In spring 2006, I spent two weeks travelling around Ukraine. It was some 18 months after the events of the Orange Revolution, an upswell of popular discontent that turned the capital Kiev’s main Independence Square into a camp bedecked in orange flags. It was an attempt to prevent the victory of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician deemed to have won the recent general election though bullying and stolen votes.
It succeeded. Ukraine, a decade-and-a-half after separating from a crumbling USSR, was a country that seemed to be making the first tentative steps towards its place in a modern Europe, the shadow of its vast Russian neighbour always at its side.
The events of the last few weeks have plunged the country – Europe’s largest, apart from Russia – into a crisis like those of the Cold War’s darkest days. The names popping up in the straps of the TV news channels and the sidebars of the newspaper articles are exotic reminders of historical pasts; Crimea and Balaklava, Feodosia and Sevastopol. They are names that echo with imperial ambition and Soviet sacrifice.
Chinese jet and Chinese boy, through a travel agency window
Chinese New Year is a big deal in any city with a sizeable Chinese community. Not just cities in Asia but anywhere with strong connections . The New Year is rung in with gusto everywhere from Bangkok to Vancouver, San Francisco to Wellington, New Zealand.
And to that list you can add London – there’s been a Chinatown somewhere in the city since the late 19th Century. Since the 1970s the heart of London’s Chinatown has been in Soho, the city’s one-time dark underbelly, filled with drinking joints, sex shops, peep shows and brothels. Now Gerrard Street, just a few paces from London’s world-famous Leicester Square, is full of Chinese restaurants and supermarkets. This is where the Chinese New Parade ends up, having started in Trafalgar Square and snaked its way up through the streets.
Like anything in London that doesn’t cost any money to enter, the New Year celebrations draw a massive crowd. So big that it can be almost impossible – unless you’re one of the early arrivals – to see much of the actual event. So capturing the atmosphere of an event like this is about finding interesting elements from the sidelines – even if they’re not the trademark Chinese dragons and acrobats people might expect.
Natural light outdoor portrait, with reflector, on a KMZ Iskra and Fuji Neopan
Since 2000, I’ve been collecting old Soviet cameras, the relics of a once-mighty photographic industry. Many of the cheaper, simpler end of the spectrum – such as the Zenit E SLR – were well-known in the West, the kind of cheap, no-frills camera that many budding photographers took their first shots on.
As I’ve written before, the Soviets also produced – in some cases copied – some more refined designs, some of which were very reliable and capable of taking beautiful pictures. One of the best of these was the Iskra 6×6 medium format camera made by KMZ in the 1960s.
The Iskra’s a medium format folding camera based very closely on the classic Agfa Isolette made in the 1950. It’s a beautiful camera for taking portraits.
The original Lomo LC-A – a Soviet-designed compact that became a photographic craze (Wikipedia Commons)
I first heard about the Lomo LC-A in the year 2000. It was a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and eight years since a bunch of Austrian art students discovered one of these Soviet curios in a Prague junk shop and turned it into an enduring photographic fashion.
I saw my first Lomo in a sadly long-defunct camera shop on London’s New Oxford Street. It was a Soviet-era Lomo LC-A from 1986, a heavy rectangle of matte black plastic with Ломо written on the front in faded Cyrillic script, a relic of Cold War cool. It cost £70 and it started an unshakeable love affair with analogue photography, and the weird and wonderful world of Lomography.
The original Lomo may have been tweaked and refined – that Soviet-era design has evolved into the more flexible LC-A+ and the wide-angle LC-Wide, which I reviewed back in 2012. But these remakes owe their life to the original; the surprisingly heavy scale-focusing compact camera with the vignetting lens that has proved a remarkably enduring cult.
My old flatmate Dave – beautiful bokeh in the cafe lights on a Helios-44
The Soviet Union produced millions of cameras during its 70-odd years in existence. Zenit SLRS and Zorki rangefinders, Lubitel TLRs and Chaika half-frames, Moskva folder and Elikon compacts. And all those cameras needed millions of lenses.
The Helios-44 was a standard lens that came with many Soviet SLRS and in several mounts – equipping cameras such as the Zenit 3M, the idiosyncratic KMZ Start and stalwarts such as the Zenit E.
The Helios-44′s great strength is the design of its aperture – they’re arranged so they form a perfect circle as they close. Shooting on wide apertures with any kind of light or prominent elements behind can create beautiful circles of blur. It’s no surprise that many digital photographers have snapped up old Helioses to use on their Nikon and Canon DSLRS. And there’s no shortage of them around; the Helios-44 might be the most-produced standard lens in the world.