For me, the greatest advent of the digital photography era is neither the liberating ease with which images can be instantly realized, nor is it the impeccable fidelity of those images. Instead, it’s the way in which digital’s arrival rendered 160 years’ worth of camera gear instantly “obsolete.” In the blink of an eye, every film camera ever manufactured plummeted in value — sold for pennies on the dollar for a ticket on the digital bandwagon.
I’ll readily admit, if you were one of those who purged yourself of film during the digital coup, that you’ll likely disagree with this assertion. So, too, will anyone who simply has no need, interest nor appreciation of film. And this is precisely why this article and its opening proclamation began with the words, “for me.”
Unfortunately, every time I write something good about film, some folks scold me for being “anti digital.” And every time I write something good about digital, I get accused of “selling out” or “abandoning film.” So let’s set the record straight: I’ve been known to purchase a digital camera or two (or ten or twenty) in my lifetime, and I appreciate the easy workflow and stellar fidelity as much as the next photographer. In many instances, it’s exactly what my photography requires. But it’s not the only thing my photography requires. In other words, I don’t consider digital photography as a replacement for film. Rather, I see them as two entirely different and legitimate mediums that yield significantly different results. Oil paints may rule the roost amongst fine artists, but that doesn’t preclude the use of pastels, chalk, ink, water colors, wax, acrylics or any other pigment delivery mechanism an artist wishes to use.
For film lovers with heretofore prohibitive income levels, the post-digital buyer’s market created an intoxicating temptation — and I imbibed. Big time. Naturally, my first tendency was to purchase all sorts of high-end professional models that were now available for entry-level digital prices. And while I do delight in using these fine optical instruments, I’ve discovered something rather peculiar — I tend to enjoy crappy film cameras almost as much (if not more) than “pro” film cameras.
Upon reflection, the reason is quite clear: Because my digital cameras are capable of generating such flawless, technically-precise images, I no longer demand such perfection from my film cameras. In fact, as digital cameras improved, my appreciation for the defects, quirks and inconsistencies of film increased. Freed from the burden of creating “client worthy” photos on-demand, film cameras became a means for self-expression — a way to interpret my impressions of the world, rather than render that world in a realistic (or a trendy, hyper-realistic) light.
So now, not only am I constantly on the prowl for pro-grade film cameras, but you’ll frequently see me cruising for old consumer models, too. Which is exactly how and why I recently came into possession of an early-1960’s Olympus Pen EE‑2 half-frame point-and-shoot.
Half the Frame, All the Joy
The Pen EE‑2 is my second half-frame camera, and joins its higher-end sibling — the interchangeable lens Olympus Pen FT SLR — in ULTRAsomething’s increasingly crowded cabinet o’ cameras. Since purchasing the Pen FT some 18 months ago, I’ve run more film through that camera than any other that I own — a feat made even more remarkable when you consider I need to shoot twice as many photos in order to finish a roll. But I simply love the way it sees the world vertically, rather than horizontally. I love the fact that the 75+ images it squeezes onto a single roll of film allows me to experiment with the same reckless abandon that digital does, and I love the way the character of the film is amplified by the half-frame format.
While the Pen FT was the so-called professional model — introduced somewhat late in the product cycle — the Pen format was originally conceived as a consumer-level point-and-shoot line. So, given my newfound love for both half-frame photography and rudimentary cameras, it was inevitable that I would eventually own one of the consumer versions. And the Pen EE‑2 is about as “consumer” as an early 1960’s camera can possibly get.
Though I profess to loving all cameras (even the ones I hate), I must confess that I can’t always find a unique or useful purpose for each and every model I experiment with. But in the case of the Olympus Pen EE‑2, that purpose is clearly defined and quite obvious: it is my are‑bure‑boke camera.
Are‑Bure‑Boke (pronounced ah‑reh bu‑reh bo‑keh) is a Japanese term, coined to describe a particular style of photography that became increasingly influential in 1970’s Japan. “Are‑Bure‑Boke” means, literally, “rough, blurred and out-of-focus.” Needless to say, the type of photographs it describes are those that are rough (grainy), blurry and out-of-focus. This makes it one of the most aptly descriptive terms in the art world. Impressionism? Vague. Cubism? Vaguer. Street photography? The vaguest of all. Are‑Bure‑Boke? Now that’s specific.
Without getting into a long discourse on the history of photography, the career arcs of various photographers, or the stylistic influences of William Klein, Ed Van Der Elsken or Shomei Tomatsu, I’ll simply point you toward a few definitive examples of are-bure-boke photography: Takuma Nahahira’s “For a Language to Come;” Yutaka Takanashi’s “Toshi-E (Toward the City);” and pretty much everything that comes out of Daido Moriyama’s camera.
The Olympus Pen EE-2
The Pen EE-2 is a half-frame 35mm film camera. Theoretically, this means it delivers 72 exposures on a single roll of 36 exposure film. In practice, I’ve been getting about 78 exposures. Each negative is 24mm high by 18mm wide, meaning the camera shoots in “portrait” format. If you want to shoot in “landscape” format (the way most cameras do), you need to turn this camera sideways.
The EE-2 is permanently fronted with a 28mm f/3.5 lens, which gives a field of view roughly equivalent to a 40mm lens on a full-frame camera held sideways. Focus is not adjustable, and is fixed at 1.5 meters. Surrounding the lens is the camera’s “Electric Eye” or “EE” (which is a rather potent clue for those wondering how this camera got its designation). The “Electric Eye” is really nothing more elaborate than an old-fashioned selenium cell light meter, which thankfully means no batteries are needed to operate it.
The camera is gloriously free of bells and whistles. It has a flash sync terminal (which I haven’t used) and it has, umm, well it doesn’t really have anything else at all.
Many might believe a camera with a feature list this truncated couldn’t possibly be anything “special,” but that’s “upside down” logic. In reality, the camera is special because of what it doesn’t have. And what it doesn’t have is a plethora of shutter speeds. In fact, the camera features just two speeds. That’s right. Two. 1/40s and 1/125s. This is not a camera you’d use to photograph the Formula 1 circuit. Heck, even baseball’s a bit too vigorous for those lethargic shutter speeds.
The EE-2 supports both fully automatic and manual exposure. Since the selenium meter is over 50 years old, I knew its accuracy would be either dubious (at best), or flat out wrong (at worst). “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just use manual exposure all the time, and forget about relying on the built-in meter.” Well, here’s the thing… you know those two shutter speeds I mentioned? Turns out that, in manual exposure mode, you only get one shutter speed, and it’s not the one you’d want — it’s 1/40s.
What’s this mean? It means that if you purchase an Olympus Pen EE‑2 you have two choices: 1) shoot in fully automatic mode, meaning the camera chooses between 1/125 and 1/40, but makes you rely on a rather inaccurate and somewhat schizophrenic 50+ year old selenium cell meter, or 2) shoot everything with proper exposure, but with only a 1/40s shutter speed.
Remember when I said the Pen EE-2 was my Are-Bure-Boke camera? Let’s break that down:
- ARE: The Pen EE-2 is a half-frame camera. If one wishes to make prints the same size as a full-frame camera, its negatives need to be magnified twice as much. Magnify a negative and you magnify its grain (or “are” in Japanese).
- BURE: The Pen EE-2 has exactly two shutter speeds — neither of which is fast enough to freeze action. Consequently, everything that moves will be at least a little bit blurry (or “bure” in Japanese).
- BOKE: The Pen EE-2 is a fixed focus camera. This means, in subdued lighting, the camera will have too wide an aperture to deliver much depth-of-field, likely rendering your intended subject somewhat out-of-focus. Conversely, in bright lighting, the diffraction effects of the narrow aperture reek absolute havoc on overall focus. Ultimately, this camera appears to have the world’s narrowest “sweet spot,” virtually guaranteeing that anything you photograph will be at least a little bit out of focus (or “boke” in Japanese).
In the “old” days, I’d have chucked this Pen EE‑2 in a drawer — never again to see the light of day (which, coincidentally, would greatly extend the life of its selenium cell). But these are the “digital” days, and what I look for in a film camera is increasingly dissimilar to what I look for in a digital camera.
So rather than feeling annoyed, I feel inspired. An inconsistent selenium cell automatically sets an unknown exposure on a questionably competent mechanical shutter that was, itself, woefully under spec’d over 50 years ago. How can you not embrace such randomness? There is beauty in the unpredictable. There is liberty, challenge, and a desire to point the eye of this are‑bure‑boke‑matic at subjects that might please it; subjects that might match its unique aesthetic character. With it, I can learn to see as it sees, and explore an entirely new visual universe.
Photographing with the Pen EE-2 is like photographing with a mechanical I Ching. John Cage built a musical career around composing this way. Who’s to say I couldn’t do something similar with photography? This small, humble, consumer-grade, half-frame, 50 year-old point-and-shoot with its enigmatic imaging engine is one of the most emancipating cameras I’ve ever used. And to think, if it weren’t for the technical superiority of digital cameras, I’d have never discovered nor appreciated this camera’s many wonders…
©2014 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
This article’s opening photo, “Parade” is quite likely my favorite shot of the year. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what that says about me, my capabilities and my judgement. Those of you who prefer to think of photography as a technical endeavor, will likely be more interested in knowing that the image was (as expected) shot with an Olympus Pen EE‑2 using Kentmere 100 film, which I (ostensibly) exposed at ISO 320 and stand-developed in homemade Caffenol‑C‑L. Many of the other Pen EE‑2 shots accompanying this article were also exposed on Kentmere 100 at ISO 320, and also developed in Caffenol‑C‑L. These include: “Brain Freeze,” “Architecture,” “Granular,” “True Love 1,” “Bike Lane Preservationist,” “Accoutrements,” and “Rocket Ride” (another shot for which I have a curious fondness). “True Love 2” resulted from a failed experiment with FP4+, which I (over)exposed at ISO 200 and developed in Caffenol-C-L. From the look of the negatives, I should probably have exposed it at ISO 500 (at least). Of course, this is purely conjecture since, in reality, I have no idea what sort of exposure values the 50+ year old selenium meter is reporting. “Assorted Pens” was shot on my digital Olympus OM-D E-M1 using a 60mm macro lens and providing irrefutable evidence to support my claim that “I appreciate (digital’s) easy workflow and stellar fidelity as much as the next photographer. In many instances, it’s exactly what my photography requires.”
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