The kit of the mid-century photojournalist

Photojournalism had its origins in the photography of war. Photojournalists are photographers who take pictures that illustrate or tell a story. The first photograph used as an “illustration of a newspaper report”, was a daguerreotype taken by Charles-François Thibault in Paris during the bloody June Days uprising in 1848. Two images were taken at Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple : the scene depicts a barricade on a empty street, at 7.30am on June 25th. On July 8th, the newspaper L’Illustration reproduced the images as woodcuts. Photographic coverage of the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the American Civil War in the 1860s required cumbersome cameras taking long exposures on plates – shots were taken before or after battles because combat coverage was impossible. WW1 brought medium format cameras with glass-plate negatives (these were used by “official” photographers, soldiers used the Vest Pocket Kodak).

Barricades in the Rue Saint-Maur (daguerreotype)
The woodcut from L’Illustration

The Golden Age of photojournalism was considered to be the period of the 1930s through the 1950s, largely due to the introduction of the Leica 35mm camera in 1925. But what sort of kit did the average photojournalist (not including army combat photographers) use in the mid-century period? Being a photojournalist was a demanding occupation. Consider the words of Boris Spremo (1935-2017): “

“I have walked through the wreckage’s of plane crashes and smashed cars . . . knelt beside dying people in Central Africa . . . faced bullets . . . run from tear gas bombs, been chased by angry mobs . . . ridden in a dug out canoe in the sweltering jungles of South America and on dog sleds at 50°C below zero in the Canadian far north . . . ”

Spremo, Boris. Boris Spremo: Twenty Years of Photojournalism. Toronto: McClelland, 1983.

So it is imaginable that a typical photojournalist would want to carry as little gear as possible. In the 1930s, while 35mm had followers, many photojournalists still used large format press cameras. For example Charles Kerlee (1907-1981) in his 1939 book “Pictures With a Purpose – How They Are Made” describes using a 4×5 series D Graflex with a 8¼” Steinheil Cassar lens, or a 40cm Tele-Tessar lens (400mm=135mm, 8¼”=65mm in 35mm equivalency).

Robert Capa (1913-1954), who it is rumoured photojournalist, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies is based on in the movie “Rear Window” was an icon of photojournalism, covering the Spanish Civil War and WW2. Capa is known for using a Leica at the beginning of his career, including for one of his most famous works, Falling Soldier taken during the Spanish Civil War. But by his coverage of the Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s, he had switched to the Contax II series of cameras. In 1944 as he followed allied troops onto the beaches at Normandy (the “Easy Red” sector of Omaha Beach), he carried two Contax cameras. His preference was for 50mm lenses, with a certain liking of the Zeiss 50mm Sonnar f/1.5. When he left on that ill-fated assignment to Indochina in 1954 he carried a Nikon S to complement his Contax.

A Contax II

Horace Bristol (1908-1997) was another American photographer who was best known for his work in Life. After WW2, Bristol settled in Japan, publishing “Tokyo on a five day pass with candid camera” in 1951. Although photographing for a photo-book he describes in detail the type of gear used through the process. It seems Bristol largely used 35mm cameras, typically still known as the “candid camera”. He states that while a telephoto and wide-angle are needed, the workhorse is the 50mm, it will “do almost anything any lens will do”. Photographing for the book, Bristol used an array of cameras, but typically carried a Canon III and Leica IIIc for candid work (likely what we would today term street photography). As to lenses, Bristol carried the following array: Serenar 135mm f/4, Serenar 85mm f/2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, Serenar 50mm f/1.8, Serenar 35mm f/3.2 and a Serenar 38mm f/3.5. Of course this sort of photography allowed for greater flexibility (Serenar = Canon).

Photojournalists also typically did not carry the full gamut of lenses. As suggested by Bristol:

“Don’t, however, be lead into the error of thinking that the answer to good pictures is to be found in a complete set of matched lenses. just the opposite is true, for there is a very definite correlation between the number of lenses the average photographer carries, and the worth-while pictures he produces. Unfortunately, this varies in inverse order; in other words, the more equipment to worry about, the fewer pictures of merit!”

Horace Bristol, Tokyo on a five day pass with candid camera (1951)

Many photographers adopted “candid cameras” because they were compact and convenient. W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) supposedly left Newsweek in 1938 because they wanted him to work with a larger format, but he preferred his Leica. After that he secured a job at Life. Over his career he used many different 35mm cameras, Leica, Contax, Pentax, Nikon. His preference was for 21mm, 28mm, 35mm, 85mm and 135mm lenses. Yevgeny Khaldei (1917-1997), the Ukranian photographer who captured one of the most iconic WW2 photographs of a Soviet soldier raising a flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, used a Leica III throughout his career.

In the end, it is likely that 35mm cameras took over from larger format because they were practical. Practical and efficient, in the fast-paced world that photojournalism was becoming.

Further reading:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s