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Edition #213  January 1, 2014

Triumph Out of Disaster

Photographer: Tom Gildersleeve

                                                                      Photo by Tom Gildersleeve

Triumph Out of Disaster

Light helper set No. E34 drops downhill on the viaduct at Penfield, Montana on November 11, 1964.  There has been a fresh snowfall and the sun has only recently broken out, creating rare ideal conditions for photography that probably did not last very long.  This is a photograph that very nearly never got taken.

In the early days of my 35mm photography I was plagued with unreliable cameras.  Finally, in 1963 I bit the bullet and decided to go in the direction of Leica.  At that time they were the only 35mm cameras that had a lengthy track record for both durability and total reliability.  I acquired two Leica M-3s in December of 1963, together with a pair of Summicron f:2 lenses, one 90mm and the other 50mm.  My normal procedure for use of these cameras involved mounting both of them on a dummy flash tube that would allow me to rapidly shift between the two focal lengths as needed.

Less than a year later the durability of these cameras was really put to the test when I made this long distance trip from my home in southern California to Washington and Montana, primarily to photograph the Milwaukee electrification, and my friend Chuck Heimerdinger joined me for the trip.  Early in the trip we photographed operations on the Yakima Valley Transportation Company in the vicinity of Yakima, Washington, and at one particular location Chuck went sailing out of the car to get a shot of the line car returning to the barn.  Unfortunately Chuck was not all that went sailing out of the car.  The car had bench seats and my Leicas were sitting on the seat between us.  His camera strap snagged my flash tube and the two Leicas went out the door after him.  I let out a yell, but it was too late.  Both cameras ended up bouncing off an asphalt parking lot with sufficient force that one of the lens caps ended up dented, and one of the cameras hit with sufficient impact force to fire the shutter without pushing the button.

This was early in the trip, and I was a thousand miles from home with no hope of any camera repairs until I got back.  I had dire thoughts that it was over for me on this trip, but nonetheless I carefully evaluated each camera.  The rangefinders were completely out of whack, but the lenses looked okay and the camera shutters appeared to be working normally as did the film advance.  Based on those observations I concluded that the cameras were probably still functional, albeit without rangefinders.  Since the lenses had very accurate focusing scales, I could work the cameras without the use of the rangefinders, and I made a decision to continue the trip and gamble that the shutters were still making accurate exposures.

The photograph on this page as well as most of my other Milwaukee electric shots were taken after this happened.  I still believe that, had it been anything but Leicas that bounced off that asphalt, this picture would never have been taken.  As it was, when I got home I went into a repair shop and had the cameras evaluated.  The result was readjustment of the two rangefinders and nothing else!  The price was $7.50 per camera!  No camera I have ever owned before or since had that kind of ruggedness.

Tom Gildersleeve   

 

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