As a newspaper photographer from the 1960's through 2002, I met many a character who fit the Runyon mold. Most of them were my associates at Newsday (Long Island, NY).
Over the next few months, I will introduce you to them. In many instances, I have changed names in the fervent hope that I not be thrashed for having exposed their idiosyncrasies to the world. It is not my intent to ridicule or criticize anyone. The antics and the events about which I write did truly take place. Time may have dimmed the exact dialogs but I write these journals depicting these people as accurately as humanly possible. I hope that you will find them as interesting and as zany as did I.
THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
It's hurricane season and this year the big news is about the two killer storms that tore up much of the US Gulf Coast
Long Island, where I've lived most of my life, is no stranger to hurricanes. The island is 118 miles long and anywhere from 12 to 20 miles wide. It is shaped like a fish with a forked tail and it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean with its head separated from Manhattan by the East River. What worries Lungaylenders (I'm told that we speak with an accent) the most during the fall hurricane season is that there are only a few places on the island that are more than a few feet above sea level. One Category 4 or 5 storm (or Heaven forbid, a tsunami like the recent one in the Indian Ocean) and the map makers will have to revise their charts of the New York coastline.
Newsday, the local daily paper, came into existence in 1940, just missing the opportunity to write about the big hurricane of 1938. I remember that one. I was 6 years old at the time. We were lucky. The only damage to us was a huge old sumac tree in our back yard that blew over and crunched the gutters on the eaves of our 2 story frame house in Hempstead. With the help of some neighbors, we sawed that huge hunk of wood into sections, and my father, not knowing that sumac was toxic, started to burn the logs in our back yard. He swelled up like a balloon from the toxic smoke and that ended the lovely backyard campfires we thought that we would enjoy.
Newsday hired me twenty years later and I spent a wonderful 42 years there as a staff photographer. During that period of time, I had occasion to cover any number of hurricanes. Every Fall, forecasters would talk about the ever present possibility that Long Island was due for another killer hurricane. We had our fair share of hurricanes, but none measured up to that 1938 storm. Trees and wires would blow down and parts of the island would be without power for weeks at a time. Roofs were torn up but most of the damage was done to the shorelines where waves battered the fragile sand dunes which were the only barriers from the angry ocean. Each storm would see some very expensive beach front homes wash out to sea. Owning a home on the Atlantic Ocean along the narrow barrier beach on Fire Island often meant owning a home IN the Atlantic Ocean after a storm.
Our staff of shooters would be scattered up and down the coast of the island, ready to brave the wind, rain, falling trees and power lines to record the effects of the storm. We were always moblized the day before the storm. Our editors would be in touch with meteorologists to try to track the storm's path. We would then be assigned various locations to cover the next day. These were the days before cell phones or two way radios, so we discussed contingency plans in case the scenario didn't play out according to predictions. With utility wires down, you couldn't count on regular phone service to coordinate the ever changing situation with the desk. We usually had to use common sense and good news judgement and act on our own. Mostly, we would affix ourselves to the local volunteer fire departments who would go into flooded areas with their amphibious vehicles or their high wheeled trucks. All things considered, we did a damned good job.
One day we were presented with a new head of the Photo Department. There were political reasons on the part of management for this move and we ended up with Mike at the helm. Mike was a decent enough guy and you could talk with him. The problem was that he had been an art director at Newsday for many years and really had little understanding of news photography. This came to light in a big way shortly after he came to take over the operation of the department.
A major storm was brewing in the Atlantic. It was expected to hit Long Island, square in the belly, early the next morning and it would be hurricane strength when it did.
Mike called all of us in to a meeting in the photographer's work space, the afternoon before. Before he spoke a word to us, he picked up the telephone and dialed a number.
"Hello? Miami Herald? Please connect me to your Photo Editor. Hello? Yes, this is the Photo Editor of Newsday on Long Island. We're expecting a hurricane here, tomorrow and I was wondering if you can tell us how you cover hurricanes in Florida?"
Jeez! We couldn't believe what we were hearing. I mean, what did he think we had been doing at Newsday since 1940? We stood there and listened and we felt like we were a bunch of grade school kids asking high schoolers how to take an exam.
When he was through, Mike hung up the phone and turned his attention to his staff, who were looking at him in amazement.
"Well," he said. "That was informative. But, before I go any further, I just want to let you know that we will be expecting some of you to be in harm's way, tomorrow."
Our eyebrows arched up even further. Oh, well. I had the longest tenure at the paper, so I figured that I should say something.
"What do you mean by harm's way, Mike?" I asked.
"Well, you know," he said. "You might have to expose yourself to risks."
"Risks?" I asked. "What kinds of risks? Do you want us to lash ourselves to lamp posts down at the beach and photograph the storm surge as it sweeps over us?"
"Well, no. But, I am going to try to get a photographer up in a helicopter during the storm, to make pictures of the fury of the hurricane."
"Mike, if you can find a chopper pilot stupid enough to be airborne during a hurricane, I suppose you can find one of us stupid enough to fly with him. It's just not going to happen."
Poor Mike. This isn't the way he had planned this, and it wasn't my intention to try to make him look foolish. He had accomplished that without my help when he made that phone call to the Miami Herald. He made us all look foolish.
I sat on the edge of one of the desks. "Look, Mike. Most of us in this room have covered hurricanes and so'easters many times. We can all attest to the fact that anytime one of us gets out of our car to make a shot during a major storm, we are already in harms way. We get pelted by wind swept rain. Our cameras and our clothes get soaked through. Debris is flying through the air and trees are falling all around us. Powerlines lay snapping and crackling in the flooded streets. We do what we have to do in order to bring back photos. I don't know what else you can expect of us."
Mike looked a little abashed. "Yeah, ok," he said. You guys have your assignments for tomorrow. Good luck and get back safely."
The next day we did our job. The hurricane packed a wallop and while there was no loss of life on Long Island, a number of waterfront homes were washed out to sea, Downtown streets in in many south shore villages were awash in the storm tide. Power and phone lines were down all over the place. The eye of the hurricane passed over us in the early afternoon, offering a temporary respite. We were able to wipe the water out of our cameras and lenses in preparation for the even worse onslaught that comes on the back end of the storm. Later in the day, the wind and rain subsided and the clouds vanished. The sun shone in a magnificent, cloudless blue sky, and but for the destruction that lay everywhere, it was as though it was just another lovely early autumn day.
Our Photo Editors kept us out as long as possible, hoping that no aspect of the story would be overlooked. We drifted back to the office as we were able to convince them that we had everything that could possibly be photographed. When we walked in the door to the department, we had to wiggle our way through the crowd that milled around, occupying every available space. Photo Editors, Picture Editors and News Editors were fighting for a spot at the viewing tables to see the photos that were coming in. Worst of all, every freelancer on Long Island had brought in film. We were shooting black and white film back then, and it was hand processed in stainless steel developing tanks. The film was loaded onto stainless steel reels. It was time consuming and labor intensive. Most of our tanks held four reels. A few held ten or twelve.
As the staffers straggled in, tired and drenched, and fought our way to the four developing rooms, through the crowd of freelancers, we were asked to develop their rolls, along with ours. Well, shit!! We each had from 10 to 20 rolls of our own. Now we had to spend time processing someone else's film. To exacerbate matters, one of the Photo Editors had a habit of pushing free lance art over that of the staffers. Hey, I'm ok with using free lance art if it's something a staffer doesn't have. BUT, ya gotta give an edge to the guy (or gal) who works for you and who risked his/her neck to bring back the stuff for you.
Anyway, it was a long and tedious day. It was well into the late evening before I got my stuff to the light box and got some pictures that now needed to be captioned. I found a free typewriter near the light boxes and sat down to caption my negatives. As I worked, I heard Jake talking to Mike as he showed his photos. Jake was one of our shooters who worked for the features section of the paper. Of course, in a situation like this, sports shooters, feature shooters; whoever, we all shoot news. Jake had to shoot some feature story that had been scheduled, and then went out to look for storm photos as the hurricane worsened. He had been down on the barrier beaches on the south shore.
Mike was looking at his 35mm negatives through a magnifying loupe. He scanned the loupe across the strip of negatives, but kept returning to several at the beginning of the roll. Finally he lifted his head and turned to Jake.
"What's the significance of this Greek Restaurant?" he asked.
"What Greek Restaurant?" Jake answered. "I didn't shoot any Greek Restaurant. I shot my feature on the new pavilion at Tobay Beach and then I shot storm pictures while I was in the area."
Mike said, "Well, look right here. Here's a building with a sign in Greek letters. It looks like a Greek Restaurant"
Jake took the loupe from Mike's hand and leaned over the light box for a closer look. Then he took the film and turned it over. "Now look," he said as he handed the loupe back to Mike. "The sign says "Tobay Beach."
Mike was looking at a reversed image through the wrong side of the film.
Which, I suppose, gives credence to the motto, "It's all Greek to me."
|Contents Page||Editorials||The Platypus||Links||Copyright|
|Portfolios||Camera Corner||War Stories||Dirck's Gallery||Comments|
|Issue Archives||Columns||Forums||Mailing List||E-mail Us|