`WHAT happened to this one?'' I asked, after sifting through a folder of photographs that took me halfway around the world.
``Good question,'' replied Monitor staff photographer Robert Harbison. ``It was an accident,'' he said - some sort of chemical imbalance that occurred during the developing process. This was the only photograph contaminated on the entire role - a one-of-a-kind, a real Mona Lisa.
Harbison took this photo last Christmas in Mesa, Ariz., while he and his wife were visiting relatives. Harbison, who said he takes pictures everywhere he goes, described how he raced into the backyard to snap a few shots of the sun just before it slipped below the horizon.
But the once sought-after sunset has since been rearranged, transformed into an image unseen by Harbison or his camera until now.
``What's that?'' I asked, pointing to the pseudo-hulk consuming the picture.
``It's a cactus,'' Harbison said, ``a saguaro cactus.'' The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and can grow as tall as 50 feet. The actual size of this one is 15 feet, Harbison explained, comparing it to the height of a window in the Monitor newsroom. Indians in Arizona use the dried woody ribs of the saguaro stems for fuel or for making frames for their houses. The saguaro also produces its own fruit ripe for eating in June and July.
To Harbison, his saguaro resembles a ``paper cutout'' pasted on the backdrop of the sunset - a crossover into animation. The chemical reaction has liquefied the plant's usual bristly texture, giving it a slippery, almost molten skin, while its silhouette hints at its prickly nature.
But this photograph is not purely animation. Against the swirling sky, the miniature palm, with the sun's golden rays at its feet, appears uncontaminated by its surroundings, exactly as the photographer remembers.
Out of the dozen or so photos Harbison shot that evening, he selected this one as representative of his Arizona sunset - representative of the beauty of surprise.