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Cub reporter outwits chief photog

The harangue being directed at me verged on harassment. “You’re just a cub reporter.” And “What do you know about photography? You don’t even take pictures for the paper.”

 Let me explain.

I am recalling a time when I was the judge for the late Hartford Times’ annual summer Kodak National Snapshot contest. The camera used in the main by the contestants was the Brownie, a $1 box with a hole and a shutter that was as ubiquitous in millions of American households as the frying pan.

My task as the snapshot contest maven involved shuffling through a weekly bushel basket of mostly dreary snapshots of grinning kids, slaphappy dogs and daddies lying on the beach covered up to their chins with sand. Messing with such ordinary images was deemed below the time of the paper’s skilled staff photographers. And I was indeed a cub reporter. So, I was given the assignment.

Actually, I found it a break from my regular beat of covering the even duller disputations in the local federal court. (If you want to watch interesting albeit fake courtroom drama, stay tuned to “Law and Order.”)

My chore was to select and write about the best of each week’s entries in four categories: animals, scenery, people and action. It was a popular special feature.

When the summer was over, the fun for the staff began. The Hartford Times had to select the best in each category that had been published each week.

As one might expect, I wasn’t even deemed skilled enough to do that all by myself. So a committee was put together: the city editor, the chief photographer, the state editor, the woman’s editor — and me, to break a tie.

We were progressing nicely with no trouble agreeing on the action, people and scenery winners. But we came a cropper when it came to the animal category.

In those days sharpness was almost an act of religion in newspaper photography. And given that the commonly used Speed Graphic negative was quite large, it wasn’t difficult for press photographers to turn in negatives that ended up on the pages of the paper as crisp as bacon.

But one of the animal pictures showed a little puppy sitting forlornly on the front step of his house waiting to be let in. A light snow dusting his coat created an image that didn’t meet the crisp standards of the city editor and the chief photographer. When we voted, it was a tie. They turned to me, the lowliest of the low, to break the tie.

I studied the picture and its chief competitor and voted for the forlorn puppy. You know, I’m a softy for forlorn puppies.

The city editor and the chief photographer, two men I ardently admired, went ballistic. “The picture isn’t sharp!” “What do you know about pictures?” Fact is my wife and I helped pay our expenses during the last two years at Michigan taking pictures of the babies that GI Bill veterans were churning out at a frightening rate.

I was under a lot of pressure and felt like I would be fired if I didn’t buckle under. I wasn’t a particularly stubborn sort in those days, but I stuck to my guns and the snowbound puppy, taken with a Brownie camera, was sent off to Washington to compete with the winning snapshots from newspapers all over the country.

Can’t you just feel in your bones what happened? A month later I got caught in traffic and arrived at the newspaper 15 minutes late. The city room was in a tizzy. The city editor was screaming: “Where’s Laschever?”

He was holding in his hand a telegram from Washington. Our little puppy won First National Grand Prize in the Kodak National Newspaper Snapshot Contest!

I was sent out with a real photographer with a Speed Graphic to photograph and interview the winner.

The next year my wife and I embarked on an unbelievable eight-month trip around the world. In the Far East, en route to Yokohama from Calcutta, our British India freighter put into Penang for the day.

It was blistering hot, but I didn’t mind. In the window of the U.S. Information office was a display of the four winners of the Kodak National Snapshot Contest. On the wall in the glass case was my forlorn puppy, the snow still clinging to his little head!

Call it puppy love, but I’ve always loved that dog.

Freelance writer Barnett Laschever, the curmudgeon of Goshen and a veteran journalist, is the author of five children’s books as well as the  co-author of a guide to Connecticut.

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