Mike Westbrook made an album in the early 1970’s called “Metropolis”.
It’s not that well known outside of fans of English progressive jazz of the period, but it featured many of the finest jazz musicians of the day, many of whom graced contemporary rock albums such as Nick Drake’s ‘Bryter Layter’ (Ray Warleigh) or mid-period Soft Machine (Jon Marshall).
It’s a suite, influenced by Mingus and Miles and good amounts of free jazz but the final part settles into a nocturne featuring a hypnotic piano pattern by Westbrook and a lovely meandering flugelhorn solo from Harry Beckett. As of the moment you can hear it here.
When I listen to it, it never fails to put me in the mood of a metropolis at dusk, surely as good a testament to the effectiveness of the work as any other, but it also acts to lay a slightly blurry filter on my vision of any town or city. Again, part of this harks back to the cover of the ‘Metropolis’ LP, a moody, low resolution film photograph of a highway leading into a downtown area, but it’s more than that. Musically, it encapsulates precisely that sense of loneliness and dislocation that I have always felt upon entering a large city. A feeling that sometimes morphs into a kind of fuzzy nostalgia and a feeling that I can reestablish with astonishing ease in any place and at any time.
I wanted to try to express that feeling through photography. I considered taking some digital photographs and applying the ‘vintage’ or ‘nostalgia’ filters that you find in Lightroom and elsewhere, but that seemed like a cop-out approach. Not real enough.
No, I needed to use film and use film in a way that came close to the moodiness of the cover of ‘Metropolis’. A fortuitous event helped me. I found an old roll of unexposed Walgreen’s Studio35 color film. Long expired and kept in far from ideal conditions. One that was likely to produce color shifts and artifacts galore.
But I needed more than that. I needed a lens that was anti-sharpness. I have one – it’s the Holga HL-C plastic lens that designed for use with Canon cameras. It’s supposed to mimic the look and vignetting you see when using a Holga film camera. And for APS-C sensor size Canon digital cameras it does exactly that. But the vignetting effect is far too extreme for a full frame or 35mm film camera, so I took the lens apart and pulled the vignetting plate. Took the aperture plate out too. This converted it to an f/8 lens but greatly decreased the already-poor overall sharpness by limiting the depth of field. Normally a disadvantage, but not in my case.
So it plus an Elan 7E went to work with me on my bicycle and these pictures were the result. They are exactly what I had in mind. Ironically, the film held up way better than I anticipated and the color is not too shabby at all, but the fuzziness came out spot on.
Perfect mood shots. Photographs that illustrate my mental impression of the places shown far more effectively than any pretty high-res digital rendition.
Why have I spent so much time failing to see this? Hard to answer and perhaps ultimately due to an increase in self-confidence and the ability to finally let go of trying to be like everybody else.
But I have arrived at last.