L’œil du Cyclone

Dear Reader, some of you might know that I don’t live too far away from Nantes and that I can be found wandering the streets of Nantes with a camera, or sitting in the pub talking with friends. So, nothing new here then.  You might not know that I sometimes publish said photos of Nantes, and even the pub, with friends of course, on Instagram.  I also sometimes go out and participate with other photographers in what is usually a solitary pastime. 

Nantes Grand Angle, a sort of collective of photographers from Nantes, often has events (with local partners) that want to get their event onto the local social networks and get some “viral” publicity.  The game is you go to the event and then talk about it on your social accounts and people might be interested thinking well, he went to see this, why don’t I go along too.  It’s the basics of social marketing. 

Why do I usually see photography as a solitary pastime? Because I get a certain amount of social anxiety.  For most extroverts, those pushy people that are in favour now, the word “mingle” gives them a buzz that they seem to thrive on.  I, as an introvert, find the words “new people”, or even the idea of “meeting new people”, “social”, or “mingle” just fill me with dread.  It’s akin to going on one of those terrifying rides at the fair. It’s scary, thankfully doesn’t last very long, leaves you feeling empty, very awkward, sheepish, and makes you want to run away as soon as possible.  sonds like my sex life on a good day.

So against my better judgement, I confronted my fear, and went on an outing with Nantes Grand Angle.  I could always just stay at the back and be subtle and try to fade into the background.  It also meant that I would visit a new place, Le Lieu Unique, which as its name might suggest, is certainly unique!  The Lieu Unique also contains the Tour Lu (sans T pour le jeu de mot de merde en français, et oui, je suis rendu à ce point là !)  It originally house the LU biscuit factory (des petits beurres de LU, which is another pun for the Happy Birthday song).  Dear Reader, I apologise for the years of therapy that you will need to get over that last paragraph.  It’ll teach you to speak French!

Right, back on track.  The Lieu Unique, which indeed is unique as the name suggests, houses not only an exhibition for introverts to take photos of for social marketing, but a bar, a reading room, a bookshop, and if I’m not mistaken, a hammam, as well as a whopping great tower.  It is a hothouse of culture where you can get fed, drunk, steamed, and get some culture, leading to the acquisition of a little intelligence! Maybe, depending on the order you do each activity.

I was there with my fellow photographers, some of which were annoyingly extrovert, to live the experience of Art from Taiwan in the “Eye of the Cyclone.”  The Lieu Unique boss, had, uniquely, gone to Taiwan in 2018, had been to an exhibition at The National Museum of Fine Arts of Taiwan, and had invited some of the artists to come to Nantes and show their work, purely an artistic venture.  Since 2018, the world has changed not only through COVID, but also because China would like to get its hands on Taiwan for economic reasons and political ones.  Taiwan came to the front in modern terms when the Kuomintang government who lost to Mao’s Communists, fled Mao and fled to the Island of Taiwan, setting up a new independent government, that China still hasn’t gotten over and is still very upset about.

In the early 1960s, Taiwan entered a period of rapid economic growth and industrialisation called the “Taiwan Miracle».  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ROC transitioned from a one-party military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy with a semi-presidential system. Taiwan’s export-oriented industrial economy is the 21st-largest in the world by nominal GDP and 19th-largest by PPP measures, focusing on steel, machinery, electronics and chemicals manufacturing. Taiwan is a developed country, ranking 20th in GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in terms of civil liberties, healthcare, and human development.  Again, something that China isn’t overjoyed by.  So as you can imagine, such an exhibition is as much political as artistic.

So now we have set the scene, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.  The expo itself.  I admit not knowing a huge amount about Taiwan, however, since visiting the expo, I have read up to find out more about its history and culture.  It’s Chinese but at the same time properly Taiwanese. I will include official links to the expo and the English documentation at the end of the article.  But what I really wanted to do with this article was to talk about my experience of the exposition and the way the exhibits left their mark on me.

The first exhibit, Exhibit A, or Battle City – Scene, by Chang, Li-Ren, model, just blew me away with the complexity of the modelling and the realism recreated in model form.  The artist came over for the oeuvre installation and I can imagine a rather rotund Asian chap on all fours adding details to his masterwork.  Not based on reality, but the artist just wants to give an impression of what Taiwanese urbanism looks like.   There are cars, housing, and motorbikes, but the whole place is devoid of people.  It’s very eerie, yet totally fascinating and a photographer’s dream.  The whole thing is massive (7600mm x 8100mm x 2600mm), and the attention to detail is fascinating.

Exhibit B, Future Shock, by SU Hui-Yu, video, talks about a dystopian future, unfortunately, a not-too-distant future according to the artist influenced heavily by the American author Alvin Toffler, where people are drowning in information, and unethical technologies.  Maybe it’s happening already?  Definitely though provoking and frightening in equal measure.

Exhibit C, Braindead travelogue, YUAN Goang-Ming.  At first, you have the impression of traditional Chinese brush art, but with non-traditional means, like using markers, but also gold and jade.  From the centre of the painting, shoot out 10 disks of images showing the artist marking his territory in the landscape.

Exhibit D?  I’m going to keep the rest of the exhibition secret, because the idea is that you go and have a look yourselves, especially if you live in Nantes!  Did you really think that I would or could reveal all?  No!  Leave them wanting more!!!  Oh ok, you can have a few more pictures, but that’s your lot.  Go down there and have a look.  It’s free to visit; and you won’t be left unmoved…  You really get a feel of what life is like in the “Eye of the Cyclone.”

Links and all that:
Le Lieu Unique
Nantes Grande Angle
The documentation in English (pdf file 0,99Mo)

I would like to thank Nantes Grande Angle and our guide, Tanguy, not only for his welcome to the uniquely Lieu Unique but also for his great expertise. The poor man even had a look at this blog to see where I would publish my write-up. Brave too, and probably already in therapy. I hope I have done him justice!

The FED 5

Back in 2009 I had a camera that died on me.  It might only be a camera to you but to me it was everything.  It was my first camera.  I was heartbroken.  To those of you mocking me, just think back to your first car and to your first accident in that car.  Alright, you may not be shedding a tear you unemotive bastard, but you might just have the smallest of inklings about my loss.  It was my fist camera that had taught me the basics of photography, and since 1987 had been a relatively constant companion, and part of me.  My son now has it on a shelf looking pretty damn cool on one of his shelves.

It was at that time that I had come back to film from digital.  Why bother using filters that would emulate film photography when you could get the same thing straight out of camera without going through the rigmaroles of messing around in Photoshop to get that result?  At that time, although digital gave me a lot, there was something missing.  Like most of us I was looking for something authentic. 

I went to the camera shop to see if anything could be done to repair my camera and bring it back to life.  With hope I entered the shop that would become a familiar haunt, and had to face the brutal truth.  My Praktica MTL3 was dead.  It had passed on, this camera was no more. It had ceased to be. It had expired and gone to meet its maker.  It was a stiff.  Bereft of photographic life.  It was resting in peace.  It was pushing up daisies.  Its metabolic processes were now history.  It was off the twig.  It had kicked the bucket.  It had shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bloody choir invisible. IT WAS AN EX Praktica MTL 3!  Any similarity to a Norwegian Blue parrot pining for the Fjords is a mere coincidence!  So I asked him if I could buy the one in the display cabinet and he said of course I could and that yes it was a little expensive, it came with a 6 month guarantee, and here was a film for it, and no mention of Bolton or Ipswitch.  Although not exactly the same it was a purchase that set me off on a series of events that lead me to “collecting” a certain quantity of cameras.  It was either that or becoming a lumberjack. 

Through YouTube, articles on the net, and my own research, I learnt about some of the iconic cameras that I never had, and at that stage, the hipsters hadn’t bought up everything on EBay and you could still get something very decent for un £50, which now of course might set you back between £150 to £200!  So I was very fortunate to start collecting when I did.

On the famous YouTube, and its infamous photography videos that I still seem to watch on a regular basis, I went down the rabbit hole of specialising in film cameras.  There was one guy, called Matt Day, who waxed lyrical about his Leica M6, and how much he loved using it to take images from his everyday life.  I started thinking, could this be my next acquisition.  And then I started looking at the prices that these things cost.  Megabucks, which is something that I don’t have and even if I did, such a purchase would be grounds for divorce.  It’s cheaper to keep her, as the classic Rhythm and Blues (before it became R’nB) so wisely reminded us. 

Therefore, what is the difference between my new old Praktica MTL3 and a Leica M6 I hear you say. Well, both are German.  One is a classic camera from a West German manufacturer, and was the gold standard of 35mm cameras from pre war times right up to the modern day, and was a rangefinder, the other one being a relatively cheap and yet very solid SLR from the old East Germany.

So both were made by the Boche, one further to the left that the other.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a video  must be worth two thousand words! Earlier I talked about a certain Matt Day, well here is a video of his from last year talking about the differences.  I’ll let you watch it, and then we will be both on the same page!  I can tell you’re impressed.

Soooooo, I wanted to learn about a rangefinder and see how they worked out in real life.  But, as I said earlier it’s cheaper to keep her, so I was going to have to find another way of doing things.  As many photographers on a budget but wanting to get some half decent materiel, I looked East, towards Mother Russia.  Communism is messed up, but it did leave some rather solid cameras, and to the rangefinder aficionados, the names Zorky, and FED will be familiar.  The Zorky looks very vintage, rather sexy and exclusive with its Cyrillic writing on the top of the body, but I was not comfortable about using a camera without a light meter.  The Sunny 16 rule should be easy enough to follow, and with the latitude that black and white film photography gives you, you shouldn’t go too far wrong, but I was being stubborn, which is so out of character for me. 

I moved on to looking at the FED 5, especially since I had found one for only 15€ imported directly from the Ukraine, which at the time was not at war or hadn’t been annexed either by Mother Russia.  Oh you naughty boy Vladimir!!

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first.  The FED 5 was produced in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov from 1977 until 1990.  It is a 35mm format rangefinder camera, with interchangeable lenses with a Leica M39 screw thread, (mine has a 35mm f2.8 lens, which is great for street photography).  It has a focal plane shutter, shutter speeds of 1 second to 1/500th of a second, bulb mode, and the flash sync speed is 1/30th of a second.  What more could you ask for.  The film loading is similar to the Leica where you remove the base of the camera, load your film etc. and then put that base back on.  Because you know that it’s about the bass, ‘bout that bass no treble…

To do the metering you have to put your faith in the selenium cell light meter, on the top right of the front of the camera.  This will give you a reading on an EV meter on top of the camera next to the “calculation wheel”.  One dial is for the speed of you your film.  Now don’t go looking for Din, ISO, or ASA, but look for GOCT, or GOST. 90 GOST is 100ASA, 180 being 200ASA etc.  For 400ASA I just turn the little dot to the S in GOCT.  It’s one of those Soviet things that is just a quirk of this camera. This will give me a reading on the outer dial with my shutter speeds and F Stops combinations to nail that exposure! 

As with other Soviet-era rangefinders, the shutter-speed selector rotates when the shutter is released, and this should not be changed “until after” the shutter has been cocked. If you change the shutter speed before you cock the shutter first, the setting pin can be broken when you advance the film and cock the shutter!  Don’t even bother trying.  I never have, and it still works today!

Focussing is easy which is always something that catches my eye, no zone focussing, and it’s slightly different to the SLR.  As you saw in the video, there is a ghost image in the middle of the viewfinder and as soon as that ghost image disappears, it means that you have focussed successfully. 

Anyway, I paid my 15 Euros and a Ukrainian camera arrived two weeks later in an original box which is still in a display cabinet in my hallway.  The leather case still smells of leather! So I tried the damn thing out.  Worked out how to load the film which as completely foreign to me but still doable and not too demanding even for me.  It is supposed to be the street photography camera par excellence for a few reasons.  Firstly it looks pretty sexy around my neck and the leather is top notch without necessarily having a leather fetish, but each to his own!  You can use zone focussing with the lens as you can see at such and such an F-stop, the part of your photo which will be in focus is shown on the lens.  There is no mirror that slaps up, and the camera is relatively silent, and can be used to close to your subject and get that trendy and yet timeless street portrait.  Shooting from the hip. 

I can hear you saying, well thank you Ian for all this information.  Really great, and almost useful.  But pray tell, is it any good?  What’s it like to shoot with?  Is it worth me looking into? Can I buy you a Leica M6 for your birthday? 

Well Dear Reader, let me address your interrogations.  Firstly is it any good?  It is definitely slightly sexy and certainly looks the part! I wasn’t used to the focussing of a rangefinder but found the focussing to be spot on.  I’ll let you have a look at the photos and let you judge!  What’s it like to shoot with?  Once you get used to the way a Soviet camera functions it’s actually pretty neat!  What I do like is being able to get my exposition without having to look through the viewfinder.  You know that you’re going to be spot on, and indeed I was.  That’s half the battle won, which is what we’re all about.  It works mate, it works!  You need to be able to get that sot that you want and I think that’s pretty simple to do.  Is it worth me looking into?  All depends on what you’re looking for.  If you can get one for a relatively cheap price then get one just to try out; you can always sell on.  I certainly have no regrets and it’s still in my collection which just goes to show you!  Can I buy you a Leica M6 for your birthday?  Who am I to refuse such generosity?

The photos in this article were taken in Montaigu, Vendée  in 2016 and feature my daughter.  The film is Illford XP, which is a black and white film that is developed with colour film chemicals and processes.  C41 for those in the know.  It’s always strange seeing photos from nearly 6 years ago and I remember that outing with my daughter as if it were yesterday.  It was one of the ways I used to cope with my depression.  I might not know what day it was but I remember taking each photo.  We all cope in our own individual ways I suppose…