For the past several years, I’ve ambled around this dreary cloud of middle-agedness, searching far and wide for the promised silver lining. As best I can tell, being middle-aged is the grown-up version of pre-adolescence. Both are periods of life in which, like a piece of head cheese (and about as unpopular), you find yourself sandwiched between two of life’s more favorable stages.
Pre-adolescents have outgrown the joyously innocent naivety of childhood, but haven’t yet experienced the hormonal upheaval needed to become a moody, snooty teenager who thinks everyone in their 30’s is clueless. Middle-agers have outlived the expiration date on which their opinions hold any social or economic relevance, but haven’t yet attained the seniority required to become a crotchety, cantankerous old bastard who thinks everyone in their 30’s is clueless.
Recently, on one of my exploratory strolls through the murky fog of middle-aged languor, I caught site of a flickering light — dim, but most definitely present. I trudged through the mental malaise for a closer look, and soon recognized the glimmering object as the long-sought silver lining. I traversed its expanse and caressed its glimmering fabric so as to better understand its purpose. What was this thing that would make middle-aged inconsequentiality all worthwhile? For what bright and shiny lining have we traded our youth and vigor?
The answer, it turns out, is “history.” Specifically, our own personal history and experiences — an observational database that’s rich and varied and, as yet, untainted by dementia. This lining has many names: “street smarts;” “enlightenment;” “awareness;” “understanding” — all of which denote the same state. Being middle-aged means, in general, that you know what’s what; your B.S. detectors are finely tuned; and you’ve basically seen and heard it all before.
It’s this last part that I find intriguing — this realization that, socially and culturally, nothing is new. Someone in their 20’s might witness the latest trend or product, and think “Wow, this is the vanguard of an entirely new reality!” But when someone middle-aged encounters this same occurrence, all they do is mentally calculate how long it’s been since it was last popular, and in what incarnation. For us middle-agers, the question isn’t so much “what’s new” as “what’s old?”
Art, fashion, culture and politics all have their own repetitive cycles — and each cycle circles past at varying diameters. The longer we live, the more of these cycles we observe. And the more we observe, the better we can predict (or even profit from) the cyclic nature of human whim.
Look, for example, at the computer industry. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, computers sat in a centralized location and served up data to remote access points. Then, for the next 30 years, personal computers were king — each of us interacting with a data repository that was ours and ours alone. Now we have cloud computing, which is this novel “new” idea in which computers sit in centralized locations and serve up data to remote access points.
Let’s look at another cycle — one that involves my lifelong career as a musician and designer/developer of music technology products. Specifically, let’s look at the synthesizer.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, synthesizers were “modular.” Each musician would custom-assemble their instrument from various electronic modules, mount them side-by-side in a case, and connect their circuits via a maze of patch cables. If you’ve seen the cover of Wendy Carlos’ “Switched on Bach,” watched Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” or seen that giant tower of blinking lights and spaghetti beside Keith Emerson at an ELP concert, you’ve seen a modular synthesizer.
In the early 1970’s, compact analog synthesizers entered the scene. Guided by the Minimoog and Arp Odyssey, this new class of synth dispensed with the practice of allowing musicians to select and connect their own collection of modules. Instead, manufacturers chose the most commonly used synthesis elements and hard-wired them together behind a single, easier-to-understand front panel. Synthesizers were now accessible to all musicians of all skill levels, and the demise of modular synthesis was complete. This smaller, cheaper form of analog synthesis dominated the scene throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, though it continued to evolve steadily — first through the advent of polyphony, then through the addition of programmable patch memories.
In the mid 1980’s, digital synthesizers began to elbow their way into neighbourhood music stores. And by the end of the decade — catalyzed by both the overwhelming success of Yamaha’s ubiquitous DX7 and the advent of affordable samplers, like the Ensoniq Mirage — the music industry announced the “death” of analog synthesis. Musicians, anxious to score the latest digital wonders, considered themselves lucky if their old analog gear netted any trade-in value at all.
In the 1990’s, digital algorithms became more elaborate and sample storage needs grew more extreme. Digital processing requirements quickly outpaced technology’s ability to supply hardware synthesizers with suitable built-in microprocessors, and by the late 1990’s the first real-time, computer-based synthesizers began to emerge. These software-based synthesizers — inexpensive, powerful and plentiful — lead to the near total extinction of the once-mighty hardware synthesizer market. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century only geeks and “luddites” used hardware synths, and electronic music became just another category of computer app.
But in a technologically driven era, one should never discount the power of geeks to reshape an industry. And the geeks who held to their belief that synthesizers should be hardware-based, soon found their own silver lining in the following fact: markets void of excessive profit incentive do not attract large corporations. All the big name synth manufacturers had long-abandoned the idea of innovating in the hardware synthesizer market, and this opened the doors for small, independent developers to release new hardware synthesizers.
Of course, music technology had moved beyond hardware synthesizers for a reason. So if a modern-day, purpose-built chunk of music hardware was going to entice musicians, it would need a particularly unique and compelling feature to do so. And what was that unique and compelling feature? Analog. The fact was, if you were a synthesist and didn’t want to sound like everyone else, you needed the one thing that digital couldn’t do — be analog.
And thus, the cycle began to reverse itself — a few brave souls started to build and release analog hardware. With the market long-deserted, their only competition was from the aging, wheezing synths of analog’s heyday — synths that were becoming increasingly more persnickety and increasingly more expensive to maintain and repair.
Synthesizer design legends like Bob Moog, Tom Oberheim and Dave Smith (Sequential Circuits) also benefited from the vacated hardware synth industry. Each, in the 21st century, was able to re-enter the analog synthesizer market they helped define and create 30 years earlier.
Riding shotgun on this trip back to the future was another phenomena — the rebirth of the modular synthesizer. Modulars picked up right where they left off in the early 1970’s — as a way for musicians to create truly one-of-a-kind instruments by assembling and connecting a diverse collection of individual synthesizer “building blocks.” If you don’t want to sound like everybody else, what better way than to assemble a synthesizer that’s totally unique to you, and you alone?
The modular synth industry has grown rapidly in the past few years, and its popularity has enticed hundreds of new “mom & pop” companies to enter the synthesizer market. Their startup costs remain low because they don’t need to design, build and sell an entire synthesizer. Rather, they just need to produce a piece of a synthesizer — something like an oscillator or a filter or some kind of voltage signal modifier. Today, modular synthesizers are more powerful, diverse and popular than when they were left for dead in the mid-1970’s.
Follow the time line: modular synth > analog synth > digital synth > software synth > analog synth > modular synth. Because I’ve lived long enough to witness its entirety, it becomes rather simple to predict the next wave: digital modular components and digital/analog hybrids. Heck, it’s already begun. In fact, my latest synth, though still resolutely monophonic and analog in spirit, is in fact a digital/analog hybrid…
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Hey Egor, this is supposed to be a photography blog. Why are you writing about music technology?”
And the reason I’m writing about music technology (and cultural cycles, in general) is that you need only replace the word “synthesizer” with “camera,” and you now have a magic periscope into the future of photographic trends.
Take a look at all the products unveiled at the recent Photokina show and ask yourself, “which of these is the most interesting?” A younger man might well award this honor to some new system lens or to another incremental iteration of a currently fashionable camera. But a middle-aged man — one who’s been paying attention — will answer, “the Leica M-A.”
To my knowledge, Leica’s new M-A is the first truly professional-grade film camera released in the 21st century. Some have dismissed this announcement as proof that Leica is a relic of earlier times. Instead, I see it as a harbinger of things to come — a small but significant portent of a new breed of photographers, looking to differentiate themselves and their photos from the common processes and techniques employed by millions of their contemporaries. Leica, like Bob Moog, Tom Oberheim or Dave Smith, is the “legend” returning to its roots. Others will follow.
Unlike digital cameras, manufacturing a film camera does not require massive investment or technological know-how. It can (and will) become a cottage industry, driven by clever new ideas and the passion of both maker and shooter. A film camera does not need to sell a million units to be profitable. Like the modular synth market, “mom & pop” camera makers will begin to produce niche-oriented film cameras with unique characteristics that satisfy all manner of different photographic endeavours. I honestly expect, within the next decade, that I’ll be able to purchase a brand new, half-frame film camera to replace my finicky pair of early 1960 Olympus Pens. I also expect I’ll be able to purchase film cameras I haven’t yet imagined.
Leica has given us the first glimpse of a new future, and that future includes the re-birth of the film camera. Sure, the market will be different this time around, but such is the nature of cycles.
And how do I know all this? Because I’m a middle-aged man, and prescience based on historical perspective is my silver lining.
©2014 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
Other than having been all recently taken by me, these photos have little in common with one another — save for the fact that all were shot on a film camera of some type. Not only that, but they were all shot on film cameras from the last century because, well, film is currently quite unfashionable. This means you can view these photos in one of two ways: as evidence that I’m hopelessly behind the times, or as proof that I’m shrewdly ahead.
“A Comprehensive History of Dance Moves” and “Autonomy” were both shot on a Leica M2 with a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton lens, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 400 and stand-developed in Caffenol-C-L.
“1:57 pm” was photographed with a Leica M2 fronted with a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 Nokton lens, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 400, and developed in HC-110 dilution H.
“Pepsi & Poutine” was shot on a Leica IIIc with a Leitz 35mm f/3.4 Elmar lens, using Fomapan 100 film exposed at ISO 100, and stand-developed in Rodinal 1:100.
“A Practical Application for Art” was photographed with a Rollei 35T, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 1000, and stand-developed in Caffenol C-L.
“Abandonment” came out of an Olympus Pen EE-2, using Kentmere 100 film exposed at ISO 50, and developed in Rodinal 1:50.
“Selfie Patrol” was shot on a Canon AE-1 with a Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens, using BW400CL film exposed at ISO 400, and lab-developed.
“Compatibility” was photographed using a Leica M2 and a v4 35mm f/2.0 Summicron lens, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 400, and developed in HC-110 dilution H.
“Headspace” was shot with a Leica IIIc and a Leitz 50mm f/2 Summar lens, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 320, and developed in Rodinal 1:50.
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