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Harrow Technical: The Robin Gowing Interview

Wed, 2017-10-04 12:19

I’m going to detail at some point how I got embroiled with the Pentax MX, and almost escaped, and then, just when I thought I was out, got pulled back in. For now, I’ll just admit that recently I bought a particular MX knowing full well it had a problem, and planning to send it to Harrow Technical for the cure. In this manner, I reasoned, I would get the camera cheap and then end up with a perfect MX that I could trust. The devil made his usual appearance in the details, but I still ended up with a not-quite-cheap perfect MX thanks to the excellent service provide by one Robin Gowing, the man behind, or inside, Harrow Technical. (If he'd done a bad job I could have titled this post "A Harrowing Experience," but you can't have it both ways.)

Fancy camera fixing paraphernalia in Harrow's workshop. Is that a lens collimator? A shutter speed tester? I don't really know but I'd love to poke buttons and twist knobs here. Robin would probably frown on that, though I doubt he'd raise his voice. Anyway, I wasn't there -- Robin courteously, and with minimal prodding, provided the photos for this post (apart from the one I stole from Google below). 

Who is this Jesus to my metal Lazarus? Who chooses to labor, not in the rich, loamy fields of Leica Land, but in the stony talus of Pentax? I called him to find out.

I reached him at his office in Harrow, a suburb of London. He sounds much younger than he must be, and comes across as the kind of person who might stop to help a stranded motorist, even if that motorist wasn't particularly attractive or deserving looking. And if that motorist was your daughter or mother and you tracked down Robin and tried to explain to him how grateful you were that it was him that stopped that night, he would just smile affably and suggest that it was nothing, which is what anyone would say, but he would actually believe it, which is the thing. This may be a lot to infer from a twenty minute phone call about old cameras. I'm just trying to say, he sounds like a nice guy. 

Robin began working at Pentax only a couple of years after I was born, and I am no longer particularly young. He eventually became the technical service manager for Pentax in the UK, the title he held until the company cut its internal staff loose and farmed service out to a third party. In a twist, he stayed on, occupying the building of his former employer, which today is still proudly designated “Pentax House” in large white letters. Are the halls gray lino? Do they echo with the ghosts of film's glory days? I didn't ask, and Robin didn't volunteer. In any case, he’s been repairing Pentax cameras on his own for the last 22 years, a solitary light in a vast darkness.

Pentax House, as seen by Google Street View. If it was called House Pentax, I would have made a Game of Thrones reference. It would have been more clever than something about winter coming. This post is trying to write itself across multiple timelines, alternate realities.

So Robin, how's tricks?

“I’m very busy at the moment,” he said. “I find that a lot of people who’ve bought a Pentax digital camera have sold a film camera to fund the purchase, and now they’ve gone back and bought, second hand, the film model they sold.”

What about the “film renaissance” we’re always hearing about?

“I’m certainly a lot busier than I was a couple of years ago,” he said.

And who are these people that send him their treasures for resuscitation?

“A character just came in today with an MX that he’d bought new and looked like he’d used a lot. Or somebody will just drag something out of a cupboard. And a lot of stuff is inherited from deceased parents.”

An MX (not mine, possibly the character's) on Robin's work bench.

But central to Robin’s business is, of course, the entity that is the cause of and solution to so many of the problems faced by people with an unhealthy interest in old cameras.

“I find a lot of people buy stuff on eBay, and it’s not always faulty, but it always need service.”

Still, he thinks it’s a good deal.

“You can buy an MX on eBay for 50 or 60 pounds, then you factor in [my] service cost, about 80 quid, so for 140 pounds you have a camera that’s going to last you indefinitely.”

What’s coming in?

“I get a lot of MXs, LXs, any sort of Spotmatic, the KX, K2, K1000 [which he called a K-thousand – have I been saying it wrong with the one all this time?]. That’s the bulk of what I get.”

I wanted him to dish some dirt on the Pentax family, who’s made of the sternest stuff, but like a loving father, he refused to play favorites, even though he obviously prefers the star footballer.

“They’re all reliable. I still get SVs, S1As, S3s, going back to the late 50s and early 60s. I get quite a few of those from overseas, and touch wood, I’ve not had one back yet.”

I was surprised to learn that Robin doesn’t shoot film himself (“I have a Panasonic bridge camera that I use, and that’s all I use.”) but in retrospect I suppose I shouldn’t have been. He’s a tradesman, not a hobbyist or a camera fetishist. This is his job. Outside of it, he’s probably a normal person.

Robin was bullish on film in general: “It’d definitely not a flash in the pan. It’s kept me busy for 20 years, and as I said I’m busier now.” But I wondered about the future of his profession. Is there anyone to pass the baton to?

“This is a question I’m asked quite often,” he said. “There are a lot of people my age in the trade, and eventually they’re all going to retire or die off. Who’s going to replace them? They’ve got a lot of knowledge, and there’s nobody else coming into the trade, so it’s a bit of a worry really. Eventually there may be no one left to repair this old stuff.”

This strikes me as particularly true for Pentax. The high value of Leica gear justifies high service fees, which seems to feed a fairly vibrant service ecosystem. Plus, Leica itself still exists as a maker and servicer (albeit at exorbitant cost) of Leica film gear. Nikon seems to have its own world of film-era specialists, and there’s a lot of Nikon gear floating around to support. But when it comes to people who just do Pentax, I’ve only come across Harrow and one other option. Robin has heard of him, too.

“There’s a guy in the States, Eric… Hendrickson, I think? He’s very good. Apart from him, I don’t know anyone else who specializes in Pentax anywhere.”

(And yet Eric offers us hope, in an interview conducted by one K David last year: “I’m training this gal on the K1000, and she’s really good, really talented.” Can I be forgiven for imagining emergent-Jedi Rey deftly removing the top plate, guided by an old master and her innate sense of the Force?)

A wider view of the work bench, since Robin took the trouble to photograph it. The same MX in déshabillé, fumbling hastily for its bottom plate. Looks like some Bonne Maman jam jars back there, probably full of specialty greases and oils. Let's hope Robin doesn't get his marmalade mixed up with his Nye 140C!   

I asked Robin for some maintenance do’s and don’ts.

“I wish people wouldn’t squirt WD-40 into their cameras,” he said. “You’ve be surprised how often that happens and it’s a real pain to deal with. Oh, and the foam where the mirror goes up, that’ll start to disintegrate and they’ll pick and pick at it, and it’ll get all over the focusing screen. It’s a bugger to clean off, or it’s impossible. And screens aren’t available… I have to harvest them from my stock of faulty cameras, which is time-consuming.” Consider yourself warned.

I also asked him about something that I’m kind of embarrassed to have worried about: Can he tell if a camera’s been sitting on a shelf for ages with the shutter cocked?

“Yes, you can tell. It doesn’t matter so much with the ME Super [which has a metal, vertical-travel shutter] and stuff, but on the cloth shutters, you’ll see that the material will have little ridges in it because it’s been wound over the drum for twenty years.” But wait. “That in itself isn’t detrimental, it just looks unsightly, but strangely enough it doesn’t affect the shutter speeds.” So there you have it. Relax, or don’t, depending on whether or not your obsessiveness extends to the appearance of your shutter curtains.

Walker Evans Shoots Junk at the Pompidou, with David Hockney Bonus

Tue, 2017-08-01 15:37

I went back the Pompidou Center, this time as a paying customer, to see the Walker Evans retrospective. The fact that Paris had been burning acetylene-hot for four days was a factor, because I remembered (correctly, happily) that the Pomp is air conditioned. And I wanted to see the pictures.

Once you've seen my phone snaps of these photographs, you don't really need to drag yourself to a museum to look at prints and breath air recently exhaled by other humans. (Please note that I am an entirely unironic person.) On a sincere note, I love wrecked cars, and the older, the better.

The graduate theses on Evans alone could probably fill the back of a Depression-era panel truck, not even touching the virtual reams on the web. I have no intention of going there. This is my uneducated, off-the-cuff reaction to the work of an acknowledged master. I came to this show as most people would come to it – with a vague idea of its importance, a readiness to appreciate tempered with the cynicism of someone who, more than once, has found work in the canon to be more pop-gun than howitzer, but without the stamina or intellectual rigor to really set out why.

I was of course aware of Evans’ shining position in the firmament of Great American Photographers. I learned that Evans was a rebel. Not quite in the same vein as Koudelka, but they are definitely spirit-brothers across the decades. There’s a video interview with Evans at the end of the show, I think made in the 70s, where he says that he basically just did what he felt like doing. One gets the sense that he didn’t much care what other people thought, which is one thing. But he also claims to have not really thought much about it himself when he did it. He didn’t start with a big project – he just did what felt right, then fit the results into some kind of project later, so the world could deal with it. This gave me some insight into just how crazy his documentary impulse might have seemed at the time. Now, we take photographs of any damned thing. But Evans was leading the pack when he indulged his interest in random store fronts. Advertising. Junk cars. Ruined architecture. Poor people, for the love of god, though I suppose he was in good company with the rest of the Farm Security Administration team, and you probably couldn’t shoot a frame in Depression-era America without having someone hard-up wander into it. But Evans wasn’t just about extremes. He not only shot the craggy, now-picturesque sharecroppers, but also the not-poor, not-rich, not-beautiful people. Just schmoes and schmoettes, schmoing along, like me and (if I dare) you.

Signs, advertising, grinding poverty, wry commentary on consumer capitalism. Nicely done, Mr. Evans.

He’s not a street photographer, though he did shoot some street photography of a kind that prefigured a million Instagram posts – random snaps of random people. Like, he’d literally set up a frame and wait for people to walk through it, snapping, I gather, pretty indiscriminately. Same with a series he shot in the New York subway, reportedly with a miniature hidden camera. These are just straight shots of whoever happened to sit down across from him. The expo text said he cropped these tightly to focus on just the individual(s). On a technical level, I wondered how he managed this with a discretely-sized lens and cropping a miniature format (though perhaps this means 35mm) in 1940s emulsion with natural underground light. The expo was not interested in answering this, nor does cursory internet probing. I preferred the subway series to his man-on-the-street snaps, perhaps because of the purity of their voyeurism.

Ordinary schmoe, rando-snapped.

The show text (in French and English, with the English in legible font, I’m happy to report) points out Eugene Atget’s influence on Evans, and I could see that. But from my admittedly casual exposure to Atget, Evans’ flavor of vulgar documentation is much tastier. Atget’s Paris street tableaux often have a sterile, depopulated vibe, or at least that was my impression when last I checked. As I write this, I wonder if getting older might have changed my appreciation of that work. Because part of what really turned me on with Evans was that it distills the time-machine, necromantic power of photography to a potent tincture of something you can’t get in a drugstore anymore. With his early, most-famous work, you’re definitely looking at dead people and vanished places. A lot of Atget’s empty Paris street corners from the edge of photography’s first century look much the same today, and that of course carries its own appeal. But Walker was fixated on the ephemeral flim-flam of a burgeoning consumer society. Great America. Store windows full of boots and pants and gloves, diner menu boards (comparing the prices on the two, either food was basically free or clothes were staggering expensive back then). Peeling posters for minstrel shows, which, good Christ, you hear that term used derogatively even today but they were real things, and they look to have been unspeakably awful. Even actual piles of trash and random sidewalk debris – I’m not talking picturesque or clever stuff, not Riboud’s plastic bag rabbit, just unvarnished garbage. I imagine this was a little mind-blowing at the time, and even today, it kind of makes you stop and think, dang, that’s some ugly trash, and it reminds me of a heap I passed on my way over here.

When it came to documenting the ephemeral, Evans had a particular interest in recording advertising in situ. These images are endlessly fascinating as windows into the charmingly naïve mindset of consumerism in the early part of the 20th century, when so much advertising focused on convincing you that “X” was the best version of something you needed (i.e., the soap that gets you cleanest, the razor that shaves you closest), rather than today’s general practice of associating products with fictional identities and lifestyles. Something about Evans’ interest in these signs painted on barns and pasted on walls reveals that he is, presciently, already in on the joke.   

Evans seems to go out of his way to remove himself from much of the most famous documentary work – we’re talking straight on, full-light, what-you-see-is-what-he-got style, minimal style. But there are occasional flourishes, though you’d be forgiven for wondering if they’re really there, not just chance. In this photo of the Cherokee Parts Store, he catches two female profiles amidst the tires. One woman strikes a classical sculptural pose. The face of the other seems to float in darkness, isolated by a a black fur coat and the shadows of the garage beyond her. Another face looks straight into the camera. This photo is interesting as a document, but it works on the level of pure image and emotion as well. It is a good photograph without qualification.


So, if you’re in Paris, check it out. And then wander over to the David Hockney exhibition. I’d seen a Hockney show once some years back at LACMA, which left me with an overall impression of swimming pools and 1980’s Los Angeles art-world gayness. This show confirmed that recollection. I’m not honestly a big one for painting in most cases, so I don’t consider myself able to judge the work that Hockney is best known for. I did like some the portraits.

But along with his large canvases, the show also included some of Hockney’s collage-style photography, which I vaguely recalled from LACMA. Hockney shoots dozens of images of a scene and then sticks the photos (either 4 x 6-ish prints or Polaroids) onto a canvas. It’s not just analog photostitching though: he’ll include multiple views of an individual, for example, resulting in a cubist version of photography, collapsing multiple angles and moments into a single two-dimensional image. It’s cool, and I’m surprised it’s not something I’ve seen imitated much.

Photos weren't allowed in the Hockney section, which I find pretty damn petty. So here's something I stole off the Christie's site, of a piece I'm pretty sure I saw in the show. I was going to add a snarky little dig at the auction house, but when I went to their front page I ended up reading a whole article there about a guy who bought a Leica and randomly fell in with Picasso, Matisse, Braque and company immediately thereafter, making his very first exposures of these luminaries and in the process providing Christie's with some expensive stuff to hawk 60 years later but still, a neat article. Nothing is black and white except black and white photography and penguins and zebras to a certain extent, and if you allow yourself too much time to think it becomes difficult to insult anyone properly or even make a decent generalization.

There was also a video version of this concept called “The Four Seasons” that’s beautiful but not really as intriguing as the photo work. It looks great but doesn’t really deliver more than conventional video would have done.

I didn’t regret taking it in.

* I wrote this back in June but I don’t like to post anything too topical or relevant so it’s only now seeing the light of the Internet. Depending on the future you’re reading this from, it might still be on or not.