If you’d like to have some fun, go to a photo exhibit when the photographer is there. Find an image that intrigues or puzzles you, and ask if they can tell you more about its context. Was anything of potential interest occurring outside the image frame when they triggered the shutter? Or did a wider context of events occur over days, months or even years before or after the shot?
You may get a blank look. Or you might hear a book. If I’d been exhibiting the above terrible fake photo, you’d get a book.
Frustrated by Flying Saucers
I’ve always wanted to see a UFO, and never have. But I’ve never wanted to experience other “paranormal” events… and have “enjoyed” a continuous stream of them over my life. (There must be a reason, but I’m still trying to figure it out.)
So along came the 1960s, and a wave of “flying saucer” sightings hit Columbus, Ohio. One sunny summer afternoon, mom’s sister Florence called to breathlessly report that “a brilliant white saucer” was “streaking across the sky.” My brother, sisters and I ran outside to look, and the only thing we saw was an unusually bright planet Venus “flying” above wind-blown clouds.
I waited 15 minutes, called Florence back, and asked if “the thing was still streaking along up there.” She said yes… and yet another UFO had escaped my clutches. I’d already debunked a more-convincing nighttime saucer, which seemed to hover and rotate above the orchard behind our house. But binoculars revealed that it was the internally illuminated Goodyear blimp… with advertising text scrolling across its belly.
The Next Best Thing
I decided that the next best thing to seeing a flying saucer would be to fake a photo of one! Double exposures were easy with my Kodak Duaflex, and I:
- Spread mom’s black felt dress on the living room floor,
- Inverted an aluminum fruit bowl on it (tilted at a jaunty angle like a saucer in flight),
- Lit the bowl with a flood lamp,
- and took a first exposure with the bowl in the upper-right quadrant.
- Took the tripod-mounted camera outside,
- Positioned it at the foot of our driveway,
- Framed the road to put passing cars just where I wanted them,
- and when one streaked by, snapped the second exposure on top of the first.
Thus was born my truly awful photo of a saucer chasing a car down Bethel Road. I was SO (ahem) proud!
But where’s the second UFO promised in this article’s title? That’s where the image’s “wider context” enters the picture. For though I wouldn’t know it for another couple decades, an absolutely real saucer may have been hovering in a secret hangar, behind the photo’s distant tree line, when I shot the car. Or if it wasn’t there then, it soon would be.
A Great Debate
During that 1960s saucer wave, I had three friends (that I knew of) in high school: Steve, Pat and Ted. If any mischief occurred in the school’s science lab, our teacher Mr. Sheerer knew at least one of us was probably to blame. (He certainly regretted showing us how to make contact explosives!)
As much as possible, he loved bringing current events into our classes. When Life magazine published its memorable October ‘63 issue about the “discovery” of DNA, it became our textbook. And when flying saucers seemed to invade Ohio skies, Mr. Sheerer encouraged our lively debates of their scientific merits. Steve and I often ended up shouting at each other from opposing entrenched positions:
- Steve (who planned to become an aeronautical engineer) insisted that the things couldn’t exist. They didn’t have wings or obvious engines, and their incredible observed speeds and maneuvers “would liquefy their occupants.” He was technically correct, but I wouldn’t admit it.
- I believed (with equal certainty, but less proof) that his point would be moot if the saucers “created their own private gravity bubbles.” These would insulate the vehicles so well from inertial G-forces that their occupants “would feel no motion at all… regardless of how wildly they managed to zip around our skies.”
Steve and I frequently repeated our arguments, but he remained rabidly unconvinced.
The Saucer Beyond the Trees
I’ve only attended my 20th and 30th high-school reunions. Both were memorable. But the instant I entered the door at our 20th, Steve practically knocked me down in his rush to reach me. He knew I’d understand his six shouted words:
“Dave, Dave, Dave… You… Were… RIGHT!”
He had indeed prepared for a career in aeronautical engineering at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus. With some 60,000 students, it was a small city. And though it’s not visible in the opening image, Don Scott Field (OSU’s airport and aeronautical-engineering lab) was just beyond my photo’s distant tree line.
Beginning in 1966, Steve spent a lot of time in Don Scott’s library, hallways and labs. One of its doors– labeled “Authorized Personnel Only”— had always been locked, until one day, when it was slightly ajar. Noticing “an unusual hum and glow” coming from its room, he poked his head through the door, and his knees buckled.
Hovering around 10 feet above the floor was (in his still-excited words) “an effing real flying saucer about 30 feet in diameter.” The room was one of Don Scott’s hangars, and Steve wondered whether the facility’s relative proximity to Wright Patterson Field (home of Project Blue Book) had anything to do with what he was seeing. Naturally, he made himself scarce before anyone spotted him.
Stories Beyond the Frame
So, incredibly, at or near the time I was faking my saucer photo, our family may have lived just across a corn field (and its distant tree line) from a real one. And it was truly ironic that Steve was the person to tell me about it! Sadly, I never had a chance to ask further questions about what he saw. Cancer took him two years after our reunion.
But if I attend a photo exhibit where the photographer is present, I try to find an interesting image and ask if any hidden stories lurk within or beyond its frame. One never knows what one might learn!
–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.
A little note from Hamish: If any other current contributors to the 35mmc would like to submit a post like this, then feel free. I will share these on Wednesday afternoons to begin with, more if they get popular.
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