Posted on 11 May ’13
Every so often, I become really obsessed with something. For the past few years it’s been economics. This field of study is nuanced, rich and volatile. The economy itself is so immeasurably complex that it renders itself impossible to grasp, making fools of those who think they’ve got it all figured out while leaving endless stories, mysteries and confusion in its wake. Our inability to control the economy conflicts with humanity’s desire for control. Despite people’s ever increasing attempts to wield it for their benefit or to perfect it’s outcome, the economy moves forward in spontaneous and unexpected ways. Some desirable, some not. But contained in those unseen outcomes is humanity itself. To try and perfect the economy is to try and perfect humanity. That strikes me as a mistake, not only because of the horrifying consequences at attempting it, but because economic order is driven by the subjectivity of individuals working in concert, and through their mistakes. So, in a word, it’s impossible.
It’s that subjectivity that brings me to my latest obsession: Vintage lenses. Their qualities and “flaws” are what make them fun to shoot with and look at and hold. It’s their strangeness that makes them beautiful. Their inconsistencies turn them into paint brushes instead of sterile petri dishes for subjects, which modern lenses seem to be doing. It’s all about the sharpness now. It’s all about the perfection. Well I want character dammit! These lenses contain the rawness of 1970′s films like Easy Rider and richness of The Godfather. Film may have disappeared, but the lenses that were once used to capture what went on that film remain! What a treat and unexpected outcome! Old technology seamlessly married into new technology.
Soooo, I just bought my first one, which is on the way from the Ukraine. A Helios 44-2, 58mm.
Built in 1973 and the land of the now defunct Soviet Empire, the Helios is a product of communism itself. After the lens industry was nationalized by the Communist government, they stole the formulas and optics of Zeiss to start their own line of lenses. They are heavy, made entirely of steel and the glass is thick. The optics are thinly coated and each batch of lenses was different from the last due to the way Communist economies work and poor quality control that was legendary in Soviet Russia. The Soviet government also produced LOADS of them, making them way cheap. What am I getting at? Despite everything going against this lens, it has become one of the most desirable, beautiful and affordable lenses out there. It is by all accounts a flawed product, but that’s what you want.
Each lens will be different… very different. The terrible quality control has now created an X-Factor for this lens. You might get one that’s pretty crappy, but on your next purchase, you might have found one that produces images that are sublime. The photographs and video I’ve seen so far just has me drooling for it. You can find them on Ebay for less than $50.