So apparently today is #NationalCameraDay, which makes it a great day to share the (unedited) results of my very first roll using the Soviet-era (1972 to be precise) LOMO Smena Symbol.
I’ll have lots to say about the camera itself in the next post, but first, a few words about the content itself; I hate feeling like I’ve wasted film, so I try to take meaningful shots whenever I can. But I also had no idea how this fully manual, viewfinder-style camera would perform, or if I’d botch the whole thing up trying to meter for the first time, so I didn’t want to put too much effort into it and end up disappointed. This was the compromise!
I’d noticed a strange density of churches per square mile in Everett while pouring over Google Maps and decided that it would be fun to document as many as I could. So imagine my glee when a group of street preachers stopped us while we were strolling around, asking if I’d like a copy of the Gospels. I said “yes,” and as I took their abridged pamphlet, the guy asked me “have you ever read it,” to which I replied: “yes, I’m a Christian, in fact.” This made him very happy, but I didn’t want to linger and go over our theological differences, so I waved them goodbye, saying “God bless.” As we crossed the street, the guy yelled “pray for our city!”
How much prayer does Everett need?
BTW, these light leaks happened because I never know how long I’m supposed to keep rewinding the film at the end. Happens with my Holga all the time… Lucky for me they’re often so pretty!
The tract they handed me included the Gospel of John and the “Book” of Romans (it’s actually a letter but okay), with the tagline “A Marked Edition–See Page 43” on the front cover. When you turn to that page, you realize that you’re now part of some kind of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story.
On page 43, Romans 2:23 is underlined: “For all have sinned, and come short of the Glory of God.” In the bottom-right corner, it says “Turn to Page 47” (!!!), where “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” is highlighted. And so on and so on ten more times before you finally arrive at Page 59, where the publishers, “Concerned Independent Baptist Churches,” offer the weary traveler a catechism of sorts, where point 1 is “You need to see yourself as a lost sinner” and point 7 is “Call on the Lord NOW to save you from Hell and give you eternal life.”
I almost cringe when I say that I find texts like these fascinating, because I know how much pain they can and have caused. But I can’t help it – they’re so bizarre to me on every level, including the most basic: the principles of persuasive communication. How do they even work?
And you can’t blame me for the aesthetic distance I put between myself and these works; my first introduction to this world was through the eyes of the artist Jim Shaw, at his “Left Behind” exhibit in CAPC Bordeaux, 2010. The show was curated in such a way as to blur the lines between Shaw’s own work and the fundamentalist materials he’d collected over the years. From the program:
“…the heterogeneity of the illustrative sources is both surprising and intriguing: episodes from the artist’s life, iconic symbols of American culture, references from modern art history, biblical imagery, Hollywood imagery, political and media personalities, depictions of consumerism, visions of 9/11…”
It’s like the X-Files of the American psyche and I saw it first in France.
It’s not hard to make a connection between religion and power when you see the largest clusters of churches in the most deprived areas- just take the light rail down to south Seattle and see how they cover every street corner. The same goes for Everett.
It was just wild how many denominations jostled for space on the same block, and even wilder to think that this place is probably most famous for Boeing and for the massacre of I.W.W. partisans on Bloody Sunday, 1916. That’s literally one of the first things you read about it on Wikipedia.
I like this part from the page about the massacre: “More than 200 vigilantes or “citizen deputies”, under the ostensible authority of Snohomish County Sheriff McRae, met in order to repel the “anarchists”. As the Verona drew into the dock and someone on board threw a line over a bollard, McRae stepped forward and called out, “Boys, who’s your leader?” The IWW men laughed and jeered, replying “We’re all leaders,” and they started to swing out the gang plank. McRae drew his pistol, told them he was the sheriff, he was enforcing the law, and they couldn’t land here. There was a silence, then a Wobbly came up to the front and yelled out “the hell we can’t.”
That’s a great piece of oral history.
We all know the famous line about the opium of the masses and the sigh of the oppressed; I don’t like to be the guy spending an hour or so somewhere and making grand statements but being around so many worshiping spaces within walking distance of each other feels like the sighs aren’t being heard.
Since it’s #NationalCameraDay, let’s talk about this Smena Symbol. I really wanted an affordable all-manual camera to put myself through basic training, so to speak, so I jumped at the chance to get one for a good price off of eBay – it came in its original case and box, all the way from Ukraine! Swipe to the very end to see the box in all its nostalgic glory.
And when I say fully manual, I mean f-u-l-l-y manual. Just like my Holga, there’s no reflex mirror, so you can’t see what you’re focusing on and have to guestimate how far you are from everything. I was almost certain I’d messed the whole thing up because I kept confusing feet with meters, but thankfully, most of it came out alright!
But unlike my Holga, you still have to think about aperture and shutter speed too. The weird thing about it though is that this camera seems to have been designed with the expectation that you’d set the aperture once and adjust shutter speed according to light conditions; while I’m no expert, I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of what most people are taught to do.
I can’t find any literature out there commenting on this design reversal; maybe it was just a way for LOMO to keep things affordable, simplifying the lens design. But as a one-time student of Soviet cinema, I know that even economic considerations often became ideological distinctives in those heady days of the early U.S.S.R. I mean, the whole of Soviet montage theory is a symptom of a shortage in film due to trade embargos.
Anyway, these are some shots from the very end of the roll, when I was starting to get the hang of it a little bit.
This also being Cancer season, I’m acutely aware of the haze of nostalgia over much of what’s been motivating me creatively as of late.
Why exactly do we seek out expired film and inconvenient devices?
Part of it is that fondness for things that feel precious; that “aura” I wrote about some time ago c.f. Walter Benjamin. It’s why we collect anything vintage: for that stamp of other lives borrowed and honored.
The other part has to do with how our own lives are made “other” as well, through different “assemblages” of hand and brain and eye and apparatus. It’s a little bit like what I gathered from grazhdanka_serdtse’s recent posts in translation: we get to put on a costume and play out a character, transforming ourselves for a moment or two. Our posture changes; our gait changes; our vision might change too. It was uncanny to read those posts as I was unboxing my Smena.
The thing about nostalgia is that it’s not about the past at all; it’s about the future. It’s about the bifurcations that brought us to where we are today and where we could have been. Holding something like a LOMO in our hands brings us back to those forks in the road — to reflect, not to restore.
At least, that’s what I like to think is happening when I cosplay as a comrade in a Nasavrky-made hat.