This is about news photography in years past. The term photojournalism had not been thought of until the 1960’s. “Press” and commercial photographers, including the military used 4×5 Speed Graphic cameras with cut film holders, and flash bulbs.
I’m Bernie Yee, one of original cadre of Hackman’s PJ’s from the 60’s. My story starts in the 1940’s as a commercial art high school student who used a camera instead of a brush.
Enlisted in 1952, bypassed training and went to my first photo lab after basic. Wanted to be a news photographer but was that possible in the Air Force? Back then you were a photographer and photo lab technician.
The nearest to news work were jobs for public information, and I volunteered for them. Most were only handshake award photos or important visitors. But in high school we learned that “grip & grin” photos were often news, and tried to make them look good. Before long the PIO asked for me regularly, and I eventually got to shoot stories.
The 4×5 was “The News Camera” from the 1930’s until the 60’s, and film speed was very slow. Basically it was a small studio view camera made portable with a hand strap. You tried to make every shot a keeper because it took so much effort to shoot them.
You carried a separate light meter, and it was physically big like all photo equipment you carried then. Miniaturization had not been invented yet. After years of making pictures at the same film speed you learned to guess exposures fairly well, a time saver.
The 4×5 Speed Graphic had two shutters, a focal plane shutter in the back, and a rotary leaf shutter in the front. The leaf shutter had synchronization for flash bulbs, and was used most of the time. The rear shutter was for high speed pictures, and you had to make sure the rear focal plane shutter was set open when using the front. Otherwise you would end up with blank exposures.
Cut film holders were like a thin 4×5″ box, with a sheet of film inserted on both sides. The film was protected with removable dark slides. The back of the camera had a spring loaded gate which allowed a film holder to be slid on to the back of the camera and held in place.
After inserting a film holder and removing the dark slide, you would set the front shutter speed and f/stop, cock the shutter release spring, and put a flash bulb in the flash gun if needed. You would do those things quickly, while talking to your subject(s) to keep their interest on you. School taught us to think of ourselves as circus ring masters – to take charge and make the acts dance!
Making the “key shot” was just as important then as it is today – the image that tells everything in single photograph. I was taught to find the key shot first, but not to let other points in the story slip past.
Think you have a lot to carry? The 4×5 came in a hard case the size of a large tool box with a handle. With the camera folded closed, a flashgun with 2 reflectors, light meter, filters and other accessories went in it. There was room for six film holders and bulbs which were never enough. You carried more cut film holders, flash bulbs, and other things in a large leather shoulder gadget bag.
You could stand on the case to shoot pictures over people in crowd shots, or obstacles. The case had a primitive folding wood tripod that meant not having to carry a big heavy real one. And we used a cable release for slow shutter speeds.
On extended assignments like an aircraft crash out somewhere, or an autopsy before medical photographers, I took boxes of fresh film (25 sheets per box), a couple of empty film boxes, and a changing bag. The changing bag was a rubberized black cloth bag about 2 foot square and light proof. It had a zipper along the back side, and two elastic sleeves on the front for your hands.
Open the zipper, put some film holders, box of film and an empty box in the bag and zipper it shut. Stick your hands into the sleeves and you were in the darkroom.
Unload the film holders, put the exposed film in the empty box, and load the holders with new film. I always brought heavy rubber bands to keep the boxes closed. How did you know which side of the film is up? Cut film right side up has notches along the top right side of the film.
The problem with cut film was all of the holders you had to carry. Cut film, technically called sheet film was made of a light sensitive coating put on an acetate sheet. Sheet film is thick and not designed to be bent.
Then someone invented the film pack which held 12 sheets of film in one holder! The main ingredient was thin roll film stock. The thin sheets of film were attached to black paper strips about the same size as the film. The dozen sheets of film were stacked one on top of another, and the paper strips were all folded over the top sheet of film. The film was protected in the soft metal throw away holder, only the ends of the paper strips protruded out of one end of the holder. One side of the film pack had an open widow, which was covered with one of the black paper strips.
The film pack was placed into a metal clam shell device called a film pack adapter. It was about the size of a cut film holder but thicker. The adapter had a protective dark slide. The adapter went into the back of the camera, the dark slide removed, and the first paper tab pulled to bring the first sheet of film around to the open side of the film pack adapter. Each successive exposure meant pulling a paper tab. The tabs were numbered.
If you wanted to remove the film pack adapter before exposing every sheet of film, insert the dark slide and pull the adapter out. In the darkroom open the film pack, remove the exposed film (without paper strips) for processing and leave the remaining sheets in the film pack.
The last major improvement for the 4×5 camera was the electronic flash. However the “strobe” as it was called then, was huge in size and weight. The flash tube head was larger than the flashbulb reflectors it replaced. Because the flash tube needed high voltage, there was a separate heavy battery pack with a shoulder strap that never stayed on your shoulder. On occasion in the rain you received a mild shock when plugging the power supply into a wet flash head.
Lenses – although the camera could use wide angle and long lenses, they were not easily changed. Some required camera modifications, so the normal 5″ lens was used almost all of time. Meaning if you needed close ups – you got close. Wide angles – you backed up. It gave a lot of meaning to the profession! Think you could have “cut the mustard” then?
P.S. My personal cameras back then were a used Rollieflex, and an ancient Leica IIIa. There was no such thing as a fine grain image from my cameras in the 1950’s.
Editors Note: Yee enlisted in the early 1950’s and retired 26 years later. He was an art major who switched to photography. Retired in 1978 as MSgt Photojournalist on flight status. One of Hackman’s original cadre of PJ’s. Combat duty included Korea, 6 Day War Israel, Viet Nam. Camera’s most often used; 4×5 Speed Graphic, Rolleiflex, Kodak 35 Rangefinder, Nikon F (s).
Joined AAVS in Viet Nam, and remained a part of it until his retirement at the Pentagon while assigned to the 1361st Photo Squadron.
Afterwards he went to work for USDA Forest Service as their photo chief and gave them 20 years.