Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
Now anyone can be a photojournalist
When I started as a wire service photographer way back in the day most shooters only used Tri-X black and white film with an ASA of 400. For those of you who never have had to carry a light meter or wrestle with a manual camera, Tri-X was the best possible choice. I mention this only because unlike now photojournalism and photography back then generally required a thought process.
In the early days I spent countless hours in numerous print and film processing darkrooms honing my craft. I was constantly on the lookout for new processing methods and developer combinations.
For most of the wire service guys, photography was all about speed. The trick was high processing temperatures, drying negatives as quickly as possible, and getting the shot on the wire.
Unlike today, it only became a point and shoot environment when you were chasing criminals appearing at the local courthouse or trying to photograph a subject without asking permission. “From the hip at f/8” became my mantra in my early days.
However, as time passed, it wasn’t long before the managers of most American newspapers demanded an all-color look. The papers then generally only had the ability to put color photos on their front pages but in order to better meet the calls of our AP clients, out went the tried-and-true Tri-X and in came Kodacolor 400.
Kodacolor 400 was an incredibly grainy film and I don’t recall seeing a sharp image for several years after. Photography was changing and all film was on life support. Still, I continued to slop color negative chemicals through a bunch of Motel 6 bathrooms while chasing a deadline. I didn't know for sure but something revolutionary was just around the corner and it would change my career forever.
I first saw a digital camera in early 1995 while at the first-ever class for wire service photographers concerning the News Camera 2000. The AP was moving into the digital age and I and 14 others had been chosen to take the first steps.
We gathered at Princeton University for a round-table introduction. It was a brave new world.
The old guard immediately poo-pooed the camera and technology. “This will never work” I heard most of them say. Vin Alabiso, the AP's vice president for photos, and AP president Lou Boccardi saw things differently. Not only was digital photography going to flourish, we would be the ones to make it happen. Soon there would be no more darkrooms and none of the messy chemicals that went with them. I could not have been happier.
That's because I had discovered that the world of wire service photojournalism was at times not about quality. Don’t misunderstand. Everyone was trying their best but quality disappeared with use of Kodacolor 400 and 1600 to take Page 1 color shots.
For a while, we were told to carry one camera with black and white film and another with color. That, of course, did not work out so well and and I was never able to shoot with two cameras at the same time.
But back to film photography. Oklahoma City was my first posting as a wire service photographer. The photo staff consisted of just one person, me. The entire state was my responsibility. That meant if a tornado wiped out a town 150 miles away, it was my job to get there, shoot the scene, find a motel and put together a darkroom, and process some film and then make a print.
No more than two photos were transmitted as soon as possible, usually taking about 10 minutes per shot. All the gear necessary to do that filled the trunk of a compact car. The transmitter alone weighed 70 pounds.
Fortunately there were some improvements to that routine prior to the advent of the digital camera. A transmitter that could send images without making a print was used for a few years making the darkroom unnecessary. For example, all of the images that I shot during the first Gulf War were sent to New York using that technology.
The iPhone you carry in your pocket has more power than any of those early digital cameras. When I photographed the deceased Cambodian despot Pol Pot in the jungle with an early digital camera in 1998 I had no idea how radically things were about to change.
The shot of the young Khmer Rouge soldier looking lost while standing in the hut with Pol Pot's body was a 1.7 megabyte file. It looked great in color on the front page of the New York Times the next day. But that camera was entirely manual.
Now everything is automatic.
In a very few short years it seems, technology has made huge leaps in improving the quality and speed of the image. It felt like we were swapping out cameras every 18 months. New and better was the rage.
My iPhone camera shoots photos that have been used on the wire and for better or worse, everyone thinks he's a photojournalist.
Loved rreading this thank you
Leave a Reply.
Tales from the Trail
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.