Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Imperial War Museum

Off to the Imperial War Museum, which has recently been redeveloped. They have dug an extra level out of the floor, so that the interior space is now taller. "Dig-down extensions" are popular with the residents of London, because it's a clever way of creating more space without extending the building horizontally. It's also a good way of creating somewhere to house the serving staff - they're doomed if there's a house fire, but they're probably not on the electoral register, so they're basically not people, right? - and if you're a Russian gangster it's a good place to put your torture room.

Compare the headline image with this shot I took back in 2009, and notice how the distinctive entrance doors used to lead straight into the hall, without any steps:

That was shot with a Contax 35-70mm, the other images were taken with a fisheye lens, and then I digitally stretched them out with a powerful computer whilst listening to ambient music. The exhibits have been rejigged, and because it was the opening day everything was packed, so I only had a chance to skim the surface. Skim the surface and photograph it. Photography is all about surfaces. Unless you are an endoscoper, in which case you do in fact go under the skin, literally so.

The museum now has a large exhibition on the Great War, with some nifty new screens. It is the hundredth anniversary of the war. We won! The National War Museum, as it was then called, was founded in 1917 in order to document the Great War. I wonder if the name irritated the people of Australia and New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Their sons died as well.

The building was constructed on the site of the former Bethlem Royal Hospital, a mental institution colloquially known as "bedlam". The atrium extends behind Bethlem's main building, which is the brick wall in the above images. It was opened in 1920 and given a makeover in the 1980s that added a new glass roof. Now the roof is obscured by a suspended floor, which is handy from a photographic point of view because it equalises light levels in the atrium.

This is Jeremy Deller's "5 March 2007", a car that was blown up in Iraq.

A cross-section of the new interior. A pedantic nerd might point out that the Spitfire model is wrong - it's one of the later marks, with a pair of 20mm Hispano cannon - but I am too urbane for that. Yeah, but which would win in a fight? The Harrier or the Spitfire?
The Harrier, obviously, because it's significantly quicker, it accelerates faster, it climbs at 50,000fpm to the Spitfire's 4,000fpm. Its 30mm Aden cannon would blow the Spitfire into shreds with a single hit. In theory the Spitfire's 20mm Hispano would ruin the Harrier pilot's day, and perhaps the Spitfire could evade the Harrier once or twice, but after doing so the Spitfire would have bled off a lot of speed. At that point the pilot would have to react to a threat approaching from an unexpected direction at a closing speed of 400mph.

The Imperial War Museum has a fundamental problem, one that has grown with time. When the museum was new, the British Empire was one of the driving forces of current events. It had a globe-spanning economy kept safe by the Royal Navy, which was larger and better than the competition and would remain so forevermore. At home, British novels and films had British heroes doing British things for British people, and we liked to believe that the average foreign person knew who Lord Palmerston was, and looked to Edward, Prince of Wales, for style tips.

But over the course of the twentieth century the British Empire burned out, and now we are hangers-on, guests at the top table. On a cultural level, British stars are successful in America by imitating Americans, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned Britain is a small set of national stereotypes, of no more importance than France or Germany, which in their own way suffer from the same post-imperial malaise. On an economic level there is a sense that we sold a lot of family silver to have the world's sixth or seventh-largest GDP, and that as time goes on we will fade fast. Without scale, or natural resources - the Royal Navy was built with British wood, and then powered with British coal - or a massive superweapon, or anything, what will Britain be a hundred years from now? What have we got? What will we have? And when we had it, what good did it do us? The British Empire paid for a lot of grand buildings and created a lot of peerages, but for the average British person life was six days of exhausting work, families living six to two rooms, and an early death from black lung. And for many of its subjects the Empire amounted to a series of insults and occasional massacres.

There are elements of the museum that will mean nothing to the tourists that make up the majority of its visitors - the large space given over to The Troubles would not pay its way if the museum was a commercial organisation - and conversely there is very little about (say) Vietnam, or the shooting of Osama Bin Laden, because they did not involve Britain.

Britain has managed to involve itself in most of the meaningful conflicts of the last half-century, although in saying that I ponder the question of meaning. Some of the conflicts covered by the IWM are meaningless outside Britain, although they were important in their own way; and some are covered by the IWM only because they had British involvement, not because they were objectively important. Eventually there will come a conflict that is objectively important and meaningful for the IWM's visitors, but has no obvious British involvement, and the IWM will have to decide whether to abandon the whole Imperial thing in order to avoid leaving a big blind spot in its coverage. Otherwise a hundred years from now it will have no visitors, because no-one will care that we sent fifty soldiers to help out the people of Haiti following the great storm of 2057 etc. Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis stand out as the most recent historical examples of meaningful, potentially world-changing conflicts that had no British input; the Tom Clancys of this world no doubt imagine wars to come along similar lines. In the 1990s it was fashionable to imagine a war with China, perhaps over Taiwan, or a second Korean war, and I struggle to see what good the Royal Navy could do in such a situation.

As I write these words forces affiliated with Russia appear to have shot down an airliner over Ukraine, but this kind of thing has happened before. During the Cold War there were numerous airliner shootdowns, and despite the looming threat of global nuclear war nothing happened. Nothing will continue to happen. White nations do not war against each other on their home territory any more. There is too much at stake, too many meaningful lives on the line. At the end of the Second World War the lower-class people of Britain who had actually done the fighting rose up and voted for a Labour government, a proper old-fashioned Socialist government, and in a brief burst of sentimentality the Establishment allowed it to take power; that will not happen again. There are instead designated conflict zones in which the wars take place, so that the people are meaningless and their deaths likewise.

The Imperial War Museum is just around the corner from the Heygate Estate, a popular filming location that I have visited a few times. Alas they have finally knocked it down, years after promising to do so. The problem is that poor people lived there, and if you have neither money nor weapons (which cost money) and good leadership you're at the mercy of other people and the environment. Unless there's a larger organisation that will fight for you - a political party, say - but such a thing does not exist in Britain today. And so the people of the Heygate Estate were moved out and it was knocked down, so that the people of the newly-constructed Strata building would not have to see them.

There, then

Here, now

A little slum has grown up in the Strata building's shadow, where people sell car bits and cheap chicken.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Mamiya 70mm f/2.8: Two Pianos

A while back I wrote about the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9, which was the Mamiya 645 system's big star lens. It was unusually fast for medium format and surprisingly affordable as well. 80mm is a normal field of view in 645, and the 80mm f/1.9 was very versatile, albeit that the bokeh was quite rough.

The early 645 system had two other standard lenses. There was the 80mm f/2.8, which usually came with the camera, and the 70mm f/2.8, which was a specialised choice aimed at professional portrait and wedding photographers. Its gimmick, and raison d'etre, was that it had a built-in leaf shutter.


Leaf shutters are blown across the stormy bay can synchronise with electronic flash at all speeds, which is important if you're shooting portraits in daylight. The 645 system ordinarily uses a focal plane shutter, which is mounted in the body of the camera. The most common type of focal plane shutter has multiple blades that sweep quickly over the sensor, and when people talk of focal plane shutters they're almost invariably talking about this kind of shutter. Most modern cameras use this system, because focal plane shutters can fire at very high speeds, up to 1/8000 for the best. The downside is that they can only synchronise with electronic flash at 1/250 or so. Older cameras synced at lower speeds, and the focal plane shutter in my mid-70s Mamiya 645 1000S only syncs at 1/60.

This isn't a problem if you never use flash, or if you use flash as your sole light source, if for example you're shooting in the studio. It does however become a major problem if you want to photograph a person outdoors in the sunlight, balancing flash and daylight. The archetypal outdoors daylight portrait looks something like this:

Ektachrome 160T / 35mm

The lovely Loren is lit from behind by the sun, so that her hair is lit up, just like the Bee Gees on the cover of their classic album Spirits Having Flown. That's the album they released just after Saturday Night Fever. It has "Tragedy" on it. The inside gatefold has a good example of slow-speed flash sync, which is another flash-related topic entirely. Suffice it to say that you can learn a lot about flash photography from studying album covers. And that's the 70mm f/2.8. Goodbye.


... lit from behind by the sun; it was a bright sunny day. I had the lens wide open in order to blur out the background, which meant that I was probably using 1/2000 or something similar. The problem is that without lighting up Loren's face, she would have been a dark silhouette. I needed to light her face. But how? One solution is to have an assistant hold a reflective panel just out of shot, but this is awkward if you're shooting a large group portrait, and difficult if you don't have a well-trained assistant. This paragraph takes place in an alternative timeline from the preceding paragraphs, one in which I tried much harder not to digress. The rest of the article uses this timeline, which I call E+1. If you have read this far, you are now living in E+1. Your family and friends no longer exist, you are not you any more.

Another alternative is to use bright constant light from a spotlight, but this requires a portable generator and a van and some power cables and clamps and a crew. And if you have access to a portable generator and a van, and some power cables and clamps, and a crew, why bother photographing people? You could probably make more money bundling pedestrians into the van, and threatening to have your crew clamp them to the generator unless they give you their bank details. You would be a modern-day pirate. A road pirate, with a van.

Provia again, for the first time

You can have a lot of fun with an electrical generator and clamps.*

Alternatively you could use flash, but if your camera only synchronises with flash at 1/60 you can't shoot at 1/2000 any more. You have to shoot at 1/60, which means stopping down to f/16 or something horrible, or fiddling around with neutral density filters on the lens, at which point you're focusing and composing in semi-darkness.

For the shot of Loren I cheated and used technology. My old Canon 550EX has a high-speed flash sync setting that pulses the flash several times at the camera's top sync speed. Most modern flash systems can do something similar. But before electronic trickery existed - I believe Olympus came up with the idea, in the 1980s - 1/500 was just about the best a photographer had. At that speed I would still have had to stop down, but only to f/4 or so, which is a lot better than f/16.

For the purposes of this post all of this information is basically irrelevant, because I only used the 645's focal plane shutter. In fact I didn't buy the 70mm f/2.8 for the shutter at all - I find that 80mm feels just slightly too narrow in 645, so I wanted a slightly wider normal lens. I don't plan on ever carrying the 70mm to a portrait shoot, it's too awkward and too wide.

* The humour here comes from the fact that this line spills over from the previous paragraph into a paragraph of its own, as if I had become so enamoured of the idea that I was unable to keep it all in, metaphorically speaking.

Ektachrome EPP

Mine was cheap because the aperture blades are sticky. I have to toggle the stop-down lever a few times before they work, but in practice I shot most of the images in this post wide open, or I used the lens' MMU setting, which keeps the lens stopped down. The lens is nigh-on forty years old, and I imagine the lubricant has started to gum up. At this point a repair is uneconomical, and I'm wary of opening the lens in case I destroy the leaf shutter.

On an operational level the lens feels a bit of a kludge. It doesn't disable the 645's shutter, which fires as well as the leaf shutter. You have to set the 645 to 1/15 or similar, and when you press the shutter button the 645's shutter opens, then the leaf shutter opens and closes, and then the 645's shutter closes behind it. If you set the leaf shutter to "F" it remains open, and you can then use the focal plane shutter as you would normally.

The leaf shutter is essentially silent, but this doesn't help because the 645's shutter still fires, with a distinctive loud FLOP sound.


Ergonomically the 70mm's shutter cocking mechanism is as good as can be expected, with a pair of grips around the end of the lens. The procedure is laborious - and remarkably similar to the RB67, in that winding the film and cocking the shutter are separate actions - but I can imagine it becoming second nature. You wind the camera, twist the shutter, fire, wind the camera, twist the shutter, fire, repeat.

There's almost nothing on the internet about the 70mm f/2.8. Until the late 1980s it was the system's only leaf shutter lens, presumably intended for bride-and-groom shots. For the M645 Super, Mamiya introduced a 55mm f/2.8 (for group portraits), an 80mm f/2.8, and a 150mm f/3.8 (for head-and-shoulders). As far as I can tell there were no leaf shutter lenses for the autofocus 645AF, but the idea was reintroduced with the modern 645DF digital medium format system, which has a range of leaf shutter lenses, including a zoom.

Mariah Carey and Morrissey. I would pay money to see them do a duet.

Old 645 lenses can also be adapted for your modern digital camera, in which case the 70mm f/2.8 becomes a... well, it becomes a bulky 70mm f/2.8 with a built-in shutter that you can't use. Is that what you want? There are shift adapters, but do you want a 70mm shift lens? Do you? Hmm?

Provia 100

On an optical level I don't have a problem with the 70mm f/2.8. I used it purely as a standard 70mm. The shots on this page were almost all taken at f/2.8, using the 645's shutter. The bokeh seems smoother than that of the 80mm f/1.9, but still not particularly smooth; it has quite a bit of vignetting at f/2.8; if there's any CA, I couldn't see it; sharpness was just fine in the middle, still pretty good at the edges.

On an emotional level I still prefer using square format, as in this post about Mamiya's 6x6cm twin lens reflexes. 645 has the same 4:3 aspect ratio as Micro Four Thirds (and old-fashioned televisions) and feels a bit staid. I'm supposed to hold the opinion that aspect ratio is unimportant, and that what really matters is the brilliance of my compositions, but there's a reason Hollywood went with wider aspect ratios and stayed wide. My position is that a dramatic composition in a novel aspect ratio is more interesting than a dramatic composition in an over-familiar aspect ratio, and I'm sticking with that. Why is it more interesting? Because human beings are arbitrary, irrational creatures.

Many years from now, when people are sick of Instagram and widescreen - imagine being sick of Instagram! - 4:3 might well seem new; but I am living in the present. I write about the here and now, and individual people, the microscopic; not masses and not the future.

Thursday, 3 July 2014