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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Second-Worst Photographic Mistake I Ever Made

Max Delbruck. A perfectly serviceable news photo, but nothing to build a career on. Not like the one that got away.

By Ctein

When I was an undergraduate at Caltech, late '60s, Max Delbruck won the Nobel prize. By tradition, the student newspaper turns out a same-day special edition when the school racks up another Nobel. So at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m., I'm front row center, photographing Delbruck's press conference.

I make 35 nice, clear photographs (Panatomic-X plus one of those old potato masher flashes with enough watt-seconds to light the moon, and lethal voltage levels). Then I sit back: "be-prepared" photography says don't use that last frame of film. It's for that once-in-a-lifetime photo. Christ might decide to make a Second Coming at the press conference, and wouldn't you hate to be out of film?

This time it paid off, big-time. The conference ended, the other reporters filed out. I was a couple of meters from Delbruck. Dick Feynman (the previous Nobel Prize winner at Caltech) strides up wearing a big grin and reaches out to embrace Delbruck. Delbruck reciprocates. With no other photographers around, I'm perfectly positioned, perpendicular to them, close enough to get a great full-frame photograph, and my flash is charged.

I estimate the rate of approach and the shutter lag perfectly when I press the button. When the strobe fires (always keep both eyes open so that you can see what's photographed) they haven't quite embraced; there's a gap of six inches or so. Their heads are almost nose-to-nose but don't overlap, so you can see both of their happy, smiling profiles clearly, with their arms closing around each other. It's a classic decisive-moment photo.

Exposure, focus, composition, it's all there—the kind of photograph that starts a career. Not only can I syndicate this for some decent bucks, it goes at the front of my portfolio when I go for a job with one of the big weekly magazines. No one photo's a ticket into a career, but this is as good as it gets.

I'm so excited that I decide I need backup insurance. As they pull apart I rapidly wind the film to make another photograph, and ...


You just know exactly where the film ripped, don't you? Oh God, just what part of "one spare frame" didn't I understand?!

If this had happened 15 years later, I'd have developed the torn-off piece of film and paid mucho dinero to get torn-in-two Frame 36 scanned and digitally reassembled. But in the late 1960s, this wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye.

The moral? Even for a hot-shot physics major, 1 + 1 it is still going to be greater than 1.

Posted by: CTEIN


Ailsa said...

That reminds me of a story told by legendary British photographer Thurston Hopkins. When he worked for an agency one of his jobs was to photograph the most lavish banquets at some of the plushest London hotels. The year was 1936 (I believe) and he was photographing one such event using a 10x8in camera with just two glass plates. Just as he was making his second exposure he heard a commotion behind a set of closed doors, but he ignored it and took the picture.
To quote him, 'Then the doors opened and the Jarrow Hunger Marchers quietly walked down the aisles between the diners. Among this sea of evening dress and medals, they stood quietly to attention in their cloth caps, facing the diners with all their finery and sumptuous food. I had nothing left to photograph it with. It'd break your heart! That picture would have been in every history book. Nothing like it ever happened to me again.'
Still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

10:44 AM  
dasmb said...

Pine for film all you want -- having to hold back, asking myself "is this great shot the BEST shot I'm going to see before I reload" would drive me crazy.

I took a three day kayakking trip to Assateague last year and filled up all my memory cards on the first day. I had no digital album at the time, so that night and about every two hours after that I had to carefully go over all the shots on the card and make the determination as to whether each shot was better than a new shot I could potentially take.

3:54 PM  
tsj said...

OK, I'll ask: what is the worst photographic mistake you've made?

4:07 PM  
David C. Fox said...

good story, but i also admit to wondering what was the worst?
once while working in a lab [early 80's] someone brought in a bunch of E-6 from a vacation in Greece. all of it was normal processing except 2 rolls which he wanted developed in Accufine for the 1st developer [or something like that]. i rolled all the film on reels and stashed the 2 push rolls in a 4 tank can for later [w/o taping it] and promptly forgot it. the next day while i was at lunch my boss came up to my room and 'found' it. while that is not the only job i botched, it is the only one i still feel bad about.
i've ordered the digital retouching book from Powells and look forward to its arrival.

5:41 PM  
pfong said...

At least you were there, had all your gear and had the skill and technique to get the shot. I've often seen something that would have made a great photo, reached for my camera and then realised that I'd left it behind to save weight.

7:35 PM  
Kevin said...

I've heard the story of a local wedding photographer (name forgotten to protect the guilty) from a number of people. Seems he was shooting a high-dollar wedding (people in from all over the world) and left the shutter on 1/1000. Lots of great pics of people's feet.

7:57 AM