In the early 70’s (that means the decade called the 1970’s), there was a wonderful comedy troupe, who not only performed in clubs across the country, but more importantly for a guy living in Salt Lake with a dearth of Comedy Clubs, recorded a number of albums. They were called the Firesign Theater… a couple of Phils a David and a Peter. Fabulously funny, they did a lot of work in LA, radio mostly, and released over a dozen albums in the early 70s. I discovered them right before heading to Vietnam in 1970, and with all the craziness of their schtick, once in VN it often seemed like their riffs were more telling than what I was seeing for myself, or hearing from “big time journalists.” I never really did any pot in the college / post-college years, but in Vietnam the mama sans, bless them, would sell a small pack known as “Number One Cigarette” openly right on the Tu Do street sidewalks. It varied from the standard American brands only in the fact that tobacco had been replaced by some astonishingly good weed (writing this it probably sounds like I knew good from bad, which I didn’t ), and the pack perfectly resealed in cellophane. They sold for about $3, instead of the usual $1 tobacco cigarettes, making the inconvenience of having to roll a joint, something I was incapable of, a mere distant memory. I preferred the KOOLs since the menthol was gentle to my tender lungs. But I would have to say that Firesign theater gigs did become approximately 28% funnier after a Number One cig.
Even now, like many of their followers, I’m prone to start reading off imaginary road signs on a highway exit approach (Antelope Freeway- 1 mile; Antelope Freeway- ½ mile; Antelope Freeway ¼ mile; Antelope Freeway 1/8 mile; Antelope Freeway 1/16th mile; Antelope Freeway 1/32 mile….) you get the point. You never actually GET to the Antelope Freeway. But they had a way of putting it out there that was singular. One of their great album titles was “What To Do While Waiting for the Electrician, Or Someone Like Him.” This morning, after a dozen fone calls, I am waiting for the Verizon guy (he replaced the Cable Guy) to show up and figure out what has gone wrong with our fones since they installed the new Fiberoptic lines. We went for the whole bundle: TV, internet, and phones, all on the Fiber line.. to surely no cost advantage, but at least the minor satisfaction that we need no longer pay Comcast anything. Since day one, the TV works great, the internet is speedy, but the telephones sound like you are in a dressing room of a Russian public swimming pool shower. Of course we are missing the forty overweight but happy swimmers, but the sound is about the same on those fones. Seriously static-y. Impossible to hear a voice at the other end. The fones don’t ring when someone calls. It’s just, how do you say it… One small step for technology, One Giant pain in the ass for the house residents. In the overall scheme of things, perhaps it is only a minor hiccup. And it wouldn’t be so bad if my house weren’t the ONLY place where my cell fone doesn’t work. But as I look around (when you’re waiting for someone like the Electrician, you can do a helluva lot of looking around) I notice all kinds of little paradoxes.
I was in rural North Carolina over the weekend at a wonderful Boys Camp (no Gameboys, no TV, no AA batteries – just trees, lakes, wet swim trunks, and lots of hiking). Great pictures, nice kids, lovely scenic vistas. I took with me not only my nifty new digi cams (Canon 5D) but my really nifty almost-as-old-as-I-am Speed Graphic with an even-older-than-John-Kerry lens.
The Speed & Me (cr: Chas. Ommaney)
The Speed Graphic is a 20s-30s designed press camera, big bellows and fold down front, to which I attached a 1943 Kodak Aero Ektar lens, famous for having let World War II recon pilots fly at times other than high noon. So fast was the lens, that pilots could fly in less threatening (dawn and dusk) times of day and still get pictures of enemy movements. Sixty years later it sits on my camera for portraits, sports, and even Presidential politics. (Francis “Nig” Miller, a colorful LIFE photog in the 50s & sixties once told me “..the trouble with a Nikon is, you hit somebody, they go down, but they get right back up. Now you hit ‘em with a Speed Graphic, they’re gonna stay down!”)
It is the perfect counter point to the “I can see it right now and know if I screwed up…” digital cameras, and even though carrying both of them should probably get me committed, I find there are times when the old just beats the ass off the new. Shipping the gear to Greenville, I put the whole of the backpack – the camera and lenses work out of a back pack but it offers virtually no impact protection) into an aluminum Halliburton case (no, not THAT Halliburton..)
Forty Years of Schlepping
The case is a little history lesson itself. I bought it for a hundred bucks in 1969 from John Olson, my young(er) friend who worked for LIFE (he was 21, I was 22) who’d picked it up in Hong Kong. Over three and half decades the case went to five continents, remained a pain to carry when full (it’s big!), yet always got to the other side of whichever pond I was crossing. There are decals from NATO maneuvers, the Continental Palace/Saigon Hotel, the Black Virgin of Czestachova (Poland), and dozens of other bits of organic history which decorate its exteriour. I suppose I could get a really snazzy rip-stop black nylon case, but somehow I almost feel comfy with the big ole Halli. En route to Poland (Dec. 1981-Martial Law) Lufthansa pranged it good, and sprung the case. I got a hundred bucks from them for the damage, and amazingly later, managed to respring it back into shape, and get another 100000 miles on it. As I get older, and especially as I do try and chuck old stuff in favor of that which I’m more prone to make use of, I find it painful to separate from the things which accompanied me to a lot of crummy hotels en route to great pictures.
There are tons of new cases, all designed to make you look like a photographer while claiming not to (we all want that look of being noticed without being noticed) but the oldies still do it for me. Even my Holga cameras, the $25 plastic Chinese rollfilm camera.
Though they aren’t old, they have an unmistakable charm to them. Partly I suppose it’s that you don’t really know what you’re going to end up with, along with that odd satisfaction of feeling that somehow
Al Gore, on the final Sunday of the 2000 Campaign
you have managed to throw a shoe into the ongoing mech/tech processes of all our lives, and enjoy something which is totally Manual. And when it does work, it’s whoop-dee-doo time. The most fun, is pretending to look on the back of it when you shoot something, as if a screen will magically appear with what you just shot. Ain’t gonna happen.
So, I’ll keep treading water in that middle ground. Enjoying the joys of the new, while savouring the flavor of the old. Some things are probably still best done by someone, not someTHING. In New York last week in front of the world famous Madison Restaurant (on First Ave. not Madison, go figure) was a guy hawking parking spaces with a sandwich board. I guess the garage owner could have put up a billboard, or maybe bought time on WINS, the most listened to station in the country. But if you were driving up First avenue, wanted a parking spot, there wasn’t any better way to reach your customer.
I wonder if the Verizon guy is having lunch at the Madison (a killer Cobb salad with chicken? A late breakfast of strawberry waffles?) Maybe he's stuck in traffic (Antelope Freeway, 1/256th of a mile.....) I hope he’s doing something fun, because he hasn’t arrived at Upton Street just yet. We’re just sayin…David