Yesterday I watched the movie “Thirteen Days” on TV. It is about the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. There were several scenes in which Jack Kennedy and the men in his cabinet were shown as they spoke to the press. I noticed that at least 75% of the photographers were using a Speed Graphic, which was THE press camera up until the 1970s. Every movie that is set in the era between 1920 and 1970 will show press photographers using these cameras.
What you never see in a movie is a press photographer, who is going through the motions that it took to get ready to shoot a picture with a Speed Graphic. First of all, a press photographer had to carry a camera bag big enough to hold at least 10 film holders, and a bunch of flash bulbs. Notice the size of the flash bulb in the photo above. After each shot, the photographer had to remove the burned out bulb, burning his fingers a bit in the process, and then screw in a new bulb for the next photo.
The Speech Graphic weighed a ton and it had to be held with two hands, one hand on the flash gun and the other hand on the handle on the other side, which you can’t see in the photo above. The shutter had to be cocked by moving a lever before each shot. The photo above doesn’t show it, but most press photographers took the picture by pressing a button on the flash gun which was connected to the shutter by a solenoid. Most press photographers used flash fill for every outdoor shot, but there were a few press photographers who carried a Leica or some other 35mm camera and used available light.
All cameras had to be focused by hand back then; there was no automatic focusing as in today’s cameras. Press photographers didn’t take time to focus each shot; they just guessed at the distance and set the camera. Notice the lock underneath the lens in the photo above. The camera was focused by moving the lens forward or back and then locking it in place.
The shutter speed and lens aperture had to be set by hand. Finally, when everything on the camera was set, the photographer pulled a film holder out of his camera bag and slid it into the back of the camera. You never see this done in movie scenes. The film holder held two pieces of cut film, usually 4×5 inches. That means that one could take two photos, but between each shot, the film holder had to be removed and turned around to the other side. Just before taking the photo, the photographer removed the slide that protected the film from being exposed.
The photo above shows the slide being removed from the film holder inside the camera.
At the funeral of Ronald Reagan a couple of years ago, there was a huge group of photographers, all using digital cameras. When Nancy Reagan approached the casket for her final farewell, you could hear the shutters clicking. It sounded like every photographer had his digital camera set for Continuous shooting instead for a Single shot. It seems that every photographer was holding the shutter down to get several shots in quick succession, hoping to get that moment when Nancy broke down and cried.
What a contrast to the way that press photographers used to work. Yet in movies like “Thirteen Days,” you don’t see what it took for a press photographer to get a single shot on a single piece of film. After every shot, a press photographer would always say, “I need one more shot.” The second shot was needed in case the first photo was over exposed or under exposed. The press photographer would take his film back to the darkroom and develop only one of the pieces of film in each holder. If the negative showed that the film was not exposed correctly, then the second piece of film was developed and compensation was made in the time of development. After that, the negative was fixed in the hypo, and briefly washed before it was put into an enlarger, still wet, and a print was quickly made.
Think about that when you are downloading your digital photos into your computer and then putting them on the Internet.