Archispeak #1 – TEA, Tenerife


Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, Santa Cruz de Tenerife 2008

ARCHITECTS: Herzog & De Meuron, project directed by the Canarian architect Virgilio Gutiérrez


“…..A new public path diagonally cuts through the building complex connecting the top of the General Serrador Bridge with the shore of the Barranco de Santos. On its way down to the Barranco this path is widening and transforming itself into a triangular, semi-covered space in the heart of the cultural centre….This unusual triangular space is a new public plaza which is open and accessible for everyone. The new urban life will be animated by the museum café and restaurant which will be able to serve food and drinks not only in the building but also on the plaza or under the large and shadowy canopy of the existing trees at the Barranco. The plaza can also be used at night as an open air cinema performing films and videos in collaboration with the TEA.”


On a recent visit it was a bleak, grey concrete, empty, soulless space half covered with tatty grey blinds, the antithesis of a bright, colourful and animated Spanish plaza! The only interest is in gawping down into the library area and irritating the readers far below.

Perhaps the interminable greyness of the building was meant to reflect the local volcanic rocks, but in an island of brightly coloured buildings it seems to be yet another example of global architecture that could be plonked down in any city in the world.

A pity it is such a joyless looking building as the exhibitions and facilities within it are excellent.


img_1735A building in Spain, Germany or Japan?

Posted in Architecture, Blots on the Cityscape, Blots on the Townscape, Building, Design, Spanish Architecture, Ugly Buildings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

Dismal Designs – Nikon D5

In complete contrast to my previous post…….



The grotesque looking D5 is the epitome of everything I loathe about the current offering of DSLR cameras. It is the Mr Creosote* of cameras, a misshapen lump with buttons, lids, and switches scattered at random over its spotty black flanks. Imagine having your photograph taken with this aggressive looking ensemble – you’d be worried it might fire something at you! This is the worst one I have seen so far, but why do DSLRs have to be so astonishingly ugly? Here’s another very similar elephantine design, this time from Canon.


Why would anyone want to buy one of these dated dinosaurs with their clunky mirrors when there is the fabulous Sony A7R11 and the even better Leica SL?!

*Mr Creosote is a grotesquely fat character in Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning Of Life who eats so much he eventually explodes!

Top Nikon photo by Kārlis Dambrāns, Wikimedia Commons

Bottom Nikon photo by Morio, Wikimedia Commons

Canon photo by  decltype, Wikimedia Commons


Posted in Camera, Cameras, Design, Japanese Design, Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Delightful Designs – 1946 SIRIO Elettra II camera


As well as being a Leica fan I’m also intrigued by the many ‘Look-a-Leicas’ that mostly appeared in the decade after WW2. The launch of the first Leica in 1925 caused a sensation, changing the way people took photographs. Tens of thousands were sold and rival manufacturers looked on enviously but helplessly as Ernst Leitz had protected the design of the camera with worldwide patents (the letters DRP on the top plate of the cameras means Deutsche Reich Patent). Only the Soviet Union in the 1930s ignored the patents and produced their own version of the camera, not as well made but almost identical in appearance, to the extent that some of the FED copies even had the Leica name on the top plate! Some of these have been faked-up to resemble rather unconvincing Nazi era military Leicas that appear in Ebay regularly!


1930s Soviet made FED 1 with 50mm f3.5 lens (Leica II with Elmar lens copy)

s-l500A  (misspelt) ‘Kriegsmarine Leica’ with no resemblance whatsoever to anything from Wetzlar!

In the aftermath of WW2 the American and British military governments in Germany suspended the country’s patents as part of the war reparations and restrictions on German industry. This opened the floodgates to world-wide copies of the Leica camera, most notably in Japan. Some of the Japanese clones (many of which had ‘made in occupied Japan’ engraved on the body) were very good indeed, particularly from Canon and Nicca. Probably the best copies of all were made by the English aircraft manufacturer and instrument maker Reid and Sigrist whose cameras (more or less exact copies of the Leica III series) were just as beautifully made as the ‘real thing’, and are even more valuable and sought after (there were even Russian copies of this Leica copy).


I couldn’t resist this beautiful little camera on Italian Ebay recently! More in the Leica style rather than a direct copy, the Elettra II is a strikingly modern looking design made by an obscure and short-lived Italian company from Florence, SIRIO (S.I.R.I.O. – Società Industriale Ricerche Innovazioni Ottiche). Its first effort in 1945, the Elettra I (note different spelling in the advert!) was a simple design in black enamel and leatherette, with a separate screwed-on viewfinder, looking rather like a Standard model Leica, even to the similar knobs on the top plate. Deliberately so as it is even mentioned in the ad. below. Presumably the name was chosen to give the camera a futuristic image as Elettra/Electra doesn’t mean anything in Italian and it is mechanically operated!

foto-notiz-51-54Advertising a clearance sale of ‘Electra I’ cameras

A year later a much improved second version with the familiar Leica finish of satin metal and black leatherette was launched at the 1946 Milan Fair. This had the viewfinder cast into the aluminium top plate which made it look very streamlined, and it had more modern knobs and a better looking lens. It is an elegantly simple design, with the bare minimum of controls, that wouldn’t look out of place in the Apple catalogue!



Both were designed for 35mm film in standard cassettes and had a 3 blade, 4 speed (25, 50, 100, 200) shutter within the lens, a much neater design than most of the rim-set ‘Compur’ type lenses. The Elettra II had a 4cm f5.6 ‘Sculptor’ lens as standard, with an option of a 5cm f4.5 ‘Mizar’ lens. Other focal lengths were available, as well as lens hoods and filters. There was no rangefinder or light meter available (and no accessory shoe for them). I can’t find anything about Sculptor lenses (made by SIRIO?) but I have seen another obscure 1950s Italian viewfinder camera with a similar lens made by Mizar (Closter IIa).

img_9018Comparison with 1930s Leica 1 Model C showing similar layout and shape!

img_9017Film loading via bottom plate as for all early Leicas

elettra-ii-sirio-p4-copyAdvert for the second model with a simpler viewfinder (not made?)

The Elettra II was only produced for 3 years (with a final variant that incorporated an accessory shoe in the top plate) as the firm closed in 1949 after only around 10,000 cameras had been produced. I am unable to find out much about SIRIO other than looking on Google Earth to see where it was based – Via Bolognese 89 is in a rather upmarket area of Florence behind some large iron gates! No one seems to know who owned it, who designed the cameras, and why the company disappeared after only a few years. Although the Elettra II is a great looking camera it is very basic and lacks most of the features expected by serious photographers in the post-war era.

There is hardly anything on the web about SIRIO except a good summary of the firm in this comprehensive review of the Italian camera industry during il miracolo economico in the two decades after WWII (two adverts above courtesy of this site):

Fotocamere Italiane 1946-1964 by Donato Consonni

Photo of FED camera from Wikimedia Commons taken by Michele MF

FED has a fascinating history!

Fake Nazi Leica from Ebay

Posted in Camera, Cameras, Design, Italian Design, Leica, Photography, product design, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Japanese Style



I took this photograph in Gion, the historic part of the city centre in Kyoto. Not posed at all, they were just walking down the street, totally absorbed in each other. Over the past decade it has become quite common to see young people wearing traditional dress, either on a date or on public holidays. Kimonos are even available in denim and modern patterns, but I loved the way the traditional bold floral design of the woman’s kimono contrasts perfectly with the plain and dark colours of the male outfit. No fashion designer could come up with a more perfect combination of colours and patterns! I was fortunate with the background to the pair, the lovely muted tones and materials of a traditional wooden house. The bamboo ‘skirts’ against the walls are a common feature of old buildings, particularly in the Kyoto region. Called “Inu-yarai”(犬矢来) they protect the walls during the rainy season (and supposedly against dog pee – inu meaning ‘dog’).

Posted in Fashion, Japan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Whistler’s Haircut

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) was one of the greatest artists of the late nineteenth century, and the finest etcher since Rembrandt. An expatriate American, he had a huge influence on the cultural world of London and Paris, friends with Manet, Courbet and Rossetti, as well as Oscar Wilde, Mallarmé, and other artists and intellectuals of that golden age. Whistler’s credo ‘Art for Art’s sake’ brought him into conflict with the art establishment of the time who favoured narrative and allegorical painting. His personal symbol of a butterfly with a stinging tail represented both sides of his character – a gentle sensitive nature combined with a combative and provocative spirit. His belief in the importance of balance and harmony extended beyond the composition of his work to the arrangement of his exhibitions, interior decoration and furniture, and even his own appearance which was carefully cultivated. ‘A century before Warhol, Whistler treated his own persona as a work of art’ (Ann Landi, Art News, December 2014).

He was admired and derided in equal measure during his life and for some time after it. His friends and compatriots Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote an exhaustive two volume biography that was published in 1908, and there have been dozens since. However, I think the best book ever written about the artist was by his pupil, sometime friend, and acolyte Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938). Written in 1904, the memories of his time with Whistler were fresh in his mind, and he writes in a wonderfully intimate and descriptive way:


Mortimer Menpes: ‘Whistler Monocle, Left Eye, Head Tilted’. c. 1880. Drypoint*

“Even in so small a detail as the dressing of his hair, Whistler was most particular. Many people thought him vain; but that idea is quite false. He treated his hair, as he could not but treat everything about him, purely from the artistic standpoint, as a picture, a bit of decoration. Many a time have I been with him to his hair-dresser in Regent Street, and very serious and important was the dressing of the Master’s head. Customers ceased to be interested in their own hair; operators stopped their manipulations; everyone turned to watch Whistler having his head dressed.

He himself was supremely unconscious. The bystanders troubled him not at all. The hair was trimmed but left rather long. Whistler meanwhile directing the cutting of every lock as he watched the barber in the glass. The poor fellow, only too conscious of the delicacy of his task, shook and trembled as he manipulated his scissors. Well he might, for was not this common barber privileged, to be thus an instrument in the carrying out of a masterpiece, a picture by the Master? The clipping completed, Whistler waved the operator imperiously to one side, and we noticed for a while the back view of this dapper little figure surveying himself in the glass, stepping now backward, now forward.

Suddenly, to the intense surprise of the bystanders, he put his head into a basin of water, and then, half drying his hair, shook it into matted wet curls. With a comb he carefully picked out the white lock, a tuft of hair just above his forehead, wrapped it in a towel, and walked about the room for from five to ten minutes pinching it dry, with the rest of the hair hanging over his face. This stage of the process caused great amusement at the hair-dresser’s. Still pinching the towel, Whistler would then beat the rest of his hair into ringlets (to comb them would not have given them the right quality), until they fell into decorative waves all over his head. A loud scream would then rend the air! Whistler wanted a comb! This procured, he would comb the white lock into a feathery plume, and with a few broad movements of his hand form the whole into a picture. Then he would look beamingly at himself in the glass, and say but two words, – “Menpes, amazing!” – and sail triumphantly out of the shop.

Once having stepped into a four-wheeler, he put his head out to give a direction to the driver. His hat just touched the window, and disarranged his hair. Whistler stopped the cab, got out, re-entered the hair-dresser’s, and the work began again.”

Mortimer Menpes, “Whistler As I Knew Him”, Adam & Charles Black, London 1904; Chapter III ‘The Man’ pp 33-35

*As well as this sympathetic biography Menpes created several superb portraits of Whistler that really captured the character and spirit of the man. They are hard to find these days, but a good print of the one above is currently available from the Allinson Gallery.

Posted in Art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Beyond The Dreaming Spires


Mention Oxford to most people and an image of beautiful golden stone buildings with spires and domes comes to mind. The High Street or ‘The High’ is surely one of the most splendid streets in the world from Magdalen Bridge and the magnificent Magdalen Tower up to Carfax Tower, passing medieval college walls mixed with old shopfronts and the University Church of St Mary’s at its centre. Unfortunately this is only a small fragment of the city and apart from leafy North Oxford and a few other pleasant residential areas the rest of it is blighted by suburban sprawl. Oxford has long been an industrial city as well as an academic one and to the south east are endless streets of pre-war and 1950s council houses, 1930s semis, and Morris car factory workers’ housing.

Since first visiting the place I have been struck by the difference between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’ exemplified by the beautiful architecture from the 13th century up to 1914, centred around the University, and the dross that followed WW1 and the city’s expansion. No other English city has such a contrast between the historic centre and everywhere else. Mediocre development continues to this day with a few honourable exceptions (see my post on the appalling University buildings that have recently blighted the 1000 year old Port Meadow).

The beauty of the University has been photographed by countless tourists but I thought I would take my old Leica down to the suburban streets of the ‘real’ Oxford to capture a more accurate view of the city ‘beyond the Dreaming Spires’…….












Posted in Architecture, Blots on the Cityscape, Blots on the Townscape, Building, Housing, Housing Design, Oxford, Ugly Buildings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

Leica 1 Model C – The First System Camera

The renowned optical instrument firm of Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar in Germany produced the first modern camera in 1925, the Leica 1 Model A.  Designed by two brilliant engineers, Oskar Barnack and Max Berek, it revolutionised photography by using 35mm cine film combined with outstanding optics in a pocket-sized camera.  By the end of the ’20s over 21,000 had been sold, and enthusiastic customers such as Alexander Rodchenko, André Kertész and Paul Wolff were changing the way photographs were taken. Candid street photography became possible as you no longer had to lug around heavy plate cameras and tripods to get good quality photographs. Kodak roll film cameras had a huge impact on amateur photography from the end of the 19th Century but the quality of the images was poor and serious photographers still preferred using plates until the Leica came along.


A disadvantage of the Model A was that it came with a fixed 50mm lens and so Leitz answered the growing demand for different focal lengths by coming up with the Model C in 1930 which was fitted with a flange so that screw-in lenses could be used. The previous Model B was the Compur Leica which had a leaf shutter within the fixed lens.

Because the alloy bodies were not all identical the flange to film plane distance on the first few thousand cameras was individually adjusted. The lenses were matched to each body and part of the camera number was engraved on the lens. There was a small ‘peep hole’ for focusing at the back of the camera body so that Leitz technicians could make final minute adjustments to the lens flange.

The obvious problem with this was that you had to buy a matching set of expensive lenses when you bought the camera. After around 3000 cameras had been produced the flange to film distance was set at exactly 28.8mm and lenses were truly interchangeable. The flanges and lenses were marked with a numeral ‘0’ to signify the change. Many of the ‘non-standard’ Model Cs were converted to the standard type by the factory and original ones, especially with a set of matching lenses, are very rare indeed.


The first available lenses were the standard f3.5 50mm lens, a f3.5 35mm wide angle lens, a telephoto f4.5 135mm, all called Elmar*, and a faster 50mm lens, the f2.5 Hektor (named after Berek’s dog!). The image above shows the telephoto, standard and wide angle lenses, with a FOFER range-finder, and VISIL torpedo view-finder. Note the small ‘0’ at 12 o’clock on the camera body lens flange signifying that this is the standard Model C. All this kit would have cost you the equivalent of £2,500 in today’s money, a lot cheaper than a modern Leica!

*Elmar = a combination of the letters in Ernst Leitz and Max Berek – it replaced the more obvious Elmax name of the previous version due to a patent claim by a rival optical company.

Right from the start of production the Leica was available with a range of accessories. Barnack was convinced that Leitz must have an influence over the whole photographic process to ensure that photographs from the camera were top quality. Film cassettes, range and view-finders, enlargers and developing tanks were offered, and by 1931 the Leica catalogue ran to nearly 100 pages. These examples show some of the huge range of accessories on offer:

1931 catalogue 2

1994 photos of pit filled in

1931 catalogue 3

Below is a small selection from the catalogue (apart from the 1933 ELDUR glass slide contact printer at the back). There are various yellow and UV filters with a leather filter purse, close-up lenses, a developing tank with thermometer, film winding and trimming devices, and an ELDIA contact printer. The small black device by the leather case is a WINKO right angle view-finder. Two film cassettes are shown by a rare twin cardboard container. Modern 35mm film cassettes were based on these and will fit the early Leicas!


The unique Leitz reference code for each product is shown in the catalogue against each item. Leica aficionados are familiar with the quirky, and sometimes unintentionally amusing, five letter codes that Ernst Leitz provided for everything that they sold, from cameras and binoculars to darkroom accessories and rolls of gummed paper. In fact this was quite common for manufacturers since the start of the telegraph. You generally paid by the word for a telegram so asking Leitz to send another 6 “Extra long arms for attaching the Leica to the upright of the Large Copying Device with nose for the auxiliary housing” would have cost a lot more than just asking for 6 more VEARMs. It also avoided any confusion between similar products. Generally made up of of five letters some of the codes were loosely based on German words for the item, such as the above example. Some are amusing to English speakers such as NOOKY (close-up device for the Elmar lens), POOHY (red filter), or ACHOO (Leica III camera). The derivation of most, such as VOLIG, VOMIR, VOOAL, VOODZ, VOOWI (enlarging equipment parts), is a total mystery. Not foreseen by Leitz, for modern collectors these code words are a boon when searching on Ebay!

For more detailed descriptions of early Leica accessories have a look at these posts on the OPINIONATED DESIGNER blog:

Leica VISOR, VIDOM, and VIOOH Viewfinders

Leica APDOO Self-timer, WINKO, WINTU, and AUFSU Viewfinders

Leica RASAL and ROSOL Framefinders

Leica FIKUS Lens Hood

The ‘bible’ for accessory aficionados is ‘Leica, An Illustrated History, Volume III – Accessories’ by James Lager (1998 ISBN 0-9636973-3-1)



Posted in 1930s photography, Camera, Cameras, Design, Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,