On Running After One’s Hat

I must admit it: I stole this title from G. K. Chesterton.  Back when people read (and wrote) essays for pleasure, G.K. penned several famous pages on looking on the bright side of life’s vicissitudes.  Most particularly, he came up with the famous and frequently-quoted aphorism “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”  However, what was true for G.K. Chesterton about losing his headgear is just as true for photographers – if you stop planning, keep your shutter cocked, and just let things happen, opportunities for true creativity may fall into your lap when you least expect them.

Attending a course last week near Baltimore, I snatched a few hours to drive out into the rolling eastern Pennsylvania Dutch country near York and Lancaster.  I planned for this cherished side trip, packing my 1914 No.1 Kodak and my entire Baby Graphic kit, along with multiple rolls of film.  As my little rented Nissan purred along roads that crested hills of newly-plowed fields and meandered through valleys filled with cherry blossoms and the

The Silo's Shadow, York, Pennsylvania

verdant foliage of early spring, wonderful old barns and quaint farmhouses seemed to appear around every corner.  I had time to taken several rolls with the Kodak, with which I have learned to work quickly. However, I had little time to set up the Graphic and go though the routine of choosing lenses, getting out the dark cloth, composing on the ground glass, and changing out the film holders.  With the exception of a few frames, it sat in the trunk, and I began to wonder why I had packed it.

Returning homeward that evening, I boarded my little commuter jet to Chicago, only to sit on the tarmac for a cramped and frustrating hour while thunderstorms pounded O’Hare, hopelessly snarling air traffic.  Arriving in Chicago, I discovered that my flight to Seattle had departed, and I, like hundreds of other travelers, was stranded in Chicago until the following evening.  After I had untangled my airline reservations, I headed for baggage claim, only to discover that my luggage was safely locked away from prying eyes and greedy fingers – including my own!  My survival kit for the night consisted of my Baby Graphic, my computer bag, and two novels.  Fortunately, I had thought to pack with me my cell phone charger, my razor, and the essential medicines that keep my aging frame in some kind of balance.

After a night’s sleep and an indifferent dinner at the hotel on the $59 Distressed Traveler Special, I headed back to the airport to check in early, musing as I gazed out the window of the shuttle bus on the general drabness of the Chicago suburban landscape.  It was at that point that I realized that my tripod and Kodak were in my luggage, and that I was stuck with a camera with ground glass focusing and no tripod.  Abandoning my hopes of getting more pictures, I decided to at least get a walk around Chicago’s downtown Loop, and was soon rattling along on the train past miles of old brick buildings and warehouses.  Arriving at the underground station, rusty steel pillars and water stained concrete on the tunnel walls brought back memories of interminable Chicago winters during medical school, and of our longing for the mountains and oceans our West Coast home.

As I walked up Michigan Avenue and over the Chicago River, my spirits lifted somewhat in the sunshine, and I rounded a corner to find the center of Michigan Avenue a riot of color, as huge concrete planters of multicolored tulips marched up the street toward Water Tower Place.  Not only multicolored – there were large tulips, small tulips, single tulips, double tulips, tulips with three stems – and I didn’t have a tripod!

Tulips, Water Tower Place

I decided to at least try bracing myself on the concrete planter lip for a couple of frames, but I did not have much hope of taking home much that was usable.  Focusing on the ground glass, I checked my Kalart rangefinder and found that it was right on – all my careful restoration work calibrating the infinity stops was paying off, at least.

It was then that two things happened, and I began to clamber out of my mental rut of planning photography.  First, I remembered that the Baby Graphic is a press camera, and that it was designed to be used hand-held, with a body-mounted shutter release, and a wire frame viewfinder adjustable for parallax.  Then, I really began to look at my tulips, noting how the flower heads bobbed and swayed in the draft as taxis and buses tore by, and my left brain began to translate that into artistic swirls and blurs on the film.

Soon I was bracing my leg on the rim of the planter, and hardly letting myself breathe as I shot frames of the sunlit flowers at slower and slower shutter speeds to show the motion of the swaying flowers. Soon I was making multiple exposures, stacking translucent images of dancing flowers one upon the next.

After several rolls of film, I caught a cab to the north side, wandering through working-class neighborhoods with old brownstones and auto repair shops housed in cavernous old brick buildings as I soaked up the feel of the city.  When it was time to leave, I found myself once more clattering south toward the Loop.  Arriving at the Lake Street Station, the car door opened to admit the sound of a spirited R&B number from a tall, skinny busker in a leather vest and cap.  A five dollar bill in his guitar case brought forth a quick smile, and I unpacked my camera.  As trains rumbled in and out, disgorging their passengers, I was struck by the manner in which most of the travelers bustled along the platform, intent on their destinations and completely oblivious to the energy of his music.  Suddenly, I was glad for my camera and the way it had forced me to stop and take notice.  I shot several frames, and then had to hurriedly close the Graphic and run for my train to the airport.

A week later, I picked up my film at the post office, and hurried home to view the scanned images.  Of the scenes of the busker, my favorite captured the tension  between the music and a preoccupied commuter striding along the platform against the blurred image of the moving train.

The Busker and the Commuter

My Chicago transit pass is pinned up in my office as a memento of a perfect day.  I can’t wait till I miss my next flight.


Chesterton, G.K. On Running After One’s Hat and Other Whimsies.  R. McBride and Company, 1933.

Note: This story appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Camera magazine

2 thoughts on “On Running After One’s Hat

  1. I really like the Pennsylvania shot. I am always astonished, though after this many years I should not be, when an old camera returns such a great image. Maybe it’s better to say that I’m thrilled rather than astonished.

    I happened to be on Michigan Ave in Chicago this weekend and saw the tulips everywhere. I had just my little digital in my pocket, but I still got a couple nice tulip shots.

  2. Nice work with the Baby Graphic and a well told story. My own recent flight to San Francisco was only routinely unpleasant. I entrusted four old film cameras to my luggage, but kept a little Olympus mju in my pocket and ended up doing most of my shooting with it.

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