Bronicas and Robot Friends: What I Did Last Summer

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Bronicas and Robot Friends: What I Did Last Summer

I thought I was losing my curmudgeon status for a while there. I woke up in the hospital halfway through my vacation, and for the next ten days I was just happy as a pig in mud. For the first five days, the hospital gave me a nice adjustable bed to sleep in, and what do you know, I didn’t feel like doing one darn thing except lie there in it, regardless of whether I was asleep or awake. They also provided me with an on-demand morphine pump, which I thought was awfully Aldous Huxley of them. I was grateful whenever the nice nurses paid attention to me, and I even thought the food was savory. Of course, it helps if you haven’t had any food at all for three days prior. "Hunger is the best sauce," as my French-cuisine-loving Dad always said.

The second night I was in the hospital I got a nice roommate. He was rolled in on a gurney and then, and I mean this literally, rolled onto his bed — rolled, because all the nurses and attendants together couldn’t lift him. In horizontal position, he looked like a round-topped mountain. Shortly, he began to snore.

Now, friends, I love the English language, but it is an anemic thing. It is pale and ghostly. Single nouns must serve to dispatch the most amazing actual events from life. Take the word "snore" that I just used, for example. A good enough word; a descriptive word; a well-understood and communicative word. And yet it is at the same time hopelessly impoverished when it comes to describing the noises my roommate made. These are some of the things those noises reminded me of:

— a power tool
— a man being strangled
— a rasp dragged slowly across a metal pipe
— a very large internal-combustion engine at idle
— a lawnmower
— a man drowning
— a radio-controlled model airplane
— toads
— a death rattle (I’ve never heard a death rattle, but you could use the sounds I heard in a movie)
— a man being suffocated

It was an extraordinary concert. After it had gone on for eight hours or so, the hospital psychiatrist came in to interview my new roommate. Turned out he was an alcoholic with a history of mental problems. Then it was revealed that he was "between residences" because he had recently gotten booted out of a halfway house. That had been a traumatic event for him. The problem there was that he had been at great pains about his dignity, making sure that everyone there knew he wasn’t a "g-d d-mned felon," a phrase he repeated a number of times. This had gotten him into some unpleasant physical altercations at the halfway house — perhaps understandably, since the place was, as he revealed later in his interview, a halfway house for felons. Finally, I learned why he was in the hospital: he had wandered the previous evening into a local cottage when the owners weren’t home, and fell fast asleep on their couch. Since I could see him plain as day rising like a great inflatable tent on the bed next to mine, it took little imagination to conceive of the sense of shock and alarm on the part of the innocent householders when they first espied him; he was a very large man, especially, as I have noted, in his horizontal position.

When the police arrived, they couldn’t rouse him. Hence the ambulance ride, and the hospital.

Well, I don’t know how long he slept in his adopted cottage, but in our room he slept, and slept, and slept, and of course snored the whole time. He got woken up for meals, of course, and for having his "vitals" taken. But I swear, he fell asleep again during dinner in mid-mouthful, and if the nurses stepped out for even a minute during their ministrations, he would commence snoring again before they got back.

Meanwhile, the hospital provided me with another friend, which I dubbed R2D2. He was a vertical contraption on casters with lots of tubing and electronic devices, which beeped when he wasn’t happy. I got to take him on walks in the halls, which initially wore me out immediately. As you know if you’ve ever been in a hospital, the garments they make you wear are quite peculiar — they only cover up one side of you at a time. This is a poor characteristic in a garment, as, generally, both sides of you need to be covered up to avoid alarming either those up ahead of you or those back behind you. So anyway, R2 and I, hooked together, were strolling the halls. I, having recently had the crap kicked out of me by general anesthesia and missing some of my insides, was staggering like a sailor. My hair, which I’m wearing longer these days anyway, was scraggly and unwashed, and I think I looked like I was clutching my butt, although of course what I was doing was holding the back of my hospital gown together, not out of modesty, but to prevent screams and fainting on the part of ill old ladies wandering the corridors. R2 was beeping. One of the hospital employees passed me and said, "Out for a walk?"

I never know how to answer things like that. I mean,of courseI was out for a walk. What did he think, that I was out exercising my pet IV hanger? Why do people say things like that? So, mindful of my appearance, I muttered, "No, just trying to escape the fashion police."

Well, I thought it was pretty funny. It may have been my weakened state. The hospital employee, who just stared at me, didn’t think it was funny. But that didn’t make me feel curmudgeonly. My mood was downright charitable. I just thought, well, it’s a hospital, and anyway I’m probably just not at my wittiest with cuts in my abdominal wall. And maybe that particular person had lost sight of the fact that hospital gowns aren’t flattering attire. I don’t know.But it didn’t bother me at all.

Meanwhile, roommate slept literally around the clock. He snored all night long, of course. Morphine and earplugs allowed me to sleep too, a little. In the morning, they rousted him. Having had 24 hours sleep and three hot meals, he hopped to his feet, said, "I feelgreat! Haven’t felt this good in weeks!", got dressed, and left.

But there was a kicker. Later, another hospital employee came in my room, and began looking busy, poking at a laptop and hitting buttons here and there on the wall. "Have a good night?" he asked, rather absently.

"Actually, no," I said, motioning with my head to the now greatly diminished pile of laundry on the next bed. "Actually it was pretty bad."

"Oh, him? The snoring? Yeah. Well, we expected it to be a lot worse."

"Worse? How so?"

"He has a history of violence."

"WHAT?!? Oh,wonderful_! Dear God. The one time I can’t defend myself, and they make me sleep next to an enormous substance abuser with anger management problems! But you know what? Even that didn’t upset me much. I kind of felt sorry for the guy, and I found myself wishing him well. So you can see why I thought my status as a grump was becoming questionable.

Health, and grumpiness, returns

When I finally got home, however, I began, thankfully, to get grumpy again. The Canon EOS 20D had come out in my absence. Now, I’m used to camera development taking the wrong directions. It seems almost inevitable. And I’m sure the 20D will sell like Ford Mustangs in ’66 and that people will love it and that it’s an incredible machine, and all that. (A disgruntled reader piped up recently and said I ought to title this column "The Monthly Photographer Bitch-About-Digital Report.") But my friend Kent, who’s a very experienced photographer, a techno-whiz, and a 10D user from the get-go, wrote to me not long ago saying that the only things he’d complain about on the 10D (which he loves, and which his wife loves too) would be that he’d like a bigger viewfinder and a bigger buffer. So what are the only two things the 20Ddoesn’timprove? The viewfinder and the buffer, naturally. This is the way camera development usually goes. It’s Johnston’s Law: they’ll improve whatever you’re not interested in, and cheapen whatever you want improved.

Lest I get too far down the road of antidigitalism, however, I’ve got to get something off my chest. I think digital’s fabulous. I’m a pretty serious photographer and a pretty serious craftsman, though, and I really can’t be satisfied with the digital point-and-shoot and a gnarly little inkjet printer. No offense. My friend Michael Reichmann is a bit more prosperous than I, and he can afford to do digital right; the only trouble is, as a research project I carefully combed through his entire website recently and painstakingly calculated exactly how much he’s spent on digital equipment since the D30 was announced, and the figure came to $5.3 million. Of course, that might be wrong. My arithmetic has always been suspect.

But really. Digital is more expensive, plus it’s lifespan is short. You may have bought an Olympus UZI or a Coolpix 950 a handful of years ago and thought there was nothing stopping you from using them for decades, but how many of you are actually still using them now? (Please, you three, don’t write. I know you’re out there.) Most people feel the need to upgrade every few generations. And these days, three generations may go by in as many years. Add in all the peripherals, ink and paper, and accessories, and digital even a few steps back from the cutting edge starts to look kinda dear, as the British say. If I could do digital up good, I don’t think there’s any question I’d do digital. But to do digital up good takes cash, man, buy-in cash and maintenance cash, and my cash ain’t nothing but trash. (Especially now that I need to help support a very fine surgeon, an anesthesiologist I saw for about seven seconds (before I passed out, I mean), the nice MRI technician, and the all wonderful folks in the very, very pleasant hospital I was in. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but that D2H is further out of reach than ever).

And, actually, this has always been an issue with photographers. Many art photographers over many decades have been constrained in terms of the equipment they have to work with and the time they have to devote to working; there’s a reason why not a lot of pure artists have worked in studios with Sinars on camera stands and $80,000 worth of Broncolor strobes. George Tice used to say that one of his great accomplishments as a photographer was amassing all the darkroom equipment he owned. Harry Callahan didn’t even have his own darkroom until he was in his ’50s. And many fine-art pj-type artists in the 1960s used Leicas not because they had to have the very best, but because everybody with money wanted SLRs at the time and the used market was awash with decade-old M3’s. Ambitious photo students used secondhand Leicas for the same reason they all wore Army surplus fatigue jackets: not just because they were cool, but because they were cool and affordable. I’m sure more than a few promising photographic careers have been cut short by the combination of high expenses with uncertain revenues. In the era of digitalia, that can’t be improving.

What I Did Last Summer

So what’d I do on my summer vacation? Well, the flip side of digital’s snowballing popularity is that film cameras are going begging, much like a used M3 in 1969. Being the astute market analyst that I am, I’ve perceived that the steepest price drops have been in professional equipment, especially second-tier professional equipment that even in good times sells without a snootiness premium. So before I left for Michigan, I bought a nearly perfect Bronica SQ-A, lens, and back for less than a few couples would spend on dinner and wine at Lutece. Old technology? To be sure. A fierce shout-out against digital? Not at all, friends, not at all. I’d take a shiny new (okay, matte black new) 20D over an old Bronica any day. It’s just that the Bronica is still a lot better than a gnarly little consumer digicam. IMHO anyway.

Oddly enough, I had a ball (at least until appendicitis and gallstones thing hit me in the middle of the night). I used to rent Bronicas for professional jobs whenever I needed 2 1/4, and I got quite accustomed to them, minus the pride of ownership of course. Using one again was like running into a guy you weren’t that close with in school and finding out that the passing years had given you much more in common than you thought you had. The thing is an old friend. By any reasonable yardstick, I shouldn’t like it much: it’s not 35mm, it’s not quiet, you have to use a handheld meter (I gotthis one), which is fine and would be even better if it were easier to use with one hand). I didn’t shoot much in terms of film past the gate, but I spent a lot of time at it and I had fun.

But of course I’ve been recovering, so no pictures yet. Sorry. It’s been a rough month.

Newsletter news

I still haven’t managed to contact everybody on "The 37th Frame" subscriber list yet about the switchover to .PDF format and delivery by e-mail, but I’m making progress and I have about two-thirds of you in the database now. It’s fun to get messages from so many subscribers as I go. The new issue, #7, is almost ready to go. The lead article is an appreciation of the late Henri Cartier-Bresson, told from the viewpoint of a photographer talking to other photographers; that is, I didn’t spend a lot of time telling you what you already know about him, but spent more time talking about his methods, techniques, and shooting skills. Then there are more lens reviews: I think five in all, including three Leica lenses and one Zeiss. Next there’s a "Scoop" piece with some inside poop about Canon advertising. Last month’s column is included, accompanied by some of the many responses it engendered. There is a LOOO-O-O—O—O-O-OONG article about the new Leica 50mm Summilux; I probably got carried away. Hope you’ll forgive me. There’s also a movie review. Why a movie review? Well, because it’s my newsletter and I can put anything I want into it! The movie’s a great old Western, and if you want to know which one, sorry, you’ll just have to wait and see. "The Rant" in issue #7 concerns the effects of 9/11 and its aftermath on photographers nationwide, and pleads for a little sensibleness. Of course there’s a lot of news, including items about the 50th anniversary of Kodak Tri-X, Ilford’s woes, the Bongo Frendee, an interesting mini-article about detecting digital fakery, and several items that have absolutely nothing to do with photography but that I thought were funny.

Anything about politics? Well, I like being topical and timely, but I’m really on the fence about that. We all have our own views, and, let’s face it, nobody subscribes to "The 37th Frame" to read my political views — we band together, rather, in our common love of, and interest in, the art of photography. So I guess I’ll stick mostly to that. Almost entirely. Well, mostly.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention this: on the last day I was in the hospital, I got another roommate. He was a courtly, soft-spoken older gentleman who looked the very picture of a doting grandfather, which in fact he turned out to be. Evidently he owned a company, or maybe several. Just the nicest guy. We talked for some time, and during the conversation it came out that he was a pilot. Somehow I couldn’t quite picture this kindly person at the controls of an airplane. Later, I asked him if he had any hobbies other than flying.

"I used to race boats," he said.

Visions of sailboats gently heeling in the breeze popped into my head.

"What kind of boat?" I inquired, politely.

"Unlimited-class cigarette boats."

"Really. Where did you race?"

"All over the world. Anywhere there was a race on, we went there."

Next, I asked him if he still engaged in this pursuit, and, honest to Pete, here is what he said:

"Well, the last time I raced, a good friend was killed, and my boat crossed the finish line engulfed in flames. That was the last time."

So okay, okay, okay. I give up. I just live a boring life, that’s all. Boring! Gramps the cigarette boat racer. Hey, at least I had interesting roommates.

See you on the first Sunday in October, or sooner if you’re a Newsletter subscriber. Get out with your camera, and remember, watch the light!

— Mike Johnston

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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