Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Kodachrome: A Mock Horde

There comes a point in a man's life when he spends more time looking through boxes of old things than he does buying new things. Today we're going to have one last look at Kodachrome. It's been dead for years and will remain dead forevermore. Kodak continued to make it until 2009, and it could be sent off for processing until 2010, but it had been a minority taste for some time. It ended as a niche within a niche. Landscape photographers switched to Fuji. The processing was too slow for newspapers. The average everyday ordinary man and woman used disposable cameras, which were loaded with print film.

I shot a few rolls back in 2009, to no great effect. My mind was elsewhere and I was out of shape. But a chance conversation drew me to the last few boxes from Lausanne, which I had in turn put into a box which was underneath some more boxes. Not enough images to assemble a narrative beyond their shared medium.

Barcelona - it was the first time that we met.

Kodachrome was famous for its longevity, its bold contrast, and its distinctive colours, which I think of as crisp. I was first exposed to it by National Geographic magazine, specifically a story that ran in the October 1981 issue, The Troubled Waters of Mono Lake". It had some striking shots of the lake's limestone formations, or tufa.

There is a scan of the article here; the first and particularly last images struck me most. I will only see a tiny fraction of this planet, my young self thought, and even if I could go everywhere, I would not be able to keep it.

In the professional world, Kodachrome would have been run through Photoshop, or whatever no-doubt-expensive custom-made predecessor photographers used in the 1980s, and so my memories of Kodachrome are not really of Kodachrome at all. All of these shots were scanned with an Epson V500 desktop and then processed so that they resemble the slide, held up to the light.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Olympus 24mm f/2: Emit Needless Words

Today I'm going to look at another old lens that I've used on a digital camera, but not with one of the film cameras that it was originally made for. And if God allowed me to ask him one question, it would be "God, a million years from now, which animal will mankind fear the most?" Let's assume that a million years of evolution will not cause all animals to merge into one species, leaving plants as our greatest nemesis instead.

See, I grew up with science fiction, and sci-fi tends to take the long view. Books such as Foundation and Dune concerned themselves with the far, far future, and I have always wondered what the world will be like many thousands of years from now. The slow pace of evolution is such that human beings will probably continue to look the same, although of course the advance of technology means that we will be able to augment and eventually replace evolution. So, in theory, we should have nothing to fear from the animal kingdom. But times change, and much that is learned is forgotten, and the Earth has limited resources, and a million years is a long time.

In The Time Machine H G Wells surmised that mankind of the future would - and I'm not being sexist when I say mankind, women will have a place in the future too, furthermore bear in mind that I'm trying to channel something of the late Auberon Waugh, a kind of affected fogeyism - that mankind of the future and of course God might be a woman. Mankind of the future will be optimised for sitting in chairs, as in Wall-E, with slaves to do our bidding, our minds addled by hamburger gases. I suspect that Wells was mocking contemporary society as much as he was predicting the future. He was an angry man who was unimpressed with so-called civilised society of his day.

Hey, so do I. How about we agree to live separate lives, never meet, and then die apart, having never made contact.

Ah, H G Wells. As far as my grandfather's generation was concerned, he was a major visionary for the ages. He had a humble upbringing but had made himself one of the world's leading pontificators, author of a popular history of the natural world and human civilisation and numerous polemics; he was one of the smartest men in Britain and by extension the world, because it was still our world. He was an advocate of one world government at a time when that seemed both inevitable and desirable, and he could telephone world leaders and argue his case if he so desired, because he had their telephone numbers. He probably called Stalin "Mr Stalin". He was, in short, the embodiment of modernism. Now he is just the author of The War of the Worlds and to a much lesser extent The Invisible Man. That he had a moustache is about all that most people know of him today.

I grew up with Monty Python's Flying Circus, and one of the things that struck me about it was the way that the Pythons played with the form of a sketch show. Episodes would end and then begin again, there would be a credits sequence ten minutes after the first sketch, the first sketch would go on and on and on until you wondered whether you were watching something else, dear God the final series was awful. John Cleese left, and it was just called Monty Python, and the sketches were extended out to fill the whole episode. The "RAF Banter" sketch wasn't bad, but it was for the most part totally bum slops.

By deconstructing the form of the comedy sketch show and shattering the boundaries between their programme and the continuity announcements, by calling attention to the structure of television, the Pythons became a fascinating illustration of Marshall McLuhan's theory that television itself was far more important than the programming. There is a parallel world in which Terry Gilliam become Python's dominant force, and the final series of the show consisted of arbitrary cuts and zooms over footage of anonymous actors reciting meaningless dialogue, and the show was broadcast twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and it was the only thing on television. Ever. And the children of today would know nothing else.

But you've got to keep pushing. It took the human race thousands of years to climb Mount Everest, assuming that one of the people who lived near Mount Everest hadn't already climbed it, and I suppose they didn't call it Mount Everest. Does the mountain have a name for itself? Mount Everest is too big to care about names. Its name is "I" in whichever language rocks use. Officially the Western nations abandoned the practice of human sacrifice many centuries ago, but people still throw themselves at Everest's unforgiving slopes. It's tempting to think of Everest as the cuddly big old bear of the mountain world, but it's still a killer. Like the scorpion being ferried across the river on the back of a frog, it cannot change its spots.

A chaotic jumble of angled shapes, a brutal visual assault of vicious diagonals. The central thesis of Understanding Media is that we are shaped more by the nature of a medium than by its content; a good film might move us and perhaps motivate us to buy some plastic merchandise, or visit a war grave, or (in the case of pornography) find a comfortable clean sock, but this is transient. Film as a whole shapes us, alters us in a fundamental way, and prepares us for the medium that will replace it. I can't tell which is the dominant medium circa early 2014. It's tempting to pick the internet, but television is still gigantically popular and a lot of people barely use the internet outside work. In some respects the internet - and if we're being pedantic, I mean the world wide web, you don't see that phrase very much nowadays - is a post-McLuhan phenomenon, in the sense that it is simultaneously hot and cool. Facebook demands interaction, and is thus hot, but Reddit is (for the vast majority of users) a passive, cool medium. The internet includes, and excludes; it simplifies, and complicates; it shuts people up and gives them a voice.

Back in the 1970s all of the major camera manufacturers had a range of posh, fast wide angle lenses, typically a mixture of 24mm and 28mm f/2 designs and a 35mm f/1.4. Nikon had a 28mm f/2 in the pre-AI years, which was kept on during the AI period, although it tends to be overshadowed by the 28mm f/2.8 AIS. I have the impression that these old fast lenses sold in tiny quantities and never developed much of a following. There's almost nothing on the internet about the subject of this post, for example. Canon eventually pushed the envelope with a 24mm f/1.4 lens during the FD era, and nowadays f/2 isn't all that special. Here's what the 24mm f/2 looks like:

PASSED, that's nice to know. The 24mm f/2 was launched during the early days of the OM system, in the mid-1970s. It remained on sale until at least the mid-1980s. Judging by Google Books, in the first few years of the 1980s it sold for around $300, vs $150 for the regular f/2.8 model, vs $80-90 for a plain 50mm f/1.8 from Nikon or Canon. It's still useful nowadays on Sony NEX and APS-C-type cameras, where it becomes a sharp 35mm-ish f/2.8 with a special emergency f/2 setting.

Three years ago, when I compared it with an Olympus 24mm f/2.8 on a Canon 5D MkII, it was sharper than the f/2.8 in the middle at f/2.8 and generally superior or exactly the same at all other apertures. On the positive side, that's good for the f/2, because the f/2.8 is a very good performer; but on the other hand, why not save some money and buy the f/2.8 instead? The extra bit of a stop is neither here nor there.

Scanning back up through this article you can see that it has purple fringing with backlit subjects even on film, and you really need to try hard to make the foreground subject pop out at f/2. It focuses very closely, and apparently has a close range correction element. 24mm is wide enough to have a distinctive look, and it can get visually monotonous. Distortion-wise it has very mild bulge in the middle with moustache-type wings in the corners, which is mostly unnoticeable.

I used three films. Fuji Superia makes red look like clotted thick blood, as per the very next photograph. Kodak Portra 160VC makes red look a little pink, as if it was fresher. Portra is designed to shoot human faces, which have blood in them. So much blood.

Kodak Colorplus - "the slag of all films" - renders red as the kind of washed-out blood that zombies would have. It should really be called Kodak Colorminus, amirite?

Because it isn't very colourful. The shots of the "before I die" board above were taken with it, and astonishingly it doesn't even seem to render black and white properly; you'll notice that each of the images has a slightly different colour balance, because I was trying to wrestle something good out of it.

The Heygate Estate still stands, although you can't get close to it any more. Someone expects to become very rich when rich people move to Elephant & Castle, which is no doubt why the estate is being demolished; I suspect they're going to be very disappointed.