I’m very lucky to have lived for most of this century in the region of Malcantone, right at the southern tip of the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, in Switzerland. Malcantone is mainly pre-alpine, apart from the Vedeggio and Magliasina flood plains, and sits between the Lugano (Ceresio) and Maggiore lakes. It borders on a similar region in Italy, and is actually a pretty beautiful area. It does have a certain level of tourism, but I’m always surprised at how little. With quiet, wooded hills leading up to mountain ridges, shaded valleys, rustic villages full of memories of faded glories, and plenty of history, along with good food and wine, it has a lot going for it.
Malcantone pretty much means “bad lands”, and was a place to be avoided in medieval times. Unfortunately, that was tricky, as it was either that, or the plague-ridden marshes, if you wanted to travel north from Milan. A couple of years ago I discovered the ruins of the Miglieglia Castle, perched on a high outcrop over the Magliasina river. Although it was clearly pretty big, it seems to have been wiped from memory. Nobody appears to know anything about it. You can walk to it, if you follow the “Sentiero delle Meraviglie”. And then there are the silver and gold mines. And the remains of houses and villages deep in the woods. And the painfully photogenic villages of Sessa, Astano, Breno, and more.
I guess it’s just a little too far off the beaten track, although considering in has a small, but international, airport (just) with its territory, and is easily accessible from the city of Lugano, it’s hardly remote. Probably Swiss pricing has a lot to do with it as well. But also the weird Swiss, and especially Ticinese, approach to tourism. Bars and restaurants close on Sundays and holidays, facilities like the Lema cable car which takes you up to a stunning viewpoint over Lake Maggiore stop running at 5pm, even in summer when it’s light until 10. Totally crazy.
Oh well, if it were different I’d be ranting about bloody tourists all over the place sticking their tripods in front of me and clogging up the roads and mountain bike tracks.
This is a bit of a geeky post, but whatever. I’ve always been attracted to the more marginal aspects of whatever topic I pursue. Probably because the margins are less crowded, and I don’t have to talk to people. Photography is no exception. I’ve never owned a Nikon or Canon DSLR, although my earliest film SLRs were Canons, initially “borrowed” from my father. In the digital world I backed the Olympus horse early on, and have only ever owned Olympus interchangeable lens cameras. These days they’re getting uncomfortably popular, but I found the solution to that by settling on the black sheep PEN E-P5 rather than the much more popular (rightly so) OM-D series. Oh, I can rationalise my choices, no problem.
But my choice of the less popular range of what is still a marginal brand is totally overshadowed by what could really be my favourite cameras ever - and due to a eccentric decision by an eccentric, loss making wing of an eccentric company, it is cameras, plural - the Sigma Merrills. I’ve got two of these fantastic (in every sense of the word) devices, the DP2M and DP3M, with, respectively, equivalent 50mm and 75mm lenses. These cameras are the essence of the best in Japanese culture, but they also exhibit some of the weaknesses of small companies. Sigma is a private company run by enthusiasts for the love of photography and fine optical craftsmanship. They manage to turn a profit, too, and recently some of their lenses have been favourably compared to the best of Zeiss, and under a quarter of the price. The lenses which are bolted on the front of these strange little “Merrill” boxes are exquisite. As, in my opinion, are the boxes.
The Merrill cameras (there are 3, but I don’t own the 28mm DP1) produce absolutely stunning output. The colour, the liquidity, the depth, the detail all remind me of the very best of slide film, only without the ultra narrow dynamic range and total lack of exposure latitude. Unfortunately, they also share the dislike of slide film of anything over 400 ASA (on a good day).
The handling is a mix of excellent and appalling. The excellent part is the electronic and physical control: the buttons, dials and menu work together to produce the smoothest, most intuitive user interface I’ve ever encountered on a camera, or indeed any other device. But then comes the rest: the camera itself is basically a rectangular box with a lens bolted on the front. It’s a very solidly constructed box, but it’s not terribly comfortable to hold. In particular the DP3M feels very unbalanced, with its relatively large, heavy lens. But the worst part is the viewfinder, or rather the lack of one. Sigma do sell optical viewfinders. I have one on the DP2M, and a Voigtlander viewfinder on the DP3M. But both offer approximate framing, and of course no readout or preview of any kind. The focus acquisition light is visible while looking through the viewfinder, but you have no idea what it has locked on to. But anyway, since there are only 9 AF points, all quite closely clustered in the middle of the frame, so actually it doesn’t much matter.
The LCD is ok, quite good actually, but my eyesight, while ok, is no longer good enough at close range to use a screen for focussing without glasses, and since I only use glasses for reading, it gets really, really awkward. Fine on a tripod, of course, but otherwise a total pain. Also, for me accurate framing is important - composition is maybe one thing I’m not too bad at, and for me it’s a very instinctive thing. Getting the framing right in camera is a major contribution to my enjoyment of photography - it’s a subconscious thing, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but when I can’t quite get connected in that way it’s very frustrating. And the Merrills really, really get in my way in that respect.
Which, ultimately, is why they spend a lot of time on the shelf. But when I do decide to take them out, and they get all their many, chaotic ducks in a row, and they don’t decide to produce totally haywire, irrecoverable white balance interpretations, they astonish and delight me every time. When the time finally comes to drop film, they’ll be waiting.
All photos from a wander last weekend around the area of the Lucomagno Pass, Ticino.
I’m pleased to announce that I have just had an article published in the excellent online magazine, On Landscape, about one of my favourite places, both photographically and generally. I’ve been building up to this for quite a while, and finally got around to actually writing it.
I’m not sure I’ve really done justice to the subject, either in words or pictures, but maybe it will attract some better photographers than me to work some magic.
Been a bit quiet around here recently. I have done a few tweaks to the website, and I’m slowly working towards a gallery refresh, but I haven’t felt much like writing long ranting posts that nobody will read anyway. Also, having moved on to using Adobe Lightroom, I’m back to the nightmare scenario that is the dark side of these “non-destructive, all-in-one” applications. Basically, if you switch, or are constrained to do so thanks to a bunch of brainless iTrash peddling fuckwits in Cupertino, you’ve got to start from scratch (oops, I’m ranting).
The only upside to that is you might stumble across some hidden gems in your back catalogue. Like this one, for example, taken near the Motterascio hut in Ticino, in 2011.
The ironic thing is that the one article I am sort of working on is a sort of statement about how I’m not much interested in landscape photos devoid of any human content. Well, I guess you could say these alpine pastures are heavily shaped by man. Or cow. And it will be a cold day in Hell when I’m anything approaching consistent.
Like a moth to a flame, I can’t keep away. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent several evenings in various locations in Valle Verzasca, searching for that perfect photo which encapsulates it all. Needless to say, I haven’t found it yet, but here are some of my latest attempts.
Some of these were processed in CaptureOne, the rest in Lightroom. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.
Off for a short break in Southern Italy now. Normal service will be resumed in due course.