Photographers love pictures first, but next they love the tools that make the pictures. In the United States, the story of the tools that make photography possible began with a tool of a different sort.
Most photographers looked down into the top of the Rolleiflex, took their time, and focused. Washington news photographers used the camera in a different manner. The first stop for a Washington photographer with a new Rollei would be Abe Jenkin’s house. A printer at the Associated Press, Jenkin would take the camera, walk down the stairs to a cluttered basement workshop, and start talking while he turned the camera into a news picture-making machine. First, he modified the top focus hood to make way for a sturdy sports finder. Then he replaced the focusing device on the camera with a large knob that contained the numbers six, eight, ten, fifteen, and double zero, which could be lined up with a precisely calibrated arrow. When the number six was matched to the arrow, the subject six feet away from the camera was in perfect focus. A good news photographer knew how to judge focus distance, and the reference number was enough. Newspaper and wire service photographers used the Rollei for about ten years starting about 1957.
In 1948 it was the best that the pros had for capturing action. The cost was $700.00 which was a great deal of money for a camera in 1948. It was not a financial success. Many years after Chuck Percy left Bell & Howell and was a U.S. senator he was asked about that camera. Senator Percy just smiled and said that that was not one of his better decisions. It was a range finder camera so it was only good for short lenses. LIFE photographer, Stan Wayman, had the Foton adapted to take a Leica reflex housing and a 400 mm lens to shoot sports.
THE 4×5 GRAPHIC CAMERAS
At a time when camera motordrives spin at 12 frames a second to capture the peak action and smart cards can hold thousands of high resolution photographs, it is difficult to imagine a photographer asked to complete an assignment with 12 exposures and a camera that functions at a speed of one exposure every four seconds. In the days of the Graphic Cameras, that was about it.
The 4×5 Speed Graphic was the sweetheart of press photographers for sixty years. At one time sixteen of the twenty Pulitizer Prize winning photographs were made with this bulky but durable picture making machine. Joe Rosenthal used the camera to make his Iwo Jima Flag Raising photo. Max Desfor used his to make his Pulitizer Prize in Korea, Nate Fine used his to make his famous Babe Ruth Photograph. The Speed Graphic became the identifying symbol of the news photographer.
In the forties and fifties the Pacemaker and Crown Graphics were introduced. Harry Truman made a photograph of the White House News Photographers on the South Lawn of the White House with a Graphic.
In addition to the millions of “point and shoot” instant cameras for amateurs, Polaroid made the model 110A. This camera took type 42 black-and-white Polaroid film like the amateur models but had a good-quality compur shutter with shutterspeeds and f-stops. It was perfect for photographers using strobe equipment to make a test picture in order to check the quality of their lighting.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to the United States in 1973 was a major story and Newsweek had secured two minutes of his time for a cover portrait session. Photographer Fred Ward and his assistant set the strobes. After several admonitions from Soviet and American handlers that they had just two minutes, Ward was ready. Brezhnev walked into the hotel room and Ward posed his subject, then took his Polaroid test camera and made a quick test picture. He handed the Polaroid to his assistant and started making his Newsweek cover portraits. After a minute, the assistant quietly handed the developed Polaroid print back to Ward so he could make a quick light check. Ward saw that Brezhnev was intrigued by their actions. The test portrait of the Soviet leader looked good and Ward handed Brezhnev the Polaroid print. It was clear that Brezhnev had never seen a Polaroid picture and was amazed by the instant-picture technology. A quick thinking Ward reached for the Polaroid camera and presented it to the Soviet leader as a gift. At that point all time limits were off. Brezhnev loved the camera and motioned to his handlers, who were glaring at Ward. A whisper and one was off to another room of the visiting leader’s hotel suite. Ward’s two minutes turned into five and he created a great selection of photographs for Newsweek. The aid hustled back with a little red box and Brezhnev presented it to Ward as his gift of appreciation. The box contained a Soviet-made wrist watch.