thinly as to be immeasurable, with perhaps a couple of subatomic particles shuffling about once every trillion trillion years.

As an immortal person you would live to experience this. From your point of view life will have consisted of a tiny moment of happiness with your fellows on Earth, followed by a longer period during which you watched your home planet become increasingly uninhabitable. Then you were floating in the vacuum of space, your frozen body enduring unimaginable pain for all eternity. Your eyeballs will have long since frozen or burst, and you will be blind, deaf, dumb, unable to breathe, essentially a consciousness floating alone in space. Put like that, death seems preferable.

So, whenever anybody asks you if you fear death, look them in the eye and say "on the contrary, I crave death, for I have seen the end, and it is unimaginably bleak". In fact, the next time anybody asks you any question at all - are you hungry? do you think that football stadiums should have terraces? would you like a carrier bag? - just look them in the eye and say "on the contrary, I crave death, for I have seen the end, and it is unimaginably bleak". That'll shut them up.

I digress. This camera that taunts me with thoughts of the end. Of course, immortality is impossible. An immortal man would consume an infinite amount of energy over the course of his life (which would be endless). Where is this energy going to come from? What would this man feed on, as he floated in space? So ultimately it's impossible to draw comfort from the notion that the alternative to death is even worse, because a counter-example that is just a fantasy is not a valid counter-example. There simply is no alternative to death.

Ilford Delta 100

Start again. There's a dearth of information about the Bencini company in English, but if you can read Italian, or can tolerate Google's translation of Italian, or indeed if you are Italian then there's a thorough history here. Bencini was founded after the Great War by a chap called Antonio Bencini, who got his start in the war by repairing early aerial reconnaissance cameras. He set up business in the post-war period and moved to Milan in the late 1930s, where he started selling cameras under the Bencini name. An even greater war intervened, but Milan came through relatively unscathed. It was bombed, but was far enough north that the war ended before the ground fighting reached it.

After the war Antonio handed the company to his son, Roberto, who designed the popular Comet, an all-metal 127 camera. The Koroll was cut from the same... hewn from the same ingot as the Comet, and... not literally the exact same ingot. The Koroll was based on the Comet's design, but took 120 film. Why Koroll? I have no idea. It's a person's name, but it could also be Italian slang. Probably for an attractive woman.

The Koroll II was launched in 1962, and in the UK it was sold by Boots, a popular chemist that your mum visited a lot when you were young. It was priced at £4 17s, according to an article in the British Journal of Photography, Vol 109. Was this a lot? I have no idea.

Bencini's cameras of the period had polished, die-cast aluminium bodies, and I have to wonder if there was a lot of scrap aluminium going around at the time. From the perspective of 2013 it seems odd that such a cheap camera would have so much metal - nowadays metal is generally associated with quality. Perhaps there were still lots of metalworkers and metalworking machines. The Koroll's removable back plate is metal, and the body is encased in a very thin strip of leatherette material. The only plastic components appear to be the viewfinder and the fake "lightmeter", which is just for show:

Seriously, it does nothing at all. I assume someone at Bencini decided that the extra cost of the plastic part, plus the two screws that held it in place, and the alteration to the camera's mould would be outweighed by increased sales. You'll notice the accessory shoe, which has no electrical contacts; the camera doesn't have a PC socket either, so you won't be using studio lighting with it. Unless you rig up some kind of sound-activated flash - which won't work, because the shutter is almost silent.

The camera was sold with a screw-in hood, some filters, and an optional mock leather case. I have the impression that it was a bit of a con, aimed at gullible people who thought they were getting a proper camera. By 1962 the Koroll was falling behind the curve, and within a few years it was an anachronism, using an anachronistic film format. The compact cameras of the 1960s had primitive auto-exposure, and used smaller, cheaper film. In fact the Koroll is really just a simple 1930s design in an updated case.

Fuji Acros 100

The Koroll is essentially a kind of metal Holga, but slightly more flexible. It has a simple lens that scale focuses from four feet to infinity, with a choice of three shutter speeds (B, 1/50, 1/100) and two apertures, f/9 and f/16. On a sunny day you can set the camera to 1/100, f/16, and with ISO 100 film the exposure should be roughly correct. Switch to f/9 when you're in the shade. 1/50 is perfectly feasible if you have a steady hand, because the shutter is surprisingly smooth. You don't have to cock it, you simply press the button. There's no audible indication that the shutter has tripped, you just have to have faith.

The Koroll uses an odd, non-standard frame size. It's essentially a half-frame 120 camera, or more accurately half-width, three-quarters height, with the pictures tall-wise. Let me take your eyes by the hand and I'll show you what I mean:

Instead of twelve 6x6cm shots per roll, you get twenty-four 3x4.5 images, with the same 3:2 aspect ratio as a 35mm negative. The images are vertical, like a half-frame 35mm camera. Why the odd frame size? Bencini's Comet cameras shot 4x3cm images on 127 film, and my guess is that the Koroll is simply a Comet body modified to fit 120 film by extending the base downwards a little bit. The Comet's lenses probably had enough coverage for the extra 0.5 cm, so I imagine the two cameras used the same shutter and lens assembly. The end result is more economical than most Box Brownie-type cameras, because you get many more shots per roll.

The Koroll has a metal mask that chops the frame down to size. If you remove the mask, the coverage looks like this, with the original frame marked out in white:

Scanning is awkward because of the non-standard frame size, and so I scan the entire plate in one go and separate the images later on. Or not, in some cases, because the juxtaposition of frames is fascinating, as if you were looking at screen captures from a film. Like Sans Soleil or (specifically) The White Diamond, a documentary by Werner Herzog that has a balloon in it. As a PC person I remember the Apple G5 being released to much fanfare, touted as a supercomputer that fit inside a desktop case, and then there was silence, and then Apple had abandoned the entire PowerPC line in favour of a move to Intel processors.

That has nothing to do with cameras, but when I'm writing I build up inertia like a flywheel and it has go somewhere. Can't stop. Paper-backed 120 film has frame numbers for 6x6 (12 shots), 6x4.5 (15, or 16 shots), and 6x9 (8 shots). The Koroll uses the numbers for 6x6. In order to count twenty-four frames the Koroll has two little red windows on the back plate. You wind the film until the frame number appears in the first window. Then you take the shot, and wind the film so that the same number appears in the second window. And then you take the second shot.

In practice this works, although if you're sloppy you end up with overlapping frames:

There's nothing to stop you from making multiple exposures. The simple, uncoated glass lens is optically superior to the plastic lens in the Holga. It has very mild barrel distortion, and it's passably sharp in the centre, although it doesn't cope very well with flare.

Fuji Acros 100

Ilford Pan F 50

If it was 6x6, the 55mm focal length would be wide, roughly 28mm in 35mm terms. Cropped down to 3x4.5 it's normal, 45-55mm or so.

When I bought it, my Koroll was jammed at infinity focus, but a squirt of WD40 fixed that. Are the shutter speeds accurate? I wouldn't expect a cheap, fifty-year-old camera to be on-the-dot perfect, but the negatives I developed were dense and I assume that the shutter speeds are near enough.

Used Korolls cost very little on eBay. Half a century later they still look much posher than they really were. But the image quality is problematic. Like the Agfa Clack I tried a while back, the image quality is almost too good. It doesn't really have a distinct personality, unlike the Holga. Images shot with a Holga are instantly recognisable, whereas the Koroll produces picture that could have been taken with any camera. And as a hipster trinket, the Bencini suffers from being an obscure name. There isn't a Bencini cult, and no-one remembers the cameras nowadays. Old people perhaps, but you don't want to hang out with old people. With a fellow hipster your conversation will go like this:

"Hey, cool camera! What is it?"
"It's a Bencini Koroll"
"Oh... right. Never heard of it. (pause) Still, shiny!"

Nonetheless it is undeniably good-looking in a kitschy way, and the vertical format is intriguing, and it still works after all these years, so on a romantic level I like it. In the great battle between romance and practicality the Koroll ends up in the middle.

Virginia Woolf is unimpressed by the Post Office tower. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but... come on, the symbolism is pretty obvious (rolls eyes).
Perhaps in a parallel world where men are in charge, the wall has a mural of Ernest Hemingway glancing scornfully at a... sucking swamp, or a field of corn, or something woman-y.

Why did I take a photo of Rathbone Place? It's where Your Sinclair was written, in its (very) early days. The moon? The Pacific Ocean?

What happened to Bencini? How did the company fight against the inevitability of death and failure? Bencini is mentioned in a 1975 publication called Marketing in Europe, where it is said to employ 200 people. Sales of the Comet are described as being in decline due to competition from the Agfa Rapid and Kodak Instamatic. Bencini survived the 1970s by selling cheap plastic 126 cameras, but by that time there was nothing to differentiate the company's products from a dozen other, similar camera manufacturers, and of course competition from the Far East was eating up the lower end of the market. The last gasps seem to have been the NK 135, a 35mm compact that looked like a cross between a Holga and a Leica R8, and a series of cute but slightly dated-looking minicompacts. In 1984 Bencini was bought by a company called Cafer, and the name gradually faded away until, by 1990, it was gone. Antonio Bencini had passed away by that time, it's possible that Roberto is still alive.

In the UK the Bencini name means nothing, although the Comet seems to have sold quite well. In general Italy isn't famous for its camera industry, and as far as I can tell Bencini was the last major Italian camera manufacturer that tried to crack the mainstream market. Italy's thriving fashion industry has given photographers plenty of interesting subjects, but it seems that the only surviving Italian camera manufacturer is Silvestri, which makes posh large format view camera systems. Until recently a company called Ferrania made cheap film - it was grainy, but the colours were nice - although they seem to have gone out of business of late.

So, let's raise a glass to Bencini. The company came, and went!

Friday, 7 June 2013

Jocular Foil Hog

Rage hard / into the light
in the words of Holly Johnson

In the last post I had a look at the Holga, a toy camera from the 1980s that became very popular with hipsters in the 1990s and remains so today. If the 1980s was a decade of perfectionism and gloss, the 1990s was a decade of scuzz and Super 8 and slackers and slack, and the Holga fit right in. It captured a society that had grown disillusioned with the notion of progress; it captured a new generation that stripped away the old rules, looking for new answers in one another's arms. What followed was a decade in which they won, and we lost. There was a test, which we failed.

The plastic lens and limited exposure controls lend themselves to black and white film, which is very tolerant of incorrect exposure, but there's nothing to stop you using colour film as well. Only your tiny limited mind and bedridden fingers and the ever-present fear of vampirism.

For all the shots in this post I used Fuji 160, which is roughly correct for overcast conditions, perhaps slightly underexposed. 400-speed film is more popular, especially e.g. Fuji 400H, because it easily tolerates overexposure (and actually becomes more saturated the more you pump it). Outside of England there is sunshine.

Colour actually makes the Holga's lens look even worse, because it shows up the truly astounding chromatic aberration. In black and white the Holga's dreamy look resembles something from the Victorian era, whereas in colour the Holga is revealed as a cheap plastic disposable camera. For this reason cross-processing slide film is very popular, in part because it looks fantastic, but also because it hides the grim reality of colour fringing.

Next, Milan.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ata Ata Holga Hulu, Ham Tot Zoglo Hulu Hulu

Today we're going to have a look at the Holga, a popular novelty that I (surprisingly) haven't written at length about yet. The Holga is a rare example of pre-internet hipster culture that has survived and thrived in the internet age. In fact, with the rise of Flickr and Instagram and Tumblr and so on, it's even more prevalent than it was, although nowadays the Holga is more an idea - a look, a set of filters - than a physical imaging system. The fiddliness and expense of shooting with film puts people off.

Most of the images in this article were shot with Kodak TMAX 100, developed at home with R09. I bought my first Holga in the late 1990s, but it was a cynical decision. I couldn't afford a digital camera at the time, and it seemed a waste of money buying a 35mm film SLR, because film was on the way out. Nonetheless I needed to keep up with a trendy crowd, and the Holga was the most cost-efficient way of doing so.

It's easy to forget, but the 1990s was a poor decade for film cameras. The Spotmatics and Canonet GIII f1.7s that people generally think of when they think of film photography were long-dead. Even in the 1990s they fetched a surprisingly steep price on the used market. Instead film in the 1990s was all about APS, and disposable cameras, and compact cameras with f/5.6-11 autofocus zoom lenses, and everything was futuristic, in a way that has dated terribly. In the 1990s classic style was old hat. There were a few attempts to recapture the timeless looks of the past, but they were horribly misguided, viz the Nikon 35Ti, which had little dials on the top. My memory of photographic technique in the 1990s is that you were supposed to shoot with slide film, and bracket everything, and if you weren't shooting the same scene five times in a row you weren't a proper photographer. You were supposed to shoot test rolls to make sure that your batch of film was up to snuff. And you had to wash your film before you developed it. It was the age of the Nikon Pronea S and the Minolta 800si, non-entities then and now. Photography had a fin de siècle quality about it that permeated Generation X culture; a sense that everything had been done, that the problem had been solved, but we still weren't happy, and all that was left was decadence and trinkets. As decades go, the 1990s was totally bum slops.

You might not remember Generation X. The kids of the late 1960s and early 1970s grew up and entered the job market at a time of unemployment and recession, after having been promised the Earth. The punks said that there was no future, and gleefully awaited the end; Generation X saw an endless pointless mediocre future in which nothing ever happened. "It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same."

Not all of them died of heroin overdoses or self-inflicted shotgun wounds, but the survivors aren't doing so well. You know, if they had picked up arms and slaughtered everybody over the age of 50 - instead of just moping - they would now be the bastards in charge, but instead they're just as poor and unemployed as they were in the 1990s. You, my children, don't make the same mistake.

In a way the Holga was just another decadent trinket, but that was fine by me because I was a product of my time and loved decadent trinkets just as much as the next man. It's just that the Holga was within my price range. Generally hipsters don't like to talk about money, but it underpins everything they do, and everything they are. You can't be a hipster without having access to a lot of money. Actual poor people - of the old school - can't afford to buy the latest gadgets and fashions, and this was even more problematic in the late 1990s, because the latest gadgets were proportionally much more expensive back then. If I had bought an actual poor person's camera to the table I would have been mocked and shunned, because there was nothing ironic about cheap instant cameras, nothing cute about them.

A Holga, however, was a guaranteed entry ticket to hipsterville, and it didn't cost very much at all. In fact the camera was cheaper than the cost of buying and developing a couple of rolls of 120 film. The interesting look was a bonus.

If I had pressed the button a split-second earlier, the cyclist would have been in the frame. That moment will never come again, and I'll regret it until the day I die. God set up the shot for me, and I blew it.

And it does have an interesting look, although it's a bit of a one-trick pony. It would be easy to dismiss the Holga as a faddish pile of cynical crap if it wasn't for that fact that it pushes the right buttons. I'm reminded of the famous Japanese drawing of a woman being ravished by an octopus. It's so wrong, on so many levels, and yet the fisherman's wife doesn't seem to mind. Of course, she's not real; the only real person getting a sexual kick out of that scene was the man drawing it, who was a man. But the point still stands. It would still stand. If I could remember what it was. Sometimes beautiful flowers grow from infertile earth. Cherish the flower.

Nonetheless a trawl through some Flickr groups reveals slag heaps of monotonous, near-identical Holga images produced by people all around the world. Taken in short bursts they're fascinating, but eventually the effect becomes tiring. The look was a cliché even in the 1990s. The June 1996 issue of Popular Photography mentions it in disparaging terms, and it's interesting to see that the practice of illustrating a camera review with just four really crappy photographs is not a new development:

It seems that rubber bands were fashionable in America. I have always used masking tape. No doubt in Japan they tie their Holgas up with string, like something from the world of Nobuyoshi Araki (or perhaps they use octopuses, I just don't know). Oh why does everything have to degenerate into tentacle porn? It's the chilliness that puts me off, really. I've never thought of octopuses as being particularly smelly creatures, but they're cold to the touch and that's a passion killer.

Popular Photography's writer ignores the Holga look entirely, and assumes that people were drawn to the camera purely because of its worth as an artefact, fancy that. The other popular criticism levelled at the Holga is that it was overpriced for what you got. In the 1990s there were scads of used Kodak Brownies and Agfa box cameras available for even less than a Holga, but in my experience the look isn't comparable. Genuine vintage cameras are, if anything, too good, with fewer light leaks, sharper lenses, and flatter film than a Holga. Indeed I was a bit disappointed by my Agfa Synchro Box for this very reason.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, when people think about the look of vintage photographs they're really thinking about the look of prints, faded and torn by time. The thing that makes vintage photographs vintage isn't the photography, it's time. Time and distance. Our vision of the past is filtered though a distorted lens. The Holga is a kind of photographic time machine, it produces negatives that look like ancient prints.

The early history of the Holga is sketchy. Searching through Google Books, the earliest picture I could find of one is from an advert in the March 1990 edition of American Photo:
From an advert for the Maine Photographic Resource, American Photo, March 1990

It's not the first appearance of a Holga, though - a flash-equipped model is listed in an advert for New York's Cambridge Camera Exchange in the February 1989 Popular Photography. For $39.95, which seems high.

I fucking love The Simpsons.

Who made the original Holga? Wikipedia cites a source that identifies a "T M Lee" and dates the original design to 1981, but this sounds like bullshit. The rest of the internet simply repeats these two facts like a big electronic parrot. And yet after Googling for a while it seems that Wikipedia is broadly correct. "T M Lee" is actually Lee Ting-mo, who designed the Holga for Universal Electronics Industries of Kowloon, Hong Kong. The Chinese market for cheap medium format toy cameras had been displaced by posher 35mm models but luckily for Universal Electronics Industries the Holga became a favourite of artsy photographers in Europe and America. The company's bacon was saved by plastic.

Who runs Britain? Hint: it's not you.

Plastic bacon. UEI now shifts 200,000 Holgas a year, which isn't bad at all. Is the Holga you can buy on eBay an official Holga, or a clone? Mine doesn't have any manufactuer's marks, either on the camera or anywhere on the packaging, so for all I know Mr Lee is totally penniless and bitter, and curses the morning.

I have owned two Holgas. My first was a 120S, which I bought in 2000-ish. It had a single shutter speed, a switchable aperture, and a hot shoe. It came with a plastic mask that slotted into the body that masked the frame to 645 (vertical), but in those days it was almost de rigueur to remove the mask and shoot without it. With the mask in place the images had sharply-defined edges and were cropped to the lens' sweet spot - which almost defeated the point - whereas with the mask out the edges were fuzzy and undefined and blurry and messy:

The mask also helped to keep the film flat. There were several popular modifications at the time, and a couple of them have been officially folded into the Holga's design. Thus my modern Holga has a tripod thread, a choice of 1/100th or bulb exposure and a 6x6 mask, which helps to block out light leaks and keeps the film flat whilst retaining the square format. I generally shoot with the mask in place. Scanning software generally works best if it can see the edge of the frame.

One other thing. My first Holga came in a generic blue cardboard box, whereas new Holgas have hipster graphics on the packaging. Which feels wrong, in a way; part of the Holga's appeal comes from the sense that we are subverting something unselfconsciously pure, whereas the hipster packaging gives the game away. Does that make sense? It's like finding out that your favourite singer didn't learn to sing by serenading doves in a misty field, she instead went to stage school.

As you can see, it focuses, although the depth of field at f/13 is such that it's very basic. Despite being made of plastic the lens is surprisingly sharp in the middle. It becomes blurry towards the edges, and this - combined with the vignetting, the chaotic lens flare, the creased film, random streaks of light etc - is what gives the Holga its charm. In the right hands the central sharpness and strong vignetting are powerful compositional tools, naturally drawing the eye to the middle of the frame. Some Holgas have a glass lens, although this seems to be of no real benefit. The optical viewfinder is designed for the 645 mask, and if you use the 6x6 mask - everybody does - the coverage is very conservative.

There's a line of flags opposite the Houses of Parliament. Each one represents part of the British Empire. The flags are supposed to be impressive, but you look closer and see that Tristan da Cunha has a flag to itself. No offence to the people of Tristan da Cunha, but a whole flag?

My first Holga had a broken aperture mechanism. The switch moved a little arm into place behind the lens; the arm was supposed to have a little aperture, but the factory hadn't installed it. For years this was the way Holgas were made. Modern Holgas now include an aperture, which means that there is (at last!) a way of controlling exposure beyond using different film speeds. The lens is f/8, permanently masked off to f/13, with the aperture arm stopping it down further to about f/20.

In practice this still doesn't give you much control, and ultimately I just don't bother with a lightmeter. Print film has a lot of latitude. All of the London shots in this article were taken with 100-speed film on a mostly overcast day, and they were underexposed a little bit, but Photoshop can work wonders. 400-speed colour film is more than sufficient for the daytime outdoors; if you're indoors, give up. The Holga has a flash hotshoe, but the narrow aperture will defy auto-thyristor flash units, and it seems wrong somehow to calculate flash exposure with a Holga. As if you were taking it too seriously. The lens has a focal length of 60mm, which is roughly 28mm-ish in 35mm terms, slightly narrower.

The camera is cheap, but it uses film, which can be problematic. By the late 1990s medium format film had become firmly established as the professional's film of choice, and I remember that development was not straightforward. The typical local camera shop had to post it off to their central laboratory. The alternative was to use a professional lab - Joe's Basement in my case - but that was expensive, and a lot of them were very snobbish about taking film from ordinary people off the street. They are mostly gone now (including sadly Joe's Basement, who weren't snobbish at all). Posting stuff off was tricky because there was a dearth of good postal photo developers in the UK at the time. Fortunately the field has expanded; out of habit I use Peak Imaging but there are others that I would be happy to advertise (hint). The imperfect quality of Holga images is appealing if you plan to develop the film yourself, because there's no pressure to get things right.

In Holga-land there is no right. Everything is wrong. And it feels good.