When I was in graduate school at Northwestern University near Chicago, I took a photography course. What a revolting development my final project turned out to be.
We’re talking a long time ago when black-and-white photography and film were in vogue. My principle implement was a 4×5 Crown Graphic field camera, the large format used by the press back then with a bellows on the front and a huge flash attachment.
I don’t mean to brag, but I had an A+ average prior to the final project mainly due to the many pictures I took and developed for extra credit with access to a big city and the Lake Michigan shoreline. For the final assignment, we were supposed to demonstrate several techniques we had learned that semester with a photo story mounted on poster board. My lab partner, Harvey, said he was just going to visit the Field Museum in downtown Chicago, shoot some pictures for an hour, and call it: “My visit to a museum.”
But I wanted to do more. And since my Dad was a mail carrier, I thought it would be neat to illustrate the popular but nevertheless unofficial quotation adopted as the motto of the United States Postal Service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
But it was no easy task trying to shoot the mail being delivered in all the above weather conditions in the fall of that year. I did manage to photograph mail being handled at “night,” using flash, and in the “rain,” despite having to prove to one carrier that I was a legitimate student and not a saboteur out to steal his mail. “Heat” wasn’t difficult on a sunny day. And for “these couriers…” I found a full-page ad for Timex in Life magazine (remember those two things?) showing a group of letter carriers on the steps of a post office all holding up their arms with Timex watches strapped on their respective wrists. For this shot I used the technique taught for copying photographs.
The problem was getting mail delivered in “snow!” I took the bulky camera home over the Thanksgiving holiday and luckily, it sort of sputtered snow on Saturday and I got my picture. Later, in the lab at school, I blew it up to show a few flakes fluttering in the air surrounding a postal truck. My final picture was of my Dad delivering mail to our home illustrating “…from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
I got a D in the course! “What!” I exclaimed when I opened my grades. After contacting the university to see if there was some mistake, I was told I flunked the final. So, I went to see the instructors, a husband-and-wife professional photography team.
“You did so well all semester,” they said. “It’s too bad about your final project. You should have changed the wording under one of your photos because it really doesn’t depict snow!”
“I couldn’t change the words,” I retorted, “that’s the motto!”
“What motto?” they asked. Unbelievably, they never had heard of it. So, after I threw a bit of a tantrum, they raised my grade to a C, the same grade Harvey received for an hour’s work. The other pictures I took all depicted the motto. “It just ain’t fair!” I said then and several times since.
Actually, the grade I received no longer matters. It didn’t interfere with me receiving my master’s degree and probably, in some way, made me a better photographer. Because if the picture I took really didn’t show the mail being delivered in snow, then that picture was not “worth a thousand words” let alone the word “snow,” even if I wanted it to be.
Looking back on it, I should have found a picture of snow in a magazine, copied it and superimposed a mail carrier on it. But back then I probably would have received an “F” for “faking it.” Today, however, it would be an accepted photographic procedure using Photo Shop or a similar technique. Again, I could say, “it just ain’t fair!” But as the saying goes, “fair is a place where hogs compete for ribbons.”