Initially, you don’t worry about what traveling is for, because it’s obvious. Somewhere new! Adventures! Beautiful things! Take pictures! Beautiful pictures! Then you get older, and it may occur to you to wonder what the hell you’re doing on this street in a city you’ve never been in, where you know no one, and have no particular place to go. One answer is just that difference makes it easier to notice what’s around you and feel awake, and subsequently alive, and so we went to Puglia, or Apulia, on the Adriatic coast of the heel of Italy’s boot. Along with my wife and child, I took the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8 with me. Unlike them, it fits unobtrusively on my E-M10 and weighs almost nothing.
Before I had a kid, I traveled a lot, and I knew that a traveling man needed a good zoom. Mine was Sigma’s 17-70 f2.8-4.5 for APS-C cameras, which is a nicely wide to gently telephoto range. My attraction to primes coincided with the birth of my daughter and the abrupt end to extensive international travel that entailed. But now she’s three years old and has a bit of endurance, so we took Ryanair to Bari, a city I’d never heard of in a region I’d never heard of, because my wife read about it on someone’s blog. And I took the 17mm (34mm, i.e. 35mm, in real camera terms) because I now believe in primes and the Olympus 25mm 1.8 that ordinarily hangs on my digital camera (50mm-equivalent) seemed like it would be too tight for the vistas I imagined I’d be wanting to record. I didn’t bring my Leica because I figured the trip would be complicated enough without the extra weight and fuss, and I don’t have anything wider than 50mm for it anyway (NB: this the last time I mention Leica or film in this post, so if they're the only reason you're here, I release you to browse on).
The widely available facts about the 17mm: it’s a compact, light-weight, fast-focusing lens in a classic (eqiv) focal length. It has a “Fast Focus Clutch” feature that involves pulling the focus ring back to switch to manual, which sounds much cooler and (for me anyway) more useful than it actually is. The depth-of-field scale is more homage than functional, and the focus ring overshoots infinity, which is lame. I feel like the lens relaxes when I put the cap on because then no one can judge its comically small entry pupil.
Until this trip, I’d only sporadically used this lens. I met it on eBay and we got together to see if a wider-angle prime suited my street and family work, and it didn’t. I’d also imagined, because the lens is nominally made of metal, that it would make using my Olympus E-M10 more romantic, but it also didn’t.
Flying Ryanair out of Beauvais (hilariously called “Paris” Beauvais – it’s practically in Belgium) is also relaxing. Now that all economy air travel is basically shit, budget carriers seem less shitty than they once did. Ryanair seats have no seat pockets, and though I assume barf bags are available on request, I wonder about the logistics of getting one in a hurry. The seats don’t recline, and the plastic blue and yellow color scheme makes you feel like you’re riding in a Playschool toy, but the plane flies through the air all the same. We had minimal carry-on baggage so I didn’t need to bash in some old lady’s gourd to get overhead storage space. Beauvais and Bari’s airport seem like provincial bus stations when you’re used to CDG and LAX, and that is wonderful.
We had a good week to explore the region. If you find yourself in Puglia, with or without a decent 35mm-equiv lens, these are some places you should go:
Matera, a city like the missing link between our millennia as cave dwellers and our recent surge of architectural extravagance. Folks lived in caves here until the 1950s (albeit caves fronted with man-made walls), and they only stopped because the Italian government got embarrassed and forced them into housing estates. Fun fact: they heated their caves, which also housed their animals (a few feet from the bed, in some cases) with animal dung. As in, the heat from the composting dung warmed the cave. What smell?
-Alberobello, with its conical houses that look like something dreamed up by a 19th century travel writer describing a place he’s sure his readers will never visit to fact-check him. Unfortunately the Trulli town is irredeemably touristy, but if you squint and the crowds are light, you can see the magic.
-Locorotondo, a hill-top town where the light ricochets between white-washed walls with spectral abandon.
Lecce makes a beautiful base for exploring the southern vasts, though it seemed like half the famously baroque churches were modestly draped in plastic for restoration when we were there.
The light, in general, is something special in this region, at this time of year (spring). Not yet carrying too much heat, it’s nonetheless screamingly vibrant, setting color thrumming. It reminded me of southern France, the Mediterranean coast, but each time you see it it feels like a new thing, freshly discovered. It leaves some impression but there is something ultimately unrememberable about it, so that the next time you see it you’re startled again with the way it lashes the physical world into being, how it livens stone, how it cuts narrow streets into blue shadow and warm, warm illumination.
This of course inspired the use of the 17mm, though with some restraint, because in my many years of photographing while traveling, and my time in the south of France and similar climes, I’ve come to accept that this lightning cannot be bottled, not really. At best you get a scribbled reminder of what it was, and the lens did that just fine.
I shot the lens wide open in the dimness of the many churches we visited, with their extravagantly agonized Christs and brutally martyred saints, their reliquaried bone chips and macabre ossuaries. Unfortunately, we missed both the human remains of the Turkish slaughter in Otranto and the mummies in Monopoli because of the vissicitudes of mass and closing times. There is a sense of the Catholic church, The Church, as a going concern in this part of Italy, the kick drum in the daily rhythm of life, totally different from the vibe in France, where the profusion of churches feels more vestigial than vibrant. It made me want to watch The Young Pope. I can attest the lens does fine at f/1.8.
In my very limited experience, Puglians are more friendly than average toward strangers. People stopped to chat with us and wanted nothing in return. People offered help unbidden. People cooed ostentatiously over my daughter, which isn’t exactly friendliness but made me feel good.
That friendliness evaporates when they get behind the wheel or cross a street. Italians locomote like they’re desperate to be martyred for the god of traffic, but we didn’t have to pay the collision deductible on our rental or hush-money to any families of smashed pedestrians, so I can’t really complain. On the plus side of driving, the roads between the Puglian cities are strangely empty: a post-apocalyptic image is tempting, especially given the many abandoned and half-constructed buildings, but the actual impression is of a place built for people who haven’t arrived, a Langoliers-future of open asphalt.
If you’re worried about how sharp the 17mm is, just keep taking photos for another ten years, or start shooting film now. I’ll tell you that it’s not as sharp as Olympus’s 25mm 1.8, but that lens could cut a Ginsu knife in half and still neatly slice a tomato. The 17mm is a tiny bit soft wide open, and less so closed down.
Color and contrast? Modern lenses with anything more than the most ruthless design budgets are largely indistinguishable to me along these lines, and the most subtle digital post-processing creates changes in the image that outweigh the subtle imprint of glass.
The bokeh doesn’t seem as nice to me as that of the 25mm, but as a wise friend of mine once remarked, how many great pictures have you seen with a lot of background blur? I’m not going to be shooting a lot of portraits with a lens this wide, so I don’t worry about it.
One possibly legitimate nit I found to pick with the lens: it flared several times in the bright Italian sun, with a little spot appearing in the center lower part of the frame. But I refuse to use lens hoods, so maybe this is my fault.
I could also pick nits from Puglia's well-oiled pompadour, but this would be similarly pointless. There is more trash blowing around than is ideal when pondering the depth of human time. Things don’t always work as well as you might like them to. Italy is, after all, the founding “I” in “PIGS,” and just think about how long Berlusconi was gumming up the gears. Italy is not Norway. That's why the food is so cheap.
The Olympus 17mm, on the other hand, works very well. Traveling with just a 35mm-equiv prime is something I now consider workable, at least for city trips, and the kind of travel photography I now practice. I no longer aspire to capture every moment, every spectacular view at its maximum spectacularity. I just want some nice reminders, and the chance at making one or two meaningful photographs if I’m lucky enough to spot them.