The Parable of the Photographic Plate

On many occasions during long years of professional service as a mining geologist, I have been called to the witness stand in court, there to testify under the solemn obligation of oath, as to results of my examination of mines and of lands supposed to contain deposits of valuable minerals. A certain investigation of the kind extended through many months and involved the inspection of numerous tracts of land covering parts of three states. The particular question at issue was the true classification of the several areas as coal-bearing lands or otherwise. As is requisite in such work, a record of all important facts as observed was made in the field; and this record, commonly known as the “field notes,” was guarded with care, as it would form the basis of all inferences and deductions relating to the investigation.

In due course, more than a year after the completion of the field work, the case came to trial and I was sworn as one of the witnesses. Under both direct and cross examination I was closely questioned concerning the geologic structure and surface conditions of each of the specific tracts and parcels of land. I was permitted to consult my field notes, and so to refresh my memory, as the lawyers said; but as would be more accurately stated, to assist my recollection of what I had observed while on the ground.

Concerning one section on which no positive indication of coal occurrence had been found, I was interrogated at length as to the character of the surface. Was there timber on this particular piece? Had the land any value for grazing purposes? Was the land level or hilly? To my surprise I found myself unable to answer with certainty. The field notes relating to this particular area were apparently incomplete; the record contained no surface description at all; there was no entry as to timber, grass, or water, no mention of hills or flats. Naturally, I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed, as in all other descriptions, my notes had proved satisfactory. Recollection failed to supply the information called for. Try as I would, I could not call to mind just what I had observed. Beyond all doubt I had been upon the ground, for the notes described the corner stone of the sectional division, and gave in detail its measurements and the chiseled notches by which it was identified as an official land-mark. When about to acknowledge my utter inability to give the data rightly expected of me, just as I was on the point of confessing my seemingly inexcusable failure in a very important part of my work, I was relieved by finding in the note-book one brief entry, which, up to that moment, had escaped my notice. It read simply “S. 10; No. 7.” This meant to me that I had taken a photograph at the place referred to in the notes; and the plate to which I would find answer to the questions was No. 7 of Series 10. I had taken many scores of pictures in the course of the long field examination; and the plates had been stored away in the dark room, undeveloped. I asked the court’s indulgence until the morrow, promising that then I would furnish conclusive answers to the pending questions.

That night I went to my dark room, and picked out plate No. 7 from the dozen included in Series 10. As shown by the memorandum slip, about fourteen months had passed since that plate had been placed in the camera. With eager expectancy I laid it in the tray and poured upon it the developing liquid. Then, in the faint ruby light of the dark room, lines and shadows gradually appeared, –shall I say like magic? No; but like true miracle, which, however, in this day of popular photography, is counted no miracle but only an ordinary common-place occurrence. When the developing and fixing processes were completed, I examined the plate in a strong light; and there I saw the stone that marked the section corner; there were cattle and my own riding horse, contentedly munching the rich grass, which grew in abundance among the stately pines and bright-hued aspen trees; in the foreground was a rippling stream fed by springs, the position of which was discernible in the middle distance of a gentle upland slope. From the negative so produced, a print was made; this was taken into court and was there accepted as a full and satisfactory reply to all the questions that had been left unanswered.

The record laid away with the undeveloped plates showed that No. 7 had been exposed a fiftieth of a second. Think of this and forget not the miracle herein made manifest. That plate had been prepared in darkness except for the feeble and non-actinic glow of the ruby lamp; in darkness it had been packed with others in a light-proof box; in darkness it had been transferred to the plate-holder; in darkness it had been placed in the camera, behind the magical wonder-working lens. The cover-slide had been withdrawn, leaving the sensitive plate, still in darkness, within the camera box. And then the lens shutter had opened and for one fiftieth of a second the plate had looked out upon the glorious landscape, after which, the shutter closed; darkness again enveloped it, and in darkness it lay for a year and more.

For what to us is a measure of time inconceivably short, the light of the glorious truth of day had fallen upon the sensitized surface of the plate, and all through the subsequent months of dense darkness it remembered the heavenly vision. No tree, no leaf, no flower, no glass-blade was forgotten. But mark you, only after the plate had been immersed in the chemical mixture to which it was responsive was the picture brought out so that men might see and know the truth to which it so convincingly testified.

Is the incident worth reading, worth thinking about? Though of but little merit as a story, it may be of some worth because of the lesson it suggests. Who of us has not realized valuable after-effects from some experience, which, perchance, was relatively as brief and transitory as the view of the sun-lighted scene upon which the photographic plate looked out?

The impress of great truths, caught ofttimes by a momentary flash of heavenly light, are held in store within the hidden recesses of the mind, forgotten, perhaps, for years. Then at a moment of crucial test or painful trial, in the time of distress and affliction, the active reagent compounded in the laboratory of memory and sensitized by the elixir of inspiration is applied, and the picture of the past is brought to light, attesting the truth in a way that none may gainsay or deny.

Let those who minister among their fellows, as teachers of God’s word, despair not because of the seeming failure of their efforts. You, my brethren, who through sacrifice and earnest endeavor are devoting yourselves to the saving of souls, be of good cheer, and yield not to the tempter’s insinuation that your labors are in vain. It may be that today, by some encouraging word or unselfish act, by some inspired utterance, the full significance of which may have been unrealized by yourselves, you have opened the lens behind which lay a receptive, truth-seeking soul; and though the glory of Divine truth has lightened up that darkened mind for an instant only, the effect is not lost nor will it be forgotten.

Leave the developing of the picture to the Master, who will bring out its light and its shadows, its verdure and flowers, in his own time, and by means that are to him surest and best. (“The Parable of the Photographic Plate” – An Episode in Field Work (from his book, Improvement Era) by James E. Talmage, April 1914)

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