Speed Graphic

The Speed Graphic, the best camera in the world.

I was appointed squadron historian without a written history to work on. There had been one, though incomplete, at one time. It’s just that no one could find it. And the man who had been writing it, an early arriver, had had one of the longest lists of campaign badges in the squadron. The more badges you had the sooner you got home, and he was already long gone to the U. S. of A.

Well, what to do? Every week another clutch of squadron weathermen got their own orders to report to the transit depot outside of Naples which would decide whether you got first-class seats in a C-53 Courier flight or three-deep bunks deep in the hold of a battle-weary troop transport. If we just did nothing for a few months, nearly everyone would be discharged and gone, and the problem would have solved itself, because there would be nobody left to care.

And I had one secret weapon that was all mine to wield. In the cascades of too much of everything that had suddenly begun to flow from everywhere, I had got up from breakfast one morning and discovered a full-size mobile photo lab parked outside my door. The staff sergeant driver/photographer/lab worker came out of the dining room, picking his teeth with the remnants of the fourth of Lisa’s cheese omelettes he had consumed, to inform me that his unit had just disbanded itself, and he had been ordered to report to me for duty.

Although he ranked me — I was still a buck sergeant — Staff said he would take my orders, and he hoped I would have some real work for him as he, a recent arrival, had hardly any battle buttons and wouldn’t get sent back to the homeland he had just left for months.

So that’s how I got my first idea. With me aboard, I ordered him to drive us to the transport depot, where the last contingent of our homebound men for that week were just checking in — and start taking every weatherman’s photo. with one of his four Speed Graphics.

My staff-sergeant helper grasped his duties at once. Not only did he patrol that area until he’d photographed every man with weather-squadron shoulder patches, but after he’d been doing it for a hour or so, he got an idea: “So I told them that if we got enough photos and stories, we’d make them into a book, and if they wanted to make sure they’d get a copy for themselves, they could pre-pay for it by giving me a ten-spot, which we would turn over to whoever was the last squadron financial officer, and he would be responsible for getting the books mailed out.”

I patted his shoulder. “You’re doing a great job,” I told him. “I’d put you for promotion to tech sergeant if I knew who to send the recommendation to. And, by the way, I see you’ve still got three more of those Speed Graphics. Better issue one to me, in case I see something I want to snap for the book — I mean, if there ever is one.”

How could he refuse? I could have made it an order.

And the Speed Graphic, I want to mention, was immediate new heir to the title Best Camera in the World as soon as I shot a few seascapes and turned them over to Staff for developing and printing. The Graphic was a reporter’s kind of camera. It didn’t have particularly good optics, but what it did have was huge negatives.

“Just point and shoot,” Staff advised me. “The picture you want will be on that negative somewhere and I’ll find it and vignette it and print it for you.”

And he would have done it, too, I’m pretty sure, if two sergeants in an MP jeep hadn’t shown up to get into my mobile photo lab, jiggle some wires under the dashboard, get it started and drive it away, Speed Graphics, vignetted prints and all.

To be continued.

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One Comment

  1. Bruce Arthurs says:

    In 1972 I was trained as a US Army Photographic Laboratory Technician at Fort Monmouth, NJ (just down the road a ways from you, as I recall, though I never worked up the chutzpah to come knock on your door and ask you to sign a book). The Speed Graphics were still the default camera used, though we had about one week out of about twelve getting to use a 35mm. (Most of the Lab Tech training taught developing and darkroom techniques.)

    As you say, the 4×5 inch negatives on the Speed Graphics could produce wonderfully sharp and detailed photos. Heavy suckers, with a fairly steep learning curve, but I still have a nostalgic respect for them.

    As it turned out, once I graduated from the course, I was sent to fill a Lab Tech slot for a Signal company at another post, where there wasn’t any actual lab work to be done. After several months mowing lawns, washing trucks, and occasionally firing rifle salutes over the graves of deceased veterans, I managed to get transferred to a truck driving company where I spent the rest of my enlistment as a company clerk. Never got back into photography until digital cameras came along.