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Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and Me

The last few years have seen me deplete my stock of Kodak 35mm transparency film and with no more Kodak stock being made, I have reached a point where I need to evaluate the future of my photography. Having tried other manufacture’s slide films over the decades, I have never really found one that I was taken with so remained with Kodak until the end.

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeAround six weeks ago I opened the freezer drawer and found I was down to my last sealed brick of a dozen EBX films, which was my favourite film stock when I first moved to slide film many years ago. My tastes changed over the decades in preference of long defunct E100 or E100GX stock but my stash of these was depleted a few years back, leaving just the EBX in suspended animation – waiting for a special event to record.

As thoughts turned to summer holidays my initial idea was to shoot the whole trip digitally. But as time drew nearer and with the discovery of the last of my EBX stock, I decided that my holiday was a perfect Kodak swan song and Sicily the perfect canvas.

So it was that on the day before departure, I defrosted the film, and dusted down my trusty old OM1n and 4Ti, along with 21, 35, 50 and 100mm Zuikos. New batteries were inserted and they sprang into life. As I was loading film into the 1n I paused to remember the first time I did this, more than 30 years ago, and remain amazed at the reliability of this tiny mechanical marvel. It has endured some pretty tough conditions over the decades and never once failed. With no more Kodak slide film available, and my reluctance to move to other manufacturers, the upcoming Sicily trip was likely to be its last major outing and, along with the rest of my OM gear, earmarked for retirement in the coming months. So I loaded up my Tamrac rucksack with my ageing travel companions for one final time.

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeHaving never been to Sicily before I spent many weeks researching the areas around our chosen destinations ensuring that there would be plenty of sightseeing on hand which, in turn, would lead to good photo opportunities. This trip was not just about photography though, so it was important that our time away included plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy. We chose to base ourselves in and around the picturesque hilltop town of Taormina, staying in the town centre itself for the first eight days. After this, we would drive to a more peaceful area near rural Graniti, where we had chosen to stay on an olive producing country estate.

Busy Taormina is nothing short of a photographers dream, but absolutely rammed with visitors during our stay. After some hasty unpacking we were out there with the masses and within minutes my OM1n was capturing the sights, people and atmosphere through a veteran 35mm f2 lens. Architecture along the (thankfully) pedestrianized medieval Corso Umberto 1 main street lent itself well to intricate studies, particularly where churches were concerned. The crowds did result in having to hunt carefully for scenes that were not overburdened by humanity and I felt myself pointing the 1n upwards a little more than I normally would, in an effort to free my images of people.

Corso Umberto 1 is unashamedly touristy, and bursting at the seams with tat and jewellery stores catering for almost everyone’s tastes in souvenirs. Many of the stores made excellent photo subjects once the crowds had parted, and I succumbed to several such shots. After what was an exhausting moped dodging couple of hours looking around the town after a long day’s travelling, we beat it back to our Hotel for a well-earned rest.

The following morning saw me up very early and, with everyone else still sound asleep, I grabbed my OM1n, some lenses, and retraced the previous day’s steps. What a difference a few hours makes; the streets were now the domain of delivery and refuse vehicles with barely a tourist in sight, changing my photography dynamics considerably. Now it was time to exchange 35mm for a 21mm optic and capture some wider street scenes.

Taormina has beautiful public gardens, made even more beautiful by soft early morning light and I found myself lingering here longer than anticipated due in no small part to the discovery of two beautiful blue fronted Amazon parrots, reminding me of our own Amazon noise monsters back at home. They were happily calling to me from their aviary while I was busy getting close up architecture shots with my 100mm lens.

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeOne of the overriding reasons we chose Sicily as this year’s holiday destination was to address a deep seated urge to stand at the top of Mount Etna. Having researched the mountain considerably before arriving, it appeared that two approaches were favoured; the picturesque and quiet northern slopes via Piano Provenzana, and the more touristic southern route, via Refugio Sapienza. We decided to walk both routes and I swapped from OM1n to 4Ti for both hikes. Given the volcanic environment, the 4Ti’s dust sealing would be put to the test in a world of abrasive airborne micro silica particles that seemed to coat everything with every footstep taken. My primary lens for these trips was the 21mm with a polarising filter attached. This in conjunction with the heavily saturated EBX film gave me images that were almost other worldly…results I had remembered from previous walks in volcanic landscapes. The 21mm was responsible for most of my images on Etna’s slopes, although I referred to the 100mm occasionally for tighter composed images of volcanic craters -particularly the active ones.

Our volcanic sojourn also included a trip to Stromboli, Europe’s only permanently active volcano. Usually the activity is limited to explosions from the summit crater every 30 minutes or so, resulting in an aerial pyrotechnic display of magma falling to earth and rolling down the steep slopes. Things were a little different when we arrived; the mountain was closed to visitors due to it erupting. We were treated to an awesome site of lava flowing from the crater and tumbling down the slopes, some of it coming to rest in an explosion of hissing steam as it hit the sea with considerable speed. It was dusk when we witnessed this, and the sight called for my 50mm 1.2 lens as light was getting very low. Using this lens wide open for images such as this is not what I would normally do, but I had little alternative – I could not use long shutter speeds due to the movement of the boat. The 47° angle of view gave majestic shots of the volcano, but I would have liked something longer that allowed me to capture the detail of the lava flows whilst maintaining the bright 1.2 aperture (wouldn’t we all J). Reviewing my results from this particularly difficult shoot left me impressed with the ability of the tiny OM system when used in less than favourable conditions. Whilst I had created no Stromboli masterpieces, I was satisfied with what was on the projector screen.

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeLike other areas of the Mediterranean Sicily suffers from wildfires during the drier months, some of which are terrifying to watch when the viewer is from more temperate climates and not used to such scenes. Having seen many of these during travels around Greece and Turkey, it came as no surprise when we spotted tell-tale signs of dark smoke rising below the slopes of a mountain village.  The acrid tendrils soon turned into something far more worrying and we watched in shock as several acres of olive trees combusted in a fiery roar as the flames ripped up the mountainside towards our viewpoint at an alarming speed. Minutes later a firefighting plane arrived on the scene and we witnessed some of the best piloting skills we have seen as he wove between mountain ridges and electricity pylons, damping down areas surrounding houses that were at risk. Needless to say, we were capturing the action with 100mm lenses – a real challenge for me using manual focus. I found the 100mm focal length very useful for this as it allowed me to capture the drama of water being released from the aircrafts underbelly, along with the chosen target. Anything much longer than around 150mm would have caused too much cropping and anything less than what I was using would have lost the impact. It is situations such as this where autofocus comes into its own and I must admit to being a little envious of Ethan with his K-5 and 100mm lens rattling off sharp image after sharp image, while I fumbled hastily with focus and wind-on duties; for every picture I took, Ethan made many.

It took several hours to bring the fire under control and it continued to burn in isolated areas throughout the night. The following morning revealed a charred landscape many square kilometres in size. It is with absolute sincerity we hope no one was harmed or had property destroyed.

In a departure from most things fiery (excluding a couple of further wildfires), we moved inland during the second week of our stay, allowing us access to some beautiful and remote areas of the island. By this time I had used more than half of my film stock so imposed tighter control over what I intended to photograph. I had little choice but to consider my subjects carefully and reduce the amount of shooting angles used for some images, putting more thought into what focal length best suited a subject instead of shooting the same subject with a super wide followed by wide (maybe followed by standard).

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeI also found that I was using the 4Ti more during the latter part of my stay and I was doing this so I could exploit fully its superb multi-spot metering facility to nail exposures correctly. The brilliant white facades on some of the buildings would have caused me underexposure problems with the 1n, unless I manually compensated. But this in itself would undermine the frugality I was now having to impose to preserve the remainder of my film. Slide film is notoriously unforgiving when it comes to exposure so I could easily have wasted several frames in an effort to get one image perfectly exposed. The highlight function of the 4ti’s spot metering is precisely for this; spot meter off the white wall and press the highlight button and the exposure value is automatically increased to ensure that white really does appear white and not a nasty grey. All images taken using this method came out perfect.

We spent some time at Syracuse as the ancient Greek part of the city was something that interested me greatly and I had spent some time researching Dionysius, ruler of the city back in the 4th century BC and wanted to photograph what remained of his world archaeologically. As anyone who has visited sites like this will know, there is lots of white stone around (amphitheatres, agora’s, buildings etc.) that can cause severe exposure errors if not compensated for. My 4Ti in spot metering/highlight mode and 21mm lens with C-POL filter was the perfect capture tool.

The Alacantra Gorge was located just a couple of miles from where we were staying, its icy waters making a refreshing change from summers stifling heat. Having this place to yourself is impossible in early September though as it is on the tour bus route, hence very popular. As picturesque as it is, capturing an interesting photograph proved the most difficult challenge of my holiday as, swarming hordes aside, the place suffers from sanitation in the form of roped off areas, an abundance of signs and a very ugly concrete faced elevator used to transport visitors to the bottom of the gorge. I walked away with just a handful of images from here, at least half of them not making the final cut. Such a shame really as, given the correct environmental attitude, it could be made into something really special.

As I searched in vain for solitude I could not help but recall a trip made along the Acheron River in the Epirus region of Greece several years ago; it is an area that receives lots of visitors but, a few taverna’s aside, remains very un-commercialised and stunningly beautiful. It felt a world away from Alacantra and left me longing to return there.

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeMany miles inland, near a town called Piazza Armerina, can be found the stunning Villa Romana del Casale, a UNESCO World Hertiage Site opened in 2013 after many years of restoration. If you like Roman Mosaics (as we do), it does not get much better that this. Out of its 60+ rooms, more than 40 contain mosaic floors of such stunning beauty it is hard to believe they are 1600 years old. The site took little planning from my photographic point of view; I defaulted to 4Ti, 21mm f2 and 50mm 1.2 lenses, both of which were shot almost exclusively wide open due to the mosaics being under cover and flash being forbidden. The immense size of some mosaics resulted in the 21mm getting most use and its performance at F2 is remarkable. Not quite up there with its f4 and 5.6 settings but close enough to yield very nice images. In situations such as this, when pushing camera gear to its limits, I sometimes forget that I am using equipment that was produced back in the 1970’s and 80’s. It remains as awesome today as it is did back then and in many respects easily matches modern counterparts.

Economic use of my dwindling film stock meant that by the time our holiday was drawing to a close, I had a roll left over. Our last day was spent in a mountain village where the weather had taken a turn for the worse, forcing us to seek refuge in a trattoria. Determined to use the last frames, I made atmospheric pictures of the buildings, our coffees and rain soaked streets with my OM1 and 50mm f1.2 lens. I love using this lens wide open as it is naturally soft while retaining some sharpness and produces beautiful bokeh. I have loads of images throughout my libraries that are similar to ones taken here on this rainy morning, but I never tire of making or viewing them – this particular piece of glass has often acted as a form of catharsis when I shoot through it. To me the results sum up what photography is really all about – the ability to capture a fleeting moment with ethereal results. The boldness of my documentary style pictures of ancient Syracuse contrast starkly with these quieter images where softness and atmosphere prevail.

Sicily, a couple of OM cameras and MeLater that day, as the frame count increased, I began to wonder what sort of image my last frame of Kodak slide film should be of. Should I attempt to create a landscape masterpiece, something abstract and arty or maybe an interesting close up floral shot? In the end it was none of these and I decided to capture something of the fun side of what holidays are about. So the final images were simply shots of us in the swimming pool, enjoying fading moments of what has turned out to be an exhilarating experience.

Back home, the cameras and lenses were cleaned and batteries removed with the intention of storing my film gear away, leaving me to pursue a digital future. I do feel a real sense of loss now my film stock has been exhausted and wish that Kodak had not made the decision to discontinue their slide business. I will keep an eye on the market and see if any niche manufacturers (Film Ferrania?) release new lines and, if they do, will dust one of my sleeping retiree’s off and try it out. Until then, my immediate future lies with my X-1 and possibly another model from the Leica X range.

Note: as I do not have a scanner at the moment, all images that accompany this blog were taken by my Son using his K-5 and his newly acquired 20-40 lens. This journey was the first serious use of his 20-40 and he will be reviewing it for PhotoArk in the very near future.