The Dark (room) Ages: Photojournalism Before the Digital Enlightenment

The Dark (room) Ages: Photojournalism Before the Digital Enlightenment
by Alan Weiner of The Wedding Bureau

I traveled during the 80’s and 90’s as a contract photojournalist for The New York Times. When I think back on what it took to get pictures to the paper from the road and compare it with the technology available today, I just shake my head.

In those days – the pre-digital dark (room) ages – my luggage consisted of a large trunk with a “portable” darkroom, a smaller case with a drum transmitter and a couple pairs of clean socks, just in case. It was called a portable darkroom only because it was somewhat moveable, but in reality you can only make an enlarger so small. In addition to the enlarger, I carried 3 chemical trays (8×10 in size), packets of developer, fixer, a bottle of stop bath, a box of photo paper and a hair dryer, and I was still only half way there. To process the negatives I carried two 4-reel tanks, 8 reels and a thermometer. To make the hotel bathroom light-tight, I’d throw in some duck tape and a roll of black plastic.

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An event I reluctantly had to leave early because of deadline constraints - The 30th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 11, 1995

While the gear was cumbersome, the real issue was the time it took to process film, dry it (enough), print at least one image and transmit. It took a good hour plus 12-15 minutes to then send the print with the drum scanner – and that’s if the phone line worked well enough to carry the signal (I’m not talking about cell phones, either).

All this often required leaving events I was covering much earlier than I wanted – sometimes just a few minutes after they started – in order to make a 5 pm deadline. In those days, you had to work fast and pray hard! I can’t begin to tell you how many flights I missed because I was waiting on the scanner to finish spinning.

These days, whenever I get frustrated that my computer is moving too slow, I just think back on that trunk and all those nights in hotel rooms smelling fixer, and I just have to smile. Today, I carry a laptop and cell phone and send images within seconds without ever leaving the event.  These are truly “the good old days”.

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Comments

  1. John Isaac says:

    Alan,

    Well said. All very familiar to me. I worked for the United Nations as a photojournalist for 20 years (1978-1998)

    Yes, when I teach photo workshops these days, I hear my students complain about some nano second delays retrieving their images.
    Let us not forget to count our blessings!!
    Best,
    John

  2. Hi John,

    Do you know Stephenie Hollyman? I think she worked at the United Nations during that time as well.
    It would have been fun to have the advantages of digital back “in the day”. What sort of workshops are you teaching?

    Take care,
    Alan