THROUGH A LENS DIMLY
BEFORE DIGITAL (CONTINUED) (ONCE
Once I got started recalling the days before digital, more and more recollections began crowding my feeble mind. And, the more I thought about those "good old days," the less "good" they seem to have been.
Don't get me wrong. I loved working as a news photographer starting in 1960. I had some great times, wonderful assignments, and met some fantastic people. But, oh my! How wonderful would it have been to have had today's technology.
My kids think that I was raised by dinosaurs. "What did you do for fun before tv, Dad," they once asked.
"We listened to the radio." I replied.
"Radio???" They were dumbfounded. "But, you hate rock music."
"They used to play really good music back then. Jazz, ballads and show tunes," I told them. "And, we used to listen to drama and comedy on the radio, too."
They couldn't quite get the concept that you could enjoy comedy and drama without pictures.
If you think that my kids are bad, you can just imagine what my grandkids think.
When I called them softies because they rode a school bus every day, I told them how I had to walk over a mile to grammar school and further to the high school, in blizzards and rain.
"Yeah, yeah, Grandpa," they scoffed. "And it was uphill both ways."
Oh well. What are ya gonna do?
I started at the paper in 1960 and we soon transitioned from the 4x5 Speed Graphic camera to 35mm and I was delighted with that leap into a new technology. I saw film speeds increase and film grain decrease, and that was a good thing. Lenses grew wider and they grew longer and faster, as well. Cameras became more and more automated allowing the shooter to concentrate on the "magic moment." Every year or so, there was a new technical advancement that made it easier and better for us.
But, some things were slower in coming. Communication, for example. There were no cell phones back then. Still, it was critically important for photographers out in the field to communicate with their desks as often as possible. Editors lived in constant dread that a major story would break out around the corner from a photographer's assignment and he wouldn't be aware of it. At my paper, it was written in stone that you called your desk as soon as you completed your assignment and before you went on to your next job. If your assignment dragged out, you were supposed to call the desk every 15 minutes or so.
If there was an extended period of time between assignments, the editors didn't care if you did a little shopping or got a haircut, as long as you let them know where you were and left a phone number where you could be reached, or you called in every 15 minutes. Some of us obeyed these dictates to the letter of the law. But, many of us were remiss in varying degrees. None of us really appreciated being so closely tethered to the desk. But, it was the nature of our chosen profession to make ourselves available for breaking news.
This required us to carry a hefty amount of change for the phone booths. It wasn't so bad when a local call was a dime. But, that soon rose to a quarter and we ended up with bulging pockets of heavy coins. An even bigger problem was finding a phone booth, exacerbated by the problem of finding one that worked. It was somewhat difficult when we were covering Long Island because it is mostly residential and you might have to go several miles to find one. It was great when you were covering something in someone's home. You could ask to use their phone. Then you could knock the company for the call on your weekly expenses. Whoopee! There's an extra quarter in your paycheck.
But, if you were covering stories in New York City, then you had problems. While you had a choice of phone booths on almost every corner, there were many that had been vandalized and rendered unusasble. Frequently the handset had been yanked out of the phone. Or, the earpiece had been opened and the magnet mechanism removed. That was always great because you would drop your coin in the slot and the connection would be made but you couldn't hear your editor. So, you lost your quarter. OK, so you added that to your weekly expenses and maybe threw in a few more bogus lost calls. Whoopee! Maybe a buck extra, this week. We always figured that Newsday owed it to us for making us go all the way into the city. Plus, there were just too many phone booths that were used as urinals by winos and the homeless. Try that on a hot, sweltering summer day. (That's when phone booths were actually closed in, covered booths. Now they are just open little cubicles sitting on a post on the sidewalk with no privacy.)
Even with the demand that we call in as often as possible, there was always the time when something would happen right after you hung up. If you were in New York City and you had just finished your last assignment, you might be heading for the Queens Mid-town Tunnel for the 40 mile ride back to the office. Editors hated that.
So, one day, we were all issued pagers. Those were little electronic devices that hung on your belt and buzzed, beeped and/or vibrated when your number was activated. That's all they did. It meant, "Drop what you're doing and call the office immediately." It was something, but it wasn't the answer. We didn't have to call in every 15 minutes, but we did have to carry the pocket full of change for when the pager did go off. And, you might be on the Long Island Expressway, fighting the commuter rush hour traffic, trying to get to NY for the Mayor's 9 AM Press Conference at City Hall. You knew you were going to be late and were getting anxious.
"CHIRP, CHIRP, CHIRP."
That damned thing on your belt would go off and you were three miles from the next exit ramp and with traffic moving at a snails pace, it could take a half an hour to get to the exit and God knows how long to find a working phone booth. But, you had no choice, so you fought your way to the ramp and hunted down a phone booth. This one particular time, I went through all of the above and when I connected to the Day Photo Editor, he asked, "Where are you?"
"Standing in a f---ing urine soaked phone booth in Queens," I said, not too gently.
"OK," he said. "I just wanted to know where you were."
I missed the Mayor's Press Conference and I made sure I told the desk why.
Another time, two other shooters and I were assigned to cover the home games of a NY Yankees World Series. The Night Photo Editor insisted that we call him every half hour to let him know what we had shot. The game was a pitcher's duel and there was hardly any base action. I was closest to some phone booths so I was delegated to check in. Finally, about halfway through the game, the Yanks were able to get a couple of men on base with walks. That, in itself, didn't make for great sports action, but the potential for a steal or a pick-off was there. I missed my half hourly check-in call and a minute later my pager started chirping. I silenced it and kept peering through my lens waiting for the action. The pager went off twice more. Reluctantly, I climbed up the stairs to the phone booth which was out of sight of the playing field and waited in line for my turn at a phone. Just as the editor pick-up the phone I heard the sustained roar of the crowd.
"You didn't call me when you were supposed to," he demanded. "Do you have any action shots, yet?"
"I would have if I wasn't standing at this goddam phone," I shouted back.
Some editors didn't like me. They said I had an attitude problem. I wonder what gave them that idea?
Eventually, those pagers had the capability of displaying a brief message on a tiny screen. There was still no way for the pagee to respond to the pager, but it helped. If you got a message saying "YOUR ASSIGNMENT IS DELAYED FOR 20 MINUTES," you knew that you didn't have to break your neck trying to get there on time. But, more often than not the message read "CALL ME LAND LINE." And, when you called, the editor just wanted to know "where are you?."
We were getting big news assignments where there would be several photographers and reporters in an area and it was important for all of us to be able to communicate with each other. The paper invested in some walkie-talkies which were on the CB frequency and were about the size of the old World War II army walkie-talkies. Because they were on the CB Band, you often had to wait until all the "Good Buddy" truck drivers paused before you could talk with an associate. The range was just a few miles under optimum conditions which meant that the Photo Editor wasn't part of the loop. It was a step forward, but barely.
So, the paper took the plunge and went for honest to goodness two-way radios. They were on a commercial FM band devoted to media. And, they were considerably smaller and had a much broader range. Every photographer had one that fit into a belt clip and also plugged into a car booster which would extend the range and charge the battery at the same time. Nirvana. What a step forward that was. However, because that particular band was so crowded, we ended up sharing the frequency with the newspaper delivery trucks of a Westchester (County) daily paper, as well as the Photo Department of the rival N.Y. Post. The Westchester trucks were bad enough with constant instructions to the drivers. "Truck sixty-three...drop off six extra papers to Murray's Deli on Clark and Main. Truck ninety-two, call your wife."
Sharing air time with our compadres at the NY Post had it's advantages. We knew them all and they were friends. Often we or they would come on after one of them or us would get a real crappy assignment.
"Man, I'm glad I don't have to cover that crappy assignment."
Both our desks would be privy to our conversations and weren't happy about criticism from the enemy camp. The worst was when one of our desks had a breaking story and needed to get the info to their photographer without tipping off the opposition.
"Hey, Mary! You know that food shot you had a couple of days ago? Well, I need you to go two blocks to the north of there. You'll know why when you get into the area."
It would be a huge apartment house fire or something like of that ilk that they didn't want us to know about. We would know that it was something and as much as we were friends on the job, we held to ethics that prevented us from asking the other about it or giving information if it was our assignment. Those were the rules of war.
After awhile, the FCC allocated more band width and we got our own radio frequncy. We could talk to our desk with impunity and not have to be concerned about security. We could also communicate among ourselves.
When we first started using radios, some of the photographers were concerned that it was so easy for editors to reach us, they could run our asses off chasing crap all day. I told them not to worry. If you start feelling harassed by a particular editor who wanted to know "where you are" every few minutes, there is an "on" and "off" switch on the radio. You can always explain that you were in a bad radio reception area and God knows there were plenty of those.
For the most part, we didn't resort to that except in extreme duress. We also realized that since we could talk from car to car, we could use this to our own advantage. When Newsday first started circulating in Queens (County), there was a push to get as many photos in Queens as possible. They would send four or five of us out, every day, to scour the streets of Queens for Floaters, which were pictures that would fill space without actually having a story attached to them. Floaters could float anywhere in the paper.
After driving up and down the streets of Flushing, Bayside, Jamaica, Ridgewood, etc, all morning, it was nice to be able to get together for lunch. So we came up with a code. If one of us found ourselves near a decent diner around lunch time, he/she would broadcast, "Hey there. This is an advisory. There's roadwork tying up traffic at Jamaica Ave. and 171'st Street. Stay away from there." In twenty minutes there would be four or five of us sitting down for lunch.
Now, everyone has cell phones, All the adventure and romance is being drained from the profession.
I do believe that I will have more to say about Life Before Digital next month.
I hope that you'll join me.
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