“We did the exact same things when we were young”, I said. I’m sitting in a café with a friend of mine who I have known for over 30 years. Our conversation started with some observations about how the cheap cars of our youth, in particular our first cars, had become really expensive in recent years. A combination of nostalgia and the dwindling numbers of examples due to rust or accident damage, had meant that a late 1970s Ford Fiesta or Escort (our cars) are now fetching thousands of pounds, even in poor condition. While we both enjoy our own nostalgia, he with computer technology and I with vintage cameras, we quickly got around to talking about how dangerous those old cars would be in the hands of young people today. With virtually no safety equipment, a crash didn’t need to be all that serious to cause major injury or death. The kids today, a phrase that I’d never thought I’d use, didn’t know how to drive safely according to us oldies. Every night, they race around our little town as though they were in the Fast & Furious franchise and, in the case of a few recent incidents, have caused some serious accidents. The thing is, we were young and very stupid once, having driven those old cars as if we were immortal. Now, in our 50s, we see the world very differently.
I’ve known for a while now that I’ve gone from a largely grumpy man to a grumpy old man with, despite my best efforts, more in common with Victor Meldrew than I would like. With increased mileage on the clock, my perceptions of things that used to be familiar have also changed. With the driving, I used to drive way too fast in cars that weren’t designed to cope with it, and I remember the thrill of doing so. Now I drive a campervan, which does go a lot faster, but I naturally lack the inclination to reclaim my youth.
A few days after the meeting of Malvern’s very own Statler and Waldorf, I was reading an article about cinema releases of the year so far. It expressed a view on the best and worst films of the year, which I generally find interesting because of the rationale that such articles use in creating their lists. In this piece I was more concerned about the repeated use of the word ‘iconic’. This director is iconic, that actor is iconic, or the film is an icon of the genre…etc…etc. The icons in question were related to a superhero franchise (no names), and I found myself both disagreeing with the use of the word but also considering why it was so prominant in what was only a few paragraphs. To someone of my generation, the fantasy-action genre of filmmaking goes back decades and includes some of the earliest ‘big screen’ representations of superheroes, such as Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), and I would consider those to be iconic for their innovate use of cinematography and special effects, as well as their novelty. However, they were building on earlier television representations from the 1950s and 60s, so should those be some thought of as more iconic? Let’s consider what the word actually means. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition is “relating to or of the nature of an icon; regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration”. There’s that word ‘representation’ again, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. We all consider representation differently, more so as we get older, and art continually evolves because of this. In the case of photography, there are many examples of how a genre evolves with its audiences. Classical landscape photography which originally documented and captured the beauty and power of the natural world, evolved to represent more complex relationships between nature and man. These works can be considered iconic because they served to change the way we see our place in the world. However, even they are being surpassed by contemporary ideas about the space we occupy. In the case of the modern superhero movies, they have actually defined a genre of their own which is something the earlier films from my youth couldn’t lay claim to. Therefore, they are iconic to the younger generation.
So, why did the overuse of the word bother me so much? Simply put, I think it’s lazy to go around assigning that label to anything that we think is special or really good. I accept that the use of the word is a personal thing, but could the author of the article really be that excited by something that it warranted the label ‘iconic’? Maybe. I guess if they had thought about the wider cultural context of their subject, what specifically made it ‘to be venerated’ etc, then it would work. This got me thinking about a camera in my collection that I consider to be truly iconic; the small but mighty Olympus Trip 35.
The Trip 35 has an excellent lens for a point-and-shoot camera
If you’ve never seen one of these cameras before, have you been living off grid? This little camera was released in 1967 and was in production for a staggering 21 years, during which time over 10 million units were made. An entirely mechanical camera, it offered the photographer an extremely simple way of shooting without compromising on build quality or needing a power source. The Trip 35 is what’s known as a ‘viewfinder camera’, which means that focus is achieved by manually judging focus distance rather than using the viewing optics as in an SLR or rangefinder system. This wasn’t an uncommon method in the 1960s, but the Trip’s zone focusing system made things much more convenient than setting focus using judgement alone. A selection of ‘subject options’ could be selected ranging from single portrait (close-up) to landscape (infinity) on the lens. Metering was taken care of by a selenium cell that required no batteries to power it, and the camera would take care of everything else. These aspects, and its compact size and weight, made it a great camera but there was one thing that made it iconic from my perspective. When I first became interested in photography, the Trip 35 had been in production for 15 years, so they were probably enjoying their peak popularity. In fact, I regularly meet people today who have one in a drawer somewhere at home or were left one by a parent or grandparent. It wasn’t the first camera I remember my dad having, but it is the first one I remember not having to sit still for when a picture was being taken. I’ve never been comfortable being photographed, which is why I’ve pushed myself to shoot self-portraits for my studies. Imagine being that shy as a child and having a photographer for a father! The Trip’s true point and shoot operation was noticed by the younger me as a real winner. Unlike the cheap (and often fairly nasty) 110 cameras that I was using, the Trip was a proper 35mm camera that took proper pictures. Fast forward 41 years and I have one in my collection that I must say is the easiest and most enjoyable camera to shoot with. It’s perfect for street photography passes what I call The Wedding Guest Test. Whenever I go to a wedding, I try to take the smallest camera possible, because lugging a giant DSLR around is a pain in the arse. I could take an expensive rangefinder model, but then I’d continually worry about where I might have left it. The Trip fits the bill being compact, relatively inexpensive and easy to replace. It's also particularly good if paired with a mini flashgun. Yes, it doesn’t have any of the convenient technology of modern equivalent cameras, but it was fully automatic, thanks to that selenium light meter (that textured glass bit on the lens) and being mechanical, could be serviced of repaired easily. I’m not the only one who celebrates it either. There is a growing community of Trip 35 shooters, people who customise their camera’s appearance with brightly coloured skins, and some who even refurb broken units for resale. With some many produced, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of spare parts available. For me, the camera invokes my earliest memories of photography, and perhaps it could be credited with starting my interest in it. It’s an interest that became a passion that continues to this day, with the little Trip 35 still playing its part. That makes it an icon to me. Perhaps we need a new word, though, for the iconic fatigued. How about an Olympus instead? Just thought.