Chatterbox knew we were in a brutal advertising recession, but he had no idea things were so bad that the New York Times would be reduced to peddling snapshots of flying saucers. Today’s paper carries (on Page B-8 of Chatterbox’s edition) a house ad inviting readers to purchase up to six “historical photographs from the New York Times” depicting American life in the 1950s. Among these “historical photographs,” which are drawn from a photo exhibition that was organized by Buffalo, N.Y.,’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery (now on at the New York Historical Society), is a picture captioned, “Flying Saucers in Salem, Mass., 1952.”
Does the Times really think a 1952 photograph purporting to show flying saucers is “historical”? “This is part of a collection called ‘the fifties photo collection,’ and in that sense it is historical,” explained Times spokesman Toby Usnik in response to Chatterbox’s query. Chatterbox received a more satisfactory reply from Alan Trachtenberg, professor emeritus of American Studies at Yale University, who co-authored the exhibition catalog published by Yale University Press. “It should have quotation marks around ‘flying saucers,’ ” Trachtenberg said. Whew!
Even if you grant that New York Times readers are sophisticated enough to understand that the flying-saucers photo is offered in a spirit of ‘50s camp, the Times is conning its customers in an entirely different way by charging them $375 for an unframed 16-by-20 “exhibition-quality print.” (An 11-by-14 version sells for $195.) That’s because the picture is already in the public domain! The ad acknowledges this in a backhanded way with a photo credit for “Shell R. Alpert/U.S. Coast Guard.*” (The asterisk indicates that a copy signed by the photographer is available, on request, at an unspecified additional cost.) A call to the Coast Guard historian’s office confirmed that prints of the flying-saucer photo are available at the cost of reproduction, which is about $15. And since the Coast Guard (not the Times) possesses the original negative, the $15 version is very likely of superior quality.
Where did the flying-saucer picture come from? Well, it seems that on the morning of July 16, 1952, a 21-year-old Coast Guard photographer named Shell Alpert was getting ready to clean a camera in the Salem, Mass., Air Station when, according to an August 1952 Coast Guard press release,
he noticed several brilliant lights in the sky. He watched them for 5 or 6 seconds, then called another Coast Guardsman in the nearby sick bay to come and see the strange sight. In those few seconds, the brilliant white of the lights had dimmed somewhat, but when it suddenly brightened again, he grabbed the camera, clicked the shutter, and this photograph is the result. Notice the bars of light that seem to extend in front of and behind the round “objects,” which appear in “V” formation.
Chatterbox has no idea what the Coast Guard was insinuating in that last sentence, but it captures the emotional climate of the time. “I never said it was a flying saucer or anything like that,” Alpert, now in the twilight of a very successful career in direct marketing, informed Chatterbox. He just took the picture, passed it along to a superior, and was immediately told to classify it as top-secret (even though Alpert didn’t have top-secret clearance). There ensued visits from the Air Force, from a Harvard astrophysicist, and from assorted intelligence officers. “These people interviewed me till I was going out of my head,” Alpert recalled. They asked him if what he saw could have been a reflection of some sort. “Sure could,” he answered. Inevitably, the press got wind of the hysteria, and Seaman Alpert issued a statement saying, “I cannot in all honesty say that I saw objects or aircraft, merely some manner of lights.”
For awhile after Alpert’s discharge, the Coast Guard would forward him dollar bills sent to the Salem Air Station by people requesting copies of his photograph. The Coast Guard officials had figured that since the picture was in the public domain, they couldn’t keep the money, so they might as well send it to Alpert. He figures he made about $100. Alpert didn’t give much additional thought to making money off the picture until he saw the Times ad. He chuckled to himself, then phoned in to ask, “Tell me, who’s doing my autograph?” He eventually worked out with a befuddled Times employee that he’d sign any photos the Times wanted at 50 bucks a pop. So far, though, he hasn’t had any takers.