ALL IN THE STORY
Sometimes you just have to play around, and that's what I was doing on Bastille Day 2018 with my old 50/1.2 Canon and my Leica M9. I bought the lens maybe 40 years ago; had it cleaned by Balham Optical; used it on and off for a long time; gave it to a friend around 10 years ago for his 60th birthday; then inherited it back when he died about 18 months ago. I'd not used it much since. I've shot the Fourteenth of July in our village many times before, usually with my 35/1.4 Summilux and the ISO cranked as high as it would go, which is 2500 on the M9, or maybe as low as 2000 or even 1600 to get rid of some of the noise from the M9's sensor.
Out of curiosity, I decided to use it this time with the 50/1.2 at full aperture and with the ISO set fairly low: 650, near enough the equivalent of one of my favourite films with the lens, Ferrania 640T. I wanted to re-create the mood of pictures that might have been taken when the lens was still fairly new, maybe 50 years ago. It is hard to remember that Ansco 500 appeared in 1967, almost a decade after the 50/1.2: in the 1950s, when when the 50/1.2 was introduced, lens speed really was very necessary. High Speed Ektachrome (160 ASA) was introduced about a year before the Canon lens, in 1956/7 and most colour films of the era were 100 ASA or below. Often well below, with several at 40 ASA.
Everything here was shot at full aperture, which often necessitated very long hand-held exposures, sometimes stretching to 1/8 second. Again, I was doing this to try to re-create the limitations of the past.
As you can see from the pictures, the experiment was not an unqualified success. On the other hand, by sticking it out to the last, I did get a few interesting pictures and one very interesting lesson: that poor technical quality really can render a picture more mysterious. You know, because I have told you, that these are shots taken at an innocent village festival. But now start to make up stories around them. How do you know, unless I tell you, that the dances are not some weird survival from pre-Roman times, including human sacrifice?
Actually, come to think of it, if you forget the human sacrifice, they might be: Bastille Day may have hijacked long suppressed Christian festivals dating back before the Revolution, themselves re-purposed from pre-Christian times. The nearest city, after all, is Loudun. The name comes from Lugdunum, the town of the god Lug.
How do you know that they are not going to throw the young girl who is silhouetted by the flames in the picture above onto the fire? I can tell you that they didn't, and you'll almost certainly believe me, not least because it's true. If on the other hand I told you that they did, a tiny corner of your mind might just suspect that this was possible too. And, now I mention it, doesn't her hand look ever so slightly claw-like?
Or let's move on to the Donjon café-bar after the fireworks, as many did. How do you know that the people around the table above are not part of a drug deal? Well, of course they are, insofar as nicotine and alcohol are drugs, but this isn't exactly the French Connection with bags of cocaine changing hands and the child being held as a hostage. At least, I don't think so; I think I'd probably know if it had been. But, of course, it's easy to start doubting your own senses, and indeed, the evidence of the camera.
You can play the same game with the rest of the pictures too. The High Priestess with her fiery wand, above. Below, the strange blue sparkles emanating from the drugged drink as the aliens take over another human body, in the style of the Body Snatchers. Actually I think they're Christmas tree lights a bit behind her. And the unflattering expression is because she's singing.
Scroll down and you'll find another little girl. This time she's carrying her lantern, about to be initiated into the cult of the Fire Goddess by a man bearing a burning brand. Scroll down to the picture after that, and you'll find a little bit of sociology. Everyone knows that the French drink wine – except, apparently, this lot. Try to count the beers on the table. It was however the night before the World Cup Final, and brewers have done their very best to associate beer and football.
Several people said of an earlier photography piece, Nobody There, that the pictures weren't all that brilliant but they liked the way I could make a story out of them: that the words and the pictures are more than the sum of the parts. Well, here's another story. Does it make you think about what you see; about what you believe; about whether the camera can ever tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Are you always sure what the truth is? Think of the wine-drinking French. The older I get, the stranger I find some aspects of the world.
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Oh: and there's more on the Shutterbug site about the lens, in the form of an article of mine that appeared in 2005.
Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2018