As a retired photo journalist, and being of an age of antiquity, I recently got involved in the discussion about olden-time photographic equipment, and today’s smaller, and machine-gun operating digital cameras.
But, be it understood, I have covered stories for The Associated Press using the old 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, which was big, heavy, only took one picture at a time and used slow films that had to be processed and printed.
With that old camera, I covered the 1950 Korean War, a couple of presidents of the United States, lots of football and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with Rosa Parks, and the Emmitt Till murder trial in Mississippi. After that, I was issued 2x4 film cameras, then 35 mm film cameras.
When I took early retirement from AP in 1971, after 28 years covering major stories, digital cameras weren’t around yet. Wow, what an evolution in the art of photography. No longer handling and processing film in chemicals, then making prints with an enlarger, before writing a caption and transmitting the picture on the wire photo network — all a fairly long process.
Now, with digital cameras, one shoots the picture, removes the chip, pushes a button and sends by satellite to an office, where an editor scans the hundreds of pictures, on one story, picks out one to send to other communications outlets. The photography, to me, seems senseless. The photographer generally doesn’t have to know anything about the story, but just point the camera at individuals, or scenes, of the story they are working.
Now there are good photographers today using digital cameras, but I am speaking more about the news industry. My main objection is that that today’s digital news photographer does not have to be as informed about the story, but just take a lot of pictures so that he doesn’t miss anything.
I came from the era where one or two pictures would cover the story, but they had to be THE one or two salient and meaningful pictures for that story.
Recently, there was an article and picture of one of the hearings in Washington. The article was in an international newsletter, “Connecting,” created and edited by Paul Stevens, a retired Associated Press journalist and bureau chief, mainly for retired journalists and others of interest. The article talked about David Burnett and his old wooden 4x5 Speed Graphic camera he was using — you know — the old single-shot film camera. Burnett said, “Shooting large format today was a reminder that even though I have many frames per second with my Sony a6500, I’m still shooting film, one solitary, isolated frame at a time in a world of 10 or 20 fps (frames per second), two frames in 30 seconds is a big deal.” While his press colleagues were firing fast Burnett says, “I shot 16 frames today.”
Burnett has covered the Olympics, presidential campaigns and other news events with a Speed Graphic and other vintage cameras.
The next day, I responded to that story, writing: “David Burnett is a man of my own cloth. In Monday’s “Connecting,” Burnett was acclaimed for his bravery and proven ability in using the old, old tool of photography — the 4x5 sheet film camera.
“That big old cumbersome camera was a one-shot instrument whereby the photographer had to be knowledgeable of the story he was covering, what ONE shot would tell the whole story, if need be. That was the AP way of doing it. Photographers in the old days were single-shot artists, not operators of AR15’s or other rapid-fire instruments.”
Many of us had to edit our own copy. Going through hundreds of digital shots is time-consuming and often confusing.
I once was reminded by the top man in New York photos — Al Resch — that I had taken too many shots of former Vice President Alban Barkley’s funeral in Paducah, Kentucky in 1956. The hand-written note said, “Gene, he’s dead. We don’t need all of those shots.”
I started with the “Big One” in 1946, and carried it through hundreds of stories, including covering the Korean War in 1950, the Civil Rights Movement, including Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., local and national politics, sports, riots, and you name it. My old 4x5 Speed Graphic was my best friend. Memories of her are still warm in my heart.
Be that as it may, I now use a 35 mm digital Nikon camera, but my heart is still back with my best friend, my old 4x5 Speed Graphic.