Thursday, 22 February 2018

Bomarzo, Monster Park I: Kodak Pro Image

Off to Bomarzo, to see the Parco dei Mostri, an attractive park dotted with monstrous stone sculptures created in the late 1500s. That's the late 16th Century. It always threw me as a kid that the 19th Century had years beginning with 18 and the 1900s were actually the 20th Century. The reason of course is that the years from one to one hundred inclusive were the 1st century, and the years from 101 to 200 were the 2nd century, although to confuse things a lot of people place the beginning of the centuries at the etc next paragraph.

I took along my Fujica Half, a half-frame camera from the 1960s. It has a selenium meter that still works, and it's small and handy and I like half-frame so why not. I also decided to try out some film I bought. Kodak Pro Image, a long-discontinued portrait film from Kodak, probably from the early 2000s:

What was Kodak Pro Image? That's a good question. There's almost nothing about it on the internet, nothing from when it was real. The packaging has text in English, Spanish, and what I assume to be Portuguese, so perhaps it was professional film made for the South American market; or for that matter the British, Spanish, and Portuguese markets, who knows. How it ended up in England, I know not. Mine was made in 2009 and is now out of date. What was Kodak? It was a huge company that made film and imaging products. It still exists, but for the most part it is now a faded sign that you see on top of magazine kiosks when you go on holiday.

Kodak still sells some film. Its official professional portrait film is Portra, which has never really grabbed me, but then again perhaps that's a good thing given that portrait film is supposed to be subtle. I can't really judge Pro Image because my rolls are ten years out of date and I can't tell how they were stored, but it has a definite orange-yellow-red bias, which makes sense for a portrait film.

Fresh from the scanner the images appear to have an orange warming filter slapped over them, not necessarily a bad thing. With a bit of tweaking the results can be made to look normal, but I like the orange. Bear in mind that I went to Bomarzo in February; Pro Image gives the impression that I went in summer and that it was pleasantly warm, whereas in reality the sunshine was harsh early-spring sunshine and it was cool in the shade. Sweet lies. Pro Image coped well with backlighting and highlights, which is one of the good things about negative film. It's ISO 100 but I gave it a slight boost because it's so old. There isn't a lot of grain, but then again it appears to be a relatively modern 100-speed film; film was pretty slick in the 1990s.

On a tangent, I've seen a few fashion shoots over the last couple of years that have film grain, but they were obviously shot with a digital camera. The grain has been added in post-production. Grain in the context of stills photography is a bit of an illusion. I remember seeing an exhibition of images by Eugene Smith, complete with the original negatives and some unaltered full-frame prints, and it struck me that the grainy look of black and white film wasn't just a function of pushing, it was also a function of cropping as well. Eugene Smith did a heck-tonne of cropping, and if you want to capture the grainy look of old film you have to bear in mind that even old film wasn't all that grainy unless it was pushed, and you're actually looking at extreme cropping.

Furthermore 35mm motion picture film is essentially half-frame, but with an even smaller frame because it had to accommodate the optical soundtrack, and furthermore the images you see in this post and throughout this blog are the end frame with no cropping, whereas films were always cropped a little bit during projection. I'm digressing here.

Bomarzo is a small town that trickles down from the top of a hill. It has a population of crows that swirl out from a castle and swirl back in again. It's spooky in a gothic horror way, especially given that the houses are mostly monochrome.

This was shot with my mobile phone. It illustrates one of the perennial problems with smaller digital sensors and digital photography in general; the sky is blown out, gone, and it's not coming back.

The town is off the beaten path, and perhaps because of that a lot of houses seemed to be for sale. I imagine it's a tricky commute, given the winding roads and general isolation. Getting there from Rome is difficult. I took the train to Viterbo, then a bus, then I walked to the park, then on the way back I took the bus to Viterbo and the train back to Rome. This chap has a very useful guide, which is in Italian but you get the gist. As before I relied on OSMAND on my mobile phone to show me the way; the OpenStreetMap data for Bomarzo even includes the special hidden zig-zag stairs that take you down from Bomarzo to the road loading to the park.

The walk from Bomarzo to the park involves going up into Bomarzo and then down into the park, but before reaching it my way was blocked by a landslide and I almost had to turn back:

In the end I found some planks of wood, and I rested them on top of the landslide and skated down the hill and ramped over the landslide and when I was in the air I did a cool backflip and landed again and continued downhill to the park. Some people watching me applauded and a cute girl asked for my mobile number which I gave her.

Viterbo, by the way, is a big road junction. There are no pavements and everywhere there are main roads packed with cars. The pedestrians are downtrodden. This is my enduring memory of Viterbo, and this is just one road junction of many:

From top to bottom a pedestrian crossing that leads from a broken pavement to a metal barrier; a load of cars; a garden gate that opens onto a busy main road, with a pavement - if it really is a pavement - that's just a painted line. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring came true, and exists today in Viterbo. I felt sorry for the people. Even the people in cars. They drive; but they are driven, by Moloch, who will never be satisfied until the people of Viterbo have destroyed their own souls.

Alternatively you could go via Orte, but I chose Viterbo because the bus terminates there, and there's an automatic ticket machine so you don't have to order a bus ticket from a human being. I learned from gazing out of the bus windows that rural Italy consists of groups of old men sitting around tables talking to each other while no doubt the women actually do all of the work.

Because this is the internet and the possibilities are endless I have decided to make the rest of this paragraph interactive. I'll provide you with some letters and you can re-order them as you wish, and at the end there's a chocolate bar. oaewekhi. cgtulihMuyohtwm ehdaaae emhaublroniEI pratprnlpshsn eeoodrdLoteharecgns'e itiho-thdi ubGwnesrItplehpa ttmhhaefh ogsOesincodtpi dlusre0iriiT ndldcpi; rd:deesarcgeaOu u2rodkudwss9eprsuarmrife5ecinTiensprttneooydwes. bakt boons enhchyglhb tunrm,btsnnthksp Brooyfteaoar ypwews,thruadadcjsfcishPstneytsefecr onolIiucrtioa i1dta gbo.edusfihhe rusFtateo fltcf Csk ahifeni oyeplrao phtefnieesan ilesocrge Pkuel uiebsbmctezee6oitpr yaanls [milky bar]:

That covers the history of the park. It's a pleasant wander for a couple of hours, smaller than I expected. Bomarzo has a small supermarket but make sure you buy drinks first because it's a challenging hike back uphill to Bomarzo. The park in theory has a little cafe area, but it was closed when I arrived. Entry is €10 which is very reasonable for something so photogenic.

The leaning house is a terror. The tilted floor is subtly disorientating. I wonder if sick building syndrome is caused by wonky floors; tiny errors in levelling that make people feel nauseous.

At this point I reached the end of my single roll of Kodak Pro Image. I sat inside the monster's mouth and changed to Kodak Ektachrome, which will be in the next post. It's interesting to compare the war elephant that I saw in February 2018 with the elephant pictured in LIFE magazine's shoot, back in 1965; the elephant is a little bit more eroded and more mossy, but in fifty years it hasn't changed much, so there's no rush to visit the place. It will be there, waiting for you, next year and the next.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Bramante Staircase, Vatican Museum

Today hello let's going to have a look we're The Bramante Staircase, although it's not actually the actual staircase; the actual Bramante Staircase was built in the early 1500s by Donato Bramante but isn't publicly-accessible whereas the thing that everybody calls the Bramante Staircase (not the real thing) was built in the 1930s by a chap called Giuseppe Momo, no relation, so I suppose technically it should be called the Momo Staircase (real thing), but there's already a museum called the MOMO and it would confuse people.

The not-really Bramante Staircase is in the Vatican Museum, which is where I was. I went there. I was there. I knew about the staircase and decided to photograph it with the Peleng 8mm fisheye lens covered in this post here, because the staircase is a big swirly enclosed thing that lends itself to a fisheye lens.

I'm a man! As a consequence the staircase's enormous symbolic value immediately jumped out at me because it's basically feminine, isn't it? It's a gigantic vagina. I explored its smooth walls; a man and his camera, sucked into the spiralling feminine vortex.

If I was in charge of the Vatican I would fill a bunch of barrels with pig's blood and pour them down the Bramante Staircase so that all of the visitors using the stairs would arrive at the bottom screaming and covered in blood, as if they had been born again. Some of the older tourists would die of heart attacks but that's okay because women are lethal. This post isn't going to be like the others because I'm taking more painkillers than usual.

The Bramante Staircase is duplex - it's essentially a pair of staircases arranged in a double helix, so that people going upstairs don't have to pass by people going downstairs. Catholics probably understand why. I'm not Catholic. Probably something to do with sin.

Unfortunately the uphill staircase is blocked off, so the whole thing is just a big waste of time and money. Giuseppe Momo is probably turning in his grave, but he did get paid (hopefully) and that's what matters. It would not be the only thing in Italy or indeed the world that doesn't work and was created entirely so that money could be transferred from one institution to another.

Kids are like that. Parents have kids purely so they can qualify for a council house, or so they can parade them on Instagram for "likes". The kids themselves are just a means to an end; no-one cares about them. Kids get to have their revenge when they grow up, but by that time their parents are senile old dead people, so instead they take out their rage on their kids, and ultimately the world is just a series of people trying to scratch their itch by taking revenge on blameless victims. And yet humanity continues, and will continue, so on a fundamental level it works.

NB There are other parts of the museum. Not just a staircase. It's quite big. I'm not a huge fan of classical art; the artists were commissioned to illustrate a narrow range of topics, either to impress the plebs or make the clergy feel good about themselves; the context is so distant as to be unknowable to contemporary audiences, with the result that the original meaning of the art is lost; if I approach the relics in a post-modern death of the author sense it still doesn't work because classical art is frustratingly straight.

I learn that the ancient Greeks believed erections were caused by an accumulation of air within the penis, a view challenged by Leonardo Da Vinci, who after dissecting a man who had been hanged came to the conclusion that erections were actually maintained by blood. Surprisingly for something of enormous vital importance the physiology of erections wasn't fully understood until the 1980s.

Entry is €17. There was no queue whatsoever when I arrived. Although the main entrance is signposted for tour groups only, it's the main entrance for everybody. You have to put your bag through a metal detector. When I was there the ticket counters didn't accept cards, so just in case I advise bringing some old-fashioned physical currency. There is at least one small cafe. I had a coffee, which was unexceptional, shown here with a spoon because I crave a measure of control over my life:

I have no sentimental illusions about Italy. The country has been gouging tourists for literally thousands of years. I imagine the modern Italians are irritated that so many people come to see the rubble of their past, as if modern Italy had nothing to offer; except of course it does have a lot to offer, e.g. pizza, nice scenery. The Vatican Museum(s) has(ve) an assembly line please-move-along quality. I found myself sandwiched between several tour groups, unable to break out of the trap, but isn't that true of life in general? We're boxed in by strangers in an unfamiliar environment, unable to break out.

I think I've finally calmed down. The museum has some contemporary works, linked by the theme of Christianity, although sadly Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles was absent. Because he is a modern Christ. The Jackson family gave him to the world, but smashed his sword before they threw him into the arena, and we watched him die.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, Rome

Off to Rome's MACRO museum to see Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, an exhibition of relics left behind by the popular psychedelic young person drug band Pink Floyd.

Following the deaths of original frontman Roger "Syd" Barrett and keyboardist Richard Wright - who floated off down the endless river in 2006 and 2008 respectively - the exhibition forms a kind of final cut of the band's story. In theory the band still exists, but it's now very unlikely that they will release any more music.

Which is a shame, because the band's two most productive songwriters are still alive. Unfortunately in the 1980s they fell out, fighting like animals to gain control of the Pink Floyd name, but despite the band selling far more that was a reference to More

despite the band selling far more records than any of the members individually they were unable to surmount the wall, that's right, the wall that had built up between them and even though they're now grown-ups they still can't stand each other. The exhibition ends with footage of the band performing at the Live 8 charity event in 2005, which reveals that the band can still kick out the jams but guitarist David Gilmour has become physically allergic to bassist Roger Waters.

Their Mortal Remains was originally staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum back in 2017, but I missed it because my path was obscured by clouds. How I wished, how I wished I was there! But fate gave me a second chance. While on holiday in Rome I saw posters for the exhibition, as if it was following me around. I thought to myself "ummagumma go", and so I went. Without further meddling I had a momentary lapse of reason saucerful of secrets division bell piper at the gates of dawn dark side of the moon delicate sound of thunder a nice pair.

I've missed out Atom Heart Mother. I always forget that one. Reason being that the lengthy title track feels a bit amateurish compared to what came later and the rest of the album is insubstantial. Terrific cover though. I can confirm as an English person born in England and having spent my entire life speaking English I have never, not once, not ever heard anybody use the word "ummagumma" outside the context of Pink Floyd. Perhaps it was a synonym for sex in the Cambridge area a long time ago. Not outside Cambridge.

I grew up in the 1980s, so for me Pink Floyd has always been top guitar wizard David Gilmour and his fat friend Nick Mason, plus twenty-five session musicians including an entire second drummer, all dressed in scrunchy oversized jackets like extras from the later seasons of Miami Vice, and they all looked incredibly pleased with themselves. Pink Floyd equals slap bass solos and saxophone; slinky backing vocalists in little black dresses.

On a commercial level the 1980s was a great decade for heritage bands. The likes of David Bowie and The Rolling Stones were finally free from the lopsided management contracts they signed in the 1960s, and a combination of mega-tours, CD reissues, a 1960s nostalgia boom and an ageing pop audience ensured that the rock dinosaurs who survived finally had the opportunity to make and keep a huge pile of cash, Pink Floyd included. The irony is that the band began the decade with The Wall, an intensely personal album that made a pile of cash, followed with The Final Cut, which sold less well but charted highly across the world. As with Peter Gabriel they seemed to have struck a balance between artistic integrity and commercial clout, but it didn't last.

I'm conscious of The Division Bell and Pulse being a thing, but for me Pink Floyd is a band I learned about in retrospect, long after it had all happened. I'm familiar with their music but I'm not a fan; I don't own any of their records. I went into Their Mortal Remains as an ordinary man suffering with foot pain and a trapped nerve in my right shoulder but I can report that the exhibition entertained me for two hours. If you have even a passing interest in the band you will enjoy it, although if you've read Nick Mason's Inside Out you won't learn anything. As with that book it avoids any hint of controversy and glides over certain parts of the band's history. In the world of Their Mortal Remains Pink Floyd is a band consisting of four or five chums who love each other very much, and always have.

A while back I saw David Bowie Is at the Victoria and Albert. That was in 2013, which frighteningly is now half a decade away. I have no idea if the MACRO's staging of Their Mortal Remains is on the same scale as the Victoria and Albert's original version of the exhibition; the captions are in Italian but everything else is in English. I like to think that a giant foam refrigerator filled with maggots transcends language.

A Farfisa Compact Duo MkII with a Binson Echorec tape delay unit. A lot of classic 1960s and 1970s synth music was actually recorded with electric organs and guitar effects, notably Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (no synth), Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air (no synth), Tangerine Dream's Zeit (a little bit of synth) and surprisingly Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene and Equinoxe (less synth than you'd expect). The entire Krautrock genre was, with a handful of admittedly highly visible exceptions, surprisingly un-synthy.
Floyd's most synth-heavy album of their classic period was Wish You Were Here, but most of the synth sounds on that record were actually made with a "strings synthesiser", a kind of electric organ that approximated a strings orchestra.

A VCS 3.

If David Gilmour is ever short of cash he can sell the band's collection of vintage analogue gear. The VCS3 in the middle was a huge positive influence on experimental electronic music - it was relatively cheap, and whereas most synthesisers were sold as conventional albeit complicated keyboard musical instruments, the VCS3 was marketed as a non-tonal sound generating source. It forced musicians to think about pure sound rather than melodies.

Back to the text. For the exhibition you have to wear location-sensing headphones, which feels appropriate given that Pink Floyd were a headphone band. The exhibition tracks your location and feeds audio into your head depending on where you stand. One problem is that you have to stand next to the thing you want to listen to, which is difficult if the exhibition is crowded; I remember gazing at the funky bit in Live at Pompeii while hearing someone drone on about the making of Dark Side of the Moon, which saddened me because I wanted to hear the funky bit from Pompeii. If the exhibition's creators were really on the ball they would work out which parts were most popular, and tweak the detection range of the headphones to suit, but I'm being picky.

On a more substantial level the exhibition has the same basic problem as David Bowie Is. There isn't a simple "this is what happened next" narrative. Instead the exhibition is a series of individual mini-presentations devoted to each of the band's albums, with a bit at the beginning and end for context, and a bit about the band's live shows. David Bowie Is had more about Bowie the man; Their Mortal Remains has very little about the band themselves, perhaps understandable given that their personal lives consisted mostly of collecting cars. The sad thing is that the band's most interesting member is dead, and was a recluse for many years beforehand; the band's second-most interesting member has already said everything he wanted to say. As a consequence the exhibition sometimes feels like a Hypgnosis / Gerald Scarfe / Mark Fisher / Jonathan Park exhibition rather than a Pink Floyd show.

Battersea Power Station was marked for closure in the mid-70s, and finally stopped generating power in 1983, a few years after Pink Floyd released Animals. For the next quarter-century it was a derelict occasionally used as a film location. Several plans to redevelop the site came to naught or half a page of scribbled lines, until 2013, when work started to turn it into luxury flats.
Over the last few years the iconic chimneys have slowly been demolished and then rebuilt - a nail-biting process, because what if the developers go bust? What if it's a big scam?
One consequence of the redevelopment is that the iconic cover of Animals can no longer be recreated; the view will be blocked by new buildings.

While I'm in a grouchy mood the exhibition's third problem is political; there's nothing about the Waters-Gilmour split and nothing about Richard Wright's dismissal from the band around the time of The Wall. Once you move beyond The Final Cut - which is presented as a postscript of The Wall - a big sign reveals that PINK FLOYD IS BACK! but when did they leave? Why are there now only three people in the band?

I'm suspicious of the long-haired person sitting on a block in the bottom-left. He don't look right to me. Who let all of this riff-raff into the room? I have no idea how Italian audiences reacted to The Wall, given that some of them in 1979 had actual experience of genuine fascism. Thankfully in 2018 we've got over that sort of thing; a combination of tight censorship, constant surveillance, correct education and strong anti-terror laws have destroyed fascism forever.

Syd Barrett wrote most of Pink Floyd's debut album and was their original creative lead. But he became increasingly withdrawn until the band decided not to pick him up for a gig in 1968. They helped him record a pair of solo albums but lost touch in the early 1970s.
In 1975 he popped into Abbey Road studios during the sessions for Wish You Were Here; he had put on a lot of weight and shaved his hair, and at a first the band didn't recognise him. He died in 2006.
He remains a tragic figure. Most rock casualties were basically wasters who over-indulged; it's hard to feel sorry for them. Barrett shared with Skip Spence and Peter Green an underlying mental problem that derailed his life and career.
Also, that's a lot of cigarettes.

There comes a point when the captions are too large to read comfortably and should be folded into the main text. Do I have anything else to say about Their Mortal Remains? It rushes past the pre-Dark Side albums but devotes a whole room to the combination of Momentary Lapse of Reason and Delicate Sound of Thunder, presumably in an attempt to give post-Waters Floyd a bit of weight. Dark Side itself is surprisingly under-represented.

Did I learn anything? Gerald Scarfe drew a picture of the band in 1974, years before working with them on The Wall. During the development of Alan Parker's film of The Wall there was a plan to use concert footage of the band. This was abandoned, but not before some of the Wall concerts at Earl's Court were filmed in 35mm with a professional team. The exhibition shows some of the footage on a monitor. The film hasn't officially been released, which is a shame because it looks absolutely awesome:

It stood out in particular because of the lens flare; the distinctive horizontal Panavision anamorphic lens flare is a massive digital cliche nowadays, and it's odd seeing the actual genuine thing in footage shot almost forty years ago. The exhibition also has footage from the obscure Final Cut video EP, which was also shot on film and looks pretty good as well.

I've never been keen on the message of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2". The members of the 1960s anti-establishment movement never seemed to realise that the education they so despised gave them the tools to express their frustration; the fight against ignorance and oppression is a fight, a constant unending struggle, and it requires discipline and a mastery of weapons.

Aw. That's Roger Barrett, not Waters.

Mark Fisher and Jonathan Park's architectural drawings give a taste of the complexity of The Wall tour, and also the difficulty of drawing circles in three dimensions.

As mentioned in the text I grew up at a time when Pink Floyd belonged to the past. The same was true of Hipgnosis; my design heroes as a young man were Peter Saville, David Carson, and The Designer's Republic, all stars of a later age. Hipgnosis' work has always looked dated and kitsch to my eyes, and I'm not being particularly mean to Hipgnosis; leading-edge visual design rides on a knife-edge of cultural context and always dates. Hipgnosis' ideas simply don't work on me as they might have worked on people in the 1970s.

What else? The exhibition runs from 16 January until 01 July 2018 at the MACRO in Rome. In theory you're supposed to book tickets online for a certain timeslot (that's how David Bowie Is worked), but I just bought a ticket from the front desk and strode into the exhibition. It costs €18. The MACRO is north of Rome Termini; I walked; there don't appear to be any other exhibits at the museum; the gift shop had vinyl represses of Pink Floyd's albums for €36 apiece, which is more expensive than buying them from Amazon; photography is allowed, but not flash photography.

The exhibition ends with a Sennheiser-sponsored room that has a quadrophonic stereo setup. A screen plays a video of the band's debut single "Arnold Layne" followed by "Comfortably Numb" at Live 8, which was their final performance together. Pink Floyd circa "Arnold Layne" were jolly people who touched each other; Floyd circa 2005 stood many feet apart on a large stage and looked very professional. The room has miniature little lasers and a smoke machine that try to recreate the band's live show, but the room was much too small for it to work and it felt a bit silly.

Pulse was a live album packaged in a little box with a flashing LED in the spine. The LED was powered by one or two AA batteries depending on the pressing; the exhibition's copy still flashed, but the LED pulses on for only a fraction of a second so I couldn't photograph it.

It struck me that Their Mortal Remains is like a set of DVD extras without the main feature. If I had been in charge, firstly I would have had all of the attendees put up against a wall and shot - purely to demonstrate my power - and secondly I would have split it into a two-hour documentary film of the band, plus a separate exhibition of relics, and I would have raised the price by £4/€4. The exhibition attracted 300,000 visitors in London and the extra money raised from the price hike would pay for the documentary. The film would be played on a loop; the visitors would be able to browse the relics until the film begins, or leave the film and browse the relics depending on their whim. It would need a really big screen and awesome sound, and I would have the smell of marijuana pumped into the theatre so that if anybody does light up, no-one would notice. At the entrance I would have the security guards ask the attendees if they had brought marijuana with them. If they said "no" they would be admitted, the end.

On a tangent, although David Bowie was an obvious choice for a lengthy retrospective the Victoria and Albert was originally going to base their exhibition on another, unidentified artist. Back in 2013 I wondered who it might have been instead; Pink Floyd was an obvious choice, but there are others, and I wonder who will be covered next. Bob Dylan has a lengthy track record but from the 1970s onwards he seemed to lose interest in the visual side of things and there are any so many times the audience can look at battered guitars.

The Tea Set, a proto-Floyd, did indeed record a cover of Slim Harpo's "King Bee". It's odd hearing Syd Barrett telling us that he's young and able to buzz all night long.

Madonna is the next obvious choice. Her career has a rich visual history spread over several decades, but it would be brave of the museum to cover her. The newspapers would inevitably moan that she wasn't a serious artist and that she was cheapening the museum. Elton John and Elvis Presley would face the same criticism. The Beatles would be the safe choice, but I feel that people are sick of them by now. Bjork stands out, but the exhibition has to attract a huge worldwide audience and Bjork has never sold records in the United States; a Bjork exhibition at New York's MOMA in 2015 was a notorious flop.

The Pet Shop Boys would be interesting, but do they have a warehouse full of props? Napalm Death and Death Grips could easily carry an exhibition but they don't have mass appeal. But why stop with individual artists? The Blue Note record label could fill a hall with awesome record covers; Krautrock is long overdue a large-scale retrospective; the likes of electro and early hip-hop lend themselves to an interactive approach, the end and it really is the end this time.