At a recent session of my Guided Darkroom Class, one of the students brought along a very special friend named Fred Tonne. Fred had been a photographer for the Milwaukee Journal during the 1940s-60s. He brought along a few of the cameras that he used during his time with the newspaper.
Fred showed us his “standard” Speed Graphic Press Camera, with 127mm lens. He also brought along an olive-drab military version of the camera, built to take a bit more abuse on the field. “Big Bertha” was a VERY special telephoto camera he brought along too. “Bertha”, with it’s 500mm/f8 lens, is a one-of-a-kind; his is the only copy of the camera! Fred also brought along his Fed, a Russian knock-off of an early Leica rangefinder.
While Fred loved the quality of the 4×5 camera, once he had a taste of Leica cameras in Europe during WW II, he came back convinced that American newspapers should switch over to 35mm.
It was apparent from what he said, that he had great affection for both types of cameras–35mm and 4×5:
on 4×5: “I was taking a photo of a steam train and I just waited till the train filled the wire-frame and hit the shutter…one shot…that was all I needed. I didn’t need a motor drive.”
Fred seemed pretty convinced that adopting 35mm back then, and digital nowadays, hasn’t exactly been the best for photography. He seemed to think that the ability to capture a lot of photos has made photographers less discriminating in when they hit the shutter. As he put it: “You were used to a Howitzer and now you’ve got a machine-gun.”
On 35mm, and trying to convince the newspaper to use it: “It worked in Europe why can’t we do it here goddammit?”
Once the newspaper agreed to try 35mm cameras, the photographers who wanted to use them were given their choice of camera system. Whatever basic kit they wanted, the paper would buy for them. This at first seemed quite generous of the newspaper, but then Fred realized the reason for their actions: “They gave us whatever kit we wanted. And we figured out why–because if they gave us what we wanted, then we couldn’t bitch about it.”