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!