Biplane Flyby: Mount Washington Photo Shoot

The appearance of a biplane on the Mount Washington photo mural was a combination of luck and patience.

When I set out to make a backlit color mural that would enable people to see the view from the summit, I decided to present a 180-degree view that began looking due west, swept across the north, and ended looking due east. This would also match perfectly the curved wall in the summit building where the mural was to be installed — that wall follows the same 180-degree arc from west to east.

The red line (below right) indicates the interior wall, two floors below, where the mural was installed. That curved wall, which runs in an arc from west to north to east, made it the perfect place to locate the mural, especially since that wall was also in the Observatory’s museum space. (Visitors seen in the photograph are all looking north.)

Shooting the pictures required a great deal of planning. I would be using a view camera with a large pleated bellows, and the mass of that bellows represents a fair amount of sail area, so I was forced to shoot on a day with no wind. Any vibration caused by wind would move the camera and blur the image.

Since Mount Washington was famed for having the world’s highest wind speed this was a tall order, but luckily, I also had the Observatory’s weather crew at my disposal to help me choose a day without wind. Three times I packed my gear and drove up to the summit, only to find that the wind had picked up. But the fourth time was a charm: a classic day in high summer, bright and clear, without a hint of wind, and low humidity. Visibility of more than seventy miles meant that I could see the ocean over in Maine to the southeast, and Mt. Marcy to the west in New York State!

I tested my lenses and chose the one with the sharpest rendering of detail, which turned out to be 210mm Fujinon. This would require eight shots to make the full 180-degree panorama, each covering about 30 degrees with some image overlap. I used a compass and tape measure to precisely lay out the geometry of the shoot in the observatory’s instrument tower — the highest point on the mountain — by putting strips of masking tape onto the floor of the parapet.

On the day of the shoot I climbed up into the tower and began working from west to east, exposing sheets of 4″ x 5″ Ektachrome transparency film, which would be scanned and combined into a single image. By combining the eight pieces of 4×5 film, exposed horizontally, I was making the equivalent of a 4″ x 40″ transparency. I needed that kind of sharpness because people would be standing right in front of the mural and wanting to see the details.

While I was finishing up my eighth shot, over at the eastern end of the image, I heard a noise from the west, and saw a bright-yellow biplane taking a passenger on a sightseeing tour. I was using my view camera on a tripod, so of course couldn’t do anything then, but I saw where the plane had flown.

When I had completed my eastern shooting, I went back and set up again at the western end, pointing toward the quadrant where I’d seen the plane. Luckily there were no big clouds that day — only distant ones way off by the horizon — which meant I could shoot a new frame for that western portion of the panorama and it would fit into the sequence without any problems.

And then I waited. Very patiently. Hoping that the universe would smile on me. And sure enough, about half an hour later, the pilot returned. I set the shutter at 1/60th, put a sheet of film in the camera, and waited for the one-and-only decisive moment that would be given to me. And I managed to get it.

A transport of delight: In the context of the entire 48-foot-long image, the biplane is actually quite tiny. As with other hidden details in the mural — the Cog Railway’s steam locomotive, hikers, distant buildings — visitors came upon it unexpectedly and uttered cries of delight, just as they would have if they’d been standing on the summit when the plane flew past my camera.


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