Racing to shoot the picture

The history of press photography in Australia is one of racing to get pictures to the newspaper, write Fay Anderson and Sally Young. If you’re in Sydney, see Fay and Sally live at their Gleebooks book launch, Wednesday, Aug. 24. Above: Photographers at the Caulfield Cup in 1955 photographing the winning jockey.

Photographers have usually let their pictures speak for themselves. But in a new book – Shooting the Picture: Press Photography in Australia – we draw upon photographers’ own words, gathered through 60 interviews with press photographers ranging in age from 32 to 94 years. They explain what it is like working at the coalface of newsgathering, including at wars, crime scenes, death knocks, fires, elections and protests as well as major cultural and sporting events.

Taking a great photograph naturally tends to be the task most associated with their work, but many photographers felt that, in pre-digital times, the skill required to get their photographs back to their newspaper for publication was just as important.

Bruce Howard, who became a darkroom assistant at the Herald in 1951 and retired after 50 years working as a press photographer, said: “Before digital cameras, the obligation on the photographer was to work out how they’re going to get their pictures back. It was paramount. No picture ever, no matter how good it is, is [any] good unless it gets to the paper on time.”

“You’re just standing there in your shorts or underwear and sweat pouring off you, trying to print, ripping the emulsion of film.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, picturegrams and radiograms were impressive new technologies for transmitting pictures. They were still in use in the 1960s. Bryan Charlton, who was based in Adelaide, remembers that the picturegram equipment used by the Advertiser dated back to World War I, was bigger than a car and was housed at the post office. All overseas photos were received on that machine, picked up from the post office and delivered to the paper as a large, wet negative. In Perth, Barry Baker went to the post office at 6.30am to pick up the picturegrams of important overseas events. Most days there would be two picturegrams or, on busy days, six at the most.

Photographers going to a remote location or interstate had to take equipment with them. It weighed over 90 kilograms and required two men to carry it. Later, the equipment was slimmed down, and for country jobs, photographers would take their mobile darkroom in one big case with all the chemicals and an enlarger in it. They would go to someone’s house or a motel, blacken out the bathroom windows and turn it into a darkroom. The machine transformed the black-and-white density into a sound that could be transmitted down the phone line.

Photographers vividly recall setting up those makeshift darkrooms in places like hotel toilets using reams of black plastic and gaffer tape. John Ibbs, formerly of News Corp, remembers: “It was so hot that you’re just standing there in your shorts or underwear and sweat pouring off you, trying to print, ripping the emulsion of film.” For the Royal Tour in 1954, photographers had to be well-presented when in sight of the Queen. But covering her visits to hot regional areas was a less glamorous task for the interstate photographers, who worked in their underwear out of dilapidated country studios trying to meet the edition deadlines of their papers.

A glamorous moment for photographers, likely during the Royal Tour of 1954. Courtesy of Bryan Charlton.

A glamorous moment for photographers, likely during the Royal Tour of 1954. Courtesy of Bryan Charlton.

From the 1950s, photographers also starting working out of “picture trucks”: driving a van around, taking photographs, transmitting them and then driving back. These were old ice-cream and pie trucks, or heavy-duty delivery vans, which had been converted into mobile darkrooms. The photographers developed negatives and made prints in the back of these vehicles. As a cadet, Steve Grove spent a lot of time in one of those vans and remembers how, in the heat of summer, he struggled to keep the chemicals at the right temperature.

By around 1970, radio waves were being replaced by satellites, which enabled faster transmission of clearer images. By around 1993, picturegram technology was superseded by film scanners, allowing photographers to scan a negative and send it down a phone line. This process was, in turn, superseded by digital technology in the late 1990s.

Under the old processes, the time from taking a picture to delivering a print to the office would be measured in hours. With the advent of digital cameras and wi-fi technology, that lapsed time has been reduced to seconds. And where two to six picturegrams might have arrived from the post office each day, a picture editor can now choose from thousands of images.

Guy Magowan, a former West Australian photographer, points out that in a pre-digital world, the transmission “was the special thing about press photographers … we were the only ones that could take the pictures, and get them back … [under] all conditions” because “we had the technology to do it. No one else could do it. Whereas now, everyone can do it.”

Today, anyone with an internet connection can send a photograph. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can take a great photograph – the type of photograph that freelance photographer Stephen Dupont described as ‘the subtlety and the power of a single, captured photograph [that] has the greatest power to instil memory into people”.

“And that’s why they talk about the iconic photographs of our time. They’re what we remember.”

This is an edited extract from Shooting the Picture: Press Photography in Australia, published by Melbourne University Publishing, available 1 August 2016. Sally Young is an associated professor of political science and an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Fay Anderson is an associate professor in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University.