'Going for Fifty' at the Tunbridge Fair

September 20, 2012

Every photographer has a few favorite places at the Tunbridge World’s Fair. For me, this has always included the animal barns, the Larkin Dancers, dairy judging, harness racing, and all the colorful personalities. 

Back in 1989, I chanced upon an unscheduled event in the carnival area located in the afternoon shadow of the grandstands. Walking along the mid-way I heard a boisterous exchange between a game operator and a rather large fellow with a Mohawk insisting that, “ringing the bell with a swing of that mallet is easy as pie!” The operator selling chances for this event, just smiled and kept the conversation light; he didn’t want to antagonize this big guy. 

“Why that’s so easy, I could ring the bell fifty times without a miss,”the young man bellowed for all to hear. The sheer audacity of the boast turned heads all around. That’s when, as they say, the coin dropped. Turning to the challenger, the operator held up the mallet and said, “Well why don’t you just give it a go?”

The contest usually cost a dollar a swing, and the winner received a cigar. I didn’t see any money exchange hands, though perhaps a few bets were laid down behind my back in the beer hall.

With all the confidence of Paul Bunyan, the challenger strode into the ring. In his hands the mallet, which had to weigh twenty or more pounds, seemed small. Wasting not one second, he smashed the hammer down, sending the weight on its vertical climb so fast it seemed the bell might explode. One, two, three, four, five times he did this in rapid succession, and the crowd knew the game was on.

In photographing this event, I began with a portrait lens, shooting from a front corner of the enclosure. The frame was filled by his upper body, a face of resolute determination, and the mallet high overhead. The photograph was published as part of a five image layout in The Herald that week. I’m sad to say that, though I knew this fellow’s name then, it wasn’t included in the cutline, and is now forgotten. (I’d be happy to provide a copy of this image to the first Herald reader who could properly identify the gentleman, who would now be around fifty.) 

With each mighty swing, the crowd became more and more engaged, counting every ring of the bell. I sensed this was a truly memorable fair event in the making, and wanted to photograph not just the challenger, but everyone in the area.

I could have replaced my moderate 105mm telephoto lens with a 24mm wide angle for this shot, but I had an even better choice at hand. I pulled my Widelux panning camera from my bag, moved toward the front center of the ring, and captured the scene pictured here.

Widelux technology exposes film differently than most 35mm cameras. Typically, the shutter is released, exposing the film frame with one quick burst of light from the scene. The Widelux is a true panning camera, however. The film is looped across a curved surface behind the turret-like lens area. When the exposure is begun, the turret swings from one side to the other, passing a slit over the surface of the film. The film, then, is exposed over a period of time. In early panning cameras the lens turned so slowly that clever students standing on one end of a graduating class could run to the other side and be pictured twice in one photograph! 

Photoshop has made stitching panoramas from multiple exposures quite popular. In this instance, however, with the quick motion and tight confines (with consequent relative shifting of elements) digital stitching would be very difficult. 

The Widelux was a perfect camera for this Tunbridge Fair moment. What you see is one entire frame, which, because of the panning lens, is longer and leaner than other 35mm images. 

“Going for Fifty,” is the name I gave to this photograph. As the count continues, nearly fifty people are gathered around the ring in anticipation.

Yes, he clanged the bell fifty times in succession. 

In the decades since that Saturday evening in 1989, I’ve see many other young bucks trying to impress their friends with a swing of the mallet. I think to myself, “You might ring that bell, but I once saw a fellow go for fifty without one miss!” 

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