Too Warm for The Perfect Picture

BUSY with the monthly recapitulation of my extensive philanthropies, I was listening from a corner of one ear, but I thought I heard the "whether" man say that 28 degrees below zero was a record. I knew I had misheard, but in Maine the meteorological portents, ministrations, and actualities are not always remarkable, and for all I knew the announcer could have been talking about last July. Maine weather is greatly embellished by time - "Gracious sakes, Lemuel, don't you recollect how the old folks spoke of that mornin' back in eighteen hundred an' somethin' when the tea kittle on the red-hot stove was a-bilin' steam, an' the wattuh inside was froze solid?"

Eyeh, that was some chilly, that day.

But the radio made me think about the time Lute Osgood took a picture of the town-hall thermometer when the mercury was hanging right at minus 45 Fahrenheit. That was certainly close to a record. We'd been having a mild spell, nothing much under 30 below, and then only for a week or so at a time, but on that morning the tube showed 45 below, and somebody walked over to tell Lute.

Lute was a photography hobbyist, and he owned the only Graflex camera we knew about. This would be back in the 1920s. The Graflex was the sophisticated camera of that day, designed with a focal-plane shutter that could stop action with an amazing speed of one-thousandth of a second.

And instead of a separate viewfinder, it had a built-in mirror that showed exactly what the picture would show. When the photographer pushed the lever, this mirror would flop up with a healthy whack, the shutter would work, and if Lute had remembered to take the slide out of the film-holder, he would get an excellent picture. Since Lute was looking through the hood into the mirror, he took up the impact of the mirror with his forehead. He always had a bruise between the eyes.

About 1930, the Graflex was redesigned into the Speed Graphic, which did not have the rebounding mirror, and had a between-the-lens shutter (as well as the focal-plane) for flash-bulb work - just coming along. The focal-plane shutter wouldn't make flash pictures.

So Lute got a couple of citizens to stand beside the town-hall thermometer, turned the knurled knob to run the camera bed out for a close-up, said, "Now, ready!" and pushed the lever.

The mirror had frozen itself to the camera's innards, and it didn't leap. It took a little time to fix that, and when Lute was ready again, citizens in place, the mirror thumped him a healthy wallop, but the shutter didn't shutter.

He stepped into the town hall, where the woodstove in the selectmen's office had been stoked for the day's work of increasing expenses, and shortly Lute had the shutter working again.

There was one further frustration. The heat in the selectmen's office caused the lens in Lute's Graflex to take on the humidity, and when Lute looked through the hole at the mirror, all he could see was a burgoo soup over the Grand Bank. Returning to the selectmen's office, he wiped the lens and once more was ready. But the two citizens had left to go to their business, and Lute had to find two more.

Lute was always fussy about that. "No matter what it's about," he'd say, "a picture needs somebody in it, to relate." So he got two more citizens, which took a few more minutes, and after he coached them to point at the thermometer when he said "Ready!" he looked through the mirror, said "Ready!" and pushed the lever.

This time everything worked.

The mirror plunked him on the brow, the shutter rolled, and as he had remembered to remove the slide, he got an excellent photograph of the two citizens and their mittens indicating the position of the mercury. But the accumulated perversity of inanimate objects - the mirror, the shutter, the lens - was not the final blow.

All this had taken time, and during that time the morning sun had clambered above the roof of the Pythian Hall across the street, the bleak Canadian wind had shifted to SSE, and the thermometer had climbed to 10 degrees above, Fahrenheit. Since he was alone in his darkroom at the time, we have no record of what Lute Osgood said when he first noticed that things had warmed up.

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