Fast Man With a Flash
IT SEEMS rather paradoxical that Fred Davis, who has been taking pictures for newspapers for 30 years, a rough and ready business at its best, should have acquired a gratifying reputation and a satisfying share of the nation’s wealth by clinging to the battle cry of those gentle young men, the Boy Scouts. His motto, and theirs, is “Be Prepared.”
Davis, somewhat less gentle than most Boy Scouts, has gone out from Toronto with his camera from Alaska to Panama, from Newfoundland to the Queen Charlottes,and those who credithimwith being the best news photographer in the trade cannot recall an instance in which he wasn’t prepared to do his duty by God, his country, and his newspaper.
Fifty-one this past April Frederick Robson Davis has the constrained demeanor of a successful undertaker, bearing his reasonably solid, 180pound, five-foot-eleven frame with ramrod erectness. He smiles easily and naturally, and his short-clipped hair is grey, his eyes a light blue.
His complexion mirrors the salutary effects of an outdoor life and when he digs into the past to laugh over an amusing anecdote, which he does well and often, color rises quickly to flood his cheeks. Those who have worked with him describe him as moody, often outspoken and always fair.
Davis’ preparation for anything has paid rich dividends and his ability to overcome obstacles has returned his paper many an exclusive photograph. Early in the war when an aircraft carrying the late Sir Frederick Banting overseas was re-
ported to have crashed near Newfoundland his newspaper hired a DC-3 aircraft from New York. It picked up Davis in Toronto and the late Fred Griffin, veteran newspaperman who died last year, at Montreal.
An American law which grounded commercial pilots for eight hours after they had spent a specified number of hours in the air forced down the plane at Dartmouth, N.S. Davis and Griffin attempted to get aboard an RCAF plane but the weather was closing in and they were refused. They took a ferry across the harbor to Halifax, a train to Sydney and caught the S.S. Caribou for the eighthour boat trip across to Port aux Basques, Nfid.
Storms and slush-ice turned the crossing into a 19-hour nightmare and when they docked they were still 500 miles from Newfoundland’s east coast. They climbed on the country’s narrowgauge railway for the circuitous cross-country trip and finally reached Gander airport just as Banting’s body was being brought in. Griffin got off a story while Davis headed for the scene of the crash. He
got pictures away in a plane thn( beat all opposition by a full day.
Looked Like Long Winter
ON ANOTHER occasion during the war Davis was returning with reporter Beland Honderich from a story at Fairbanks, Alas. Their USAAF aircraft ran into rough weather and suddenly it started to fall. It dropped 2,000 feet--so rapidly that an aluminum ladder in the fuselage put a hole in the roof of the plane before the pilot got it righted. Reporter Honderich suffered a cut head and one of the American officers suggested he was entitled to the Purple Heart. Fred, too, was cut, but rather than reveal his wound and qualify for a decoration he chose to sit on it.
Davis, who left the Toronto Star a year ago to go into partnership with three other photographers in a company called Canada Pictures (Toronto), gained something akin to photographic immortality on the Moose River Continued on page 53
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mine disaster in 1935, and during the five and a half years he served as exclusive photographer of the Dionne Quintuplets.
Three men were trapped 130 feet underground by a rock slide in an old gold mine in Nova Scotia. When rescuers reached them one was dead. The other two were brought out and the mine was sealed. That should have been the end of the story that had held the country in its tense clutch for days.
Rut Davis told GriflSn he was going down to get pictures of the underground cell where the men had been imprisoned by the rock fall. He approached a miner named Purdy and offered him $100 to lead him down. Purdy declined. “It’s not safe,” he said. “It isn’t worth it.”
“Well, look, I’m not going to get into a bidding contest with you,” said Davis. “I’ll give you$150andthat’sthe limit.” He pulled out a roll of $5 bills and started peeling them off. “It’s going to be a long winter,” he remarked casually.
“Okay,” said Purdy, “when?” It was already dark.
“Right now,” said Davis.
So they bought oranges, chocolate bars, flashlight bulbs and batteries, cigars and cigarettes. “We Were preparing for what might have been a siege,” Davis says now.
Purdy broke the seal on the mine and they started down. They descended a 16-foot ladder and walked, heads up, for 15 or 20 feet. Then the passage narrowed and they started to crawl. The slope became steeper and soon it was so steep they had to go feet first, Purdy leading. They reached a wooden beam and barely squeezed under it. Then they reached the place. Davis put a bulb in his camera and discovered he was shaking. He was afraid one of the bulbs might explode, start an avalanche. The nervous tension was terrific. He was just going to shoot his first picture when he heard a distant roar, then a rumble of moving rocks.
“Hurry, for God’s sake hurry,” implored Purdy. “We might be trapped.”
Davis snapped five pictures. After he had taken the third Purdy started back. Then Davis was with him. They reached the wooden beam and they couldn’t get through. Purdy, in the lead, worked feverishly to dig under the beam and finally, sweating, clawing at the ground, he made it. Davis followed and the opening was so narrow that he had to close his camera to get it through. When they reached the surface they collapsed. The pictures, of course, were exclusive. They were syndicated and newspapers all over the continent featured them.
Photographer to the Quints
A year earlier Fred Davis and Gordon Sinclair had been sent to Callander, Ont., after news came of the birth of five baby girls to the Dionnes. The quints were bom on May 28, 1934, but newspapers declined to send staffmen on the theory that the babies probably wouldn’t survive. Three days later an American newspaperman was reported en route to Callander with an incubator. This was Charlie Black of the Chicago American who was taking the incubator and a supply of frozen milk to the quints from the Chicago Board of Health.
The Star immediately dispatched Davis and Sinclair, armed with diapers, foods, sheetings, blankets, medicines,
even frozen strawberries. After a week of hectic reporting and picture taking the paper called off all its men except Davis. As the last reporter, who wasn’t Sinclair, departed, Fred asked him if he should wire the office in the event of a news break.
“No,” snarled the reporter, “your knitting is pictures. Stick to that.”
This altercation precipitated as satirical a telegram as any newsman ever forwarded to his office. Davis composed it and sent it and here’s what it said: RAIN STOP NO PHOTOS
STOP MRS DIONNE REPORTED DYING STOP DAVIS.
Trouble arose when Papa Dionne signed a contract with a representative of the Chicago World’s Fair, named Spiers, by which the Dionnes were to get $100 cash and $100 a week for medical services — if necessary. Spiers was to get, in return, complete rights to all advertising, pictures, movies, television and radio. This, of course, proved unsatisfactory and eventually the Dionnes placed the quints under the care of the Ontario Aid Society which then permitted things to be done for them. Spiers sued for $1 million and Davis, called as a witness, was given a three-hour grilling in a Chicago court. Then the judge took the case out of the hands of the jury and dismissed the case.
The society appointed four guardians who appointed Davis official photographer. After a great deal of bidding and wrangling the Newspaper Enterprises Association (NEA) got the rights on still pictures for which, Fred recalls, they paid $117,000 over the five-anda-half-year period for which he took their pictures.
It was an ideal setup. Pictures were taken between 8.30 and 9 o’clock in the morning. When he conceived a picture idea he would get the props, have the nurses teach the children how to use them so that when it came time to take the pictures they would look natural.
For instance he decided to doCinderella’s story. He bought costumes and the nurses dressed the little girls in them during their play periods until they became accustomed to them. The nurses also taught them their poses and when all of this was accomplished Davis worked on his pictures for a half hour each morning. He was not permitted to use flash bulbs. Special lights were bought in California which had white silk filters and blue filters to cut out their glare.
NEA had 580 papers using Davis’ pictures, but after five and a half years of what had started out to be a threeday assignment he decided to leave Callander.
Fred recalls that as a boy in Toronto, where he was born, he was given an old plate camera by his uncle and he believes that photography’s fascination stems from the hours he spent tinkering with it. He had an enlarging camera in which a negative was placed at one end and sunlight paper at the other. It would take 20 minutes in the sunlight to complete a process that today requires from two to four seconds. He delivered groceries after school for $1.50 a week and he blew the works on plates and paper for his camera.
In 1916, when he was 20, Davis enlisted and went overseas, was wounded at Amiens, and hospitalized three months. He returned to Canada two months after the Armistice and on a soldiers’ civil re-establishment course met Russell Orr, the old Toronto World’s only staff photographer.
After six weeks’ apprenticeship at the World, the paper’s publisher, W. F. McLean, informed Davis that he had had enough training. “Mr. Orr has gone to other fields,” he told Fred.
"You are now our staff photographer.”
One of the first big stories on which he worked was the McCullagh murder case in which the defendant was convicted of murdering a policeman. McCullagh escaped from Toronto jail, was loose for a number of days and was recaptured in a room where a woman named Vera Lavelle had been hiding him. The World decided to re-enact the case in its Sunday edition in six installments and Davis says the circulation leaped from 50,000 to 125,000 the first week.
He recalls how he took Vera Lavelle to the condemned cell, after McCullagh had been executed to re-enact a picture of her waving good-by. Just as he clicked the shutter a prisoner, who had succeeded McCullagh in the fateful cell, waved a handkerchief in response. The picture was a sensation, but not so sensational as the fact that years after McCullagh had been executed, another person confessed to the murder.
Scoop on the Prince
Davis first joined the Star in April, 1923, when Harry C. Hindmarsh, then assistant managing editor and now vice - president, hired him on the strength of a scenic picture. His first job was to cover a figure skating event where he snapped 20 pictures in 20 minutes, rushed back to develop and print the negatives, and then discovered the reporter had neglected to get the names of the skaters. He went back to the club, finally got the names and had just tapped out the cutlines when a deskman gave him an address and instructed him to get a picture of a dead man.
“You mean go take his picture?” enquired Davis.
"No, I mean go pick up a snap,” said the deskman.
"Go to hell,” said Davis politely.
In a very few minutes he was again confronting H. C. Hindmarsh.
"Around here I appear to be a messenger boy, a janitor, a reporter, and, least of all, a photographer,” said Mr. Davis. “Good-by.”
"Good-by,” said Mr. Hindmarsh.
But before he got out the door Hindmarsh called him back and told him to forget about it.
“For six months I got nothing but good assignments,” reflects Davis. "But that soon passed.”
Davis came back from a three weeks’ holiday that first year and was handed $600 and told to go to Quebec, and then to Calgary, because the Prince of Wales was coming to Canada. The Prince was travelling incognito as Baron Renfrew, and when the boat docked, newspapermen were shooed away by railway police after having been warned by the CPR police boss, a man named Chamberlain, that there would be no pictures. On a hunch Davis made no effort to get pictures and it paid off when he got a telephone call from Chamberlain thanking him for accepting the ban.
“By the way,” said Chamberlain, "if
you happen to lie at-----Golf
Club today you might get some interesting pictures.”
Davis thanked him and went to the course, the name of which he has forgotten. When the Prince arrived Davis was on the course. He snapped six pictures. Once when he was standing in the rough a golf ball almost tagged him.
“I pointed the Prince’s ball out to him.” smiles Davis, "and took a picture while he hacked his way out.”
For the next six weeks Davis and Griffin followed the princely entourage but he got only two more pictures, those at Banff. As far as he knows nobody else got a single shot.
In 1925 Fred joined the CNR publicity bureau and spent the summer making pictures at Jasper and the Columbia Ice Fields. In the fall he joined a tourist and publicity bureau and Davis’ assignment was to go to Miami Beach to photograph celebrities every morning and to go to Hialeah race track for the same purpose every afternoon.
“Extremely arduous,” he smiles reflectively.
Some of his most interesting days, he says, followed his return from Florida in the spring of 1926. He was barely back at the Star when he was sent to Port Colborne to cover a rumrunning story. He drove via Buffalo and a few miles out of the city two men, armed with guns, stepped from a car ahead of him. Davis wheeled for the ditch, jammed down the accelerator and never looked back. At Port Colborne he checked with the chief of police, went to the water front and was just aboutTo start photographing when he saw six hoodlums walking slowly toward him.
As they closed in on him the chief of police appeared with three cops. The hoodlums saw them, looked at Davis and his camera, and then walked away.
Fred got his pictures, returned to Toronto, developed the negatives and was immediately sent to Enterprise, Ont., to get pictures of a train wreck. He got to Enterprise at 2 o’clock in the morning, then had to walk for three hours across fields and along the tracks to find the wreck. Just after dawn he got four pictures of the debris which followed a head-on collision of two passenger trains in which scores of people were killed or injured. Railway police and officials stopped him and Davis feared they would requisition the film so he started to talk.
Likes Queen Charlottes
"A terrible catastrophe, terrible,” he said rapidly. "I was just thinking that it would be an excellent idea if you were to rent this farm here and you would be in possession of the property and then you could prevent people from taking pictures. I’ll bet the
farmer would rent his property for 10 bucks and in that way you would be in possession of it.”
"And,” smiles Davis now, "that’s just what happened. While they
talked to the farmer I beat it for Enterprise. When the other papers got there the railway cops threw them off the premises.”
Davis drove most of the day getting back to his paper and when he turned in the pictures he was assigned to a story at Niagara Falls. He drove there and back, turned in the pictures, and was told to get three pictures of a church conclave.
“But I haven’t been to bed for three days,” he protested.
The editor was a sensitive man with a large heart, so he told Fred to get only two pictures in that case. Davis had to wait at the church for more than an hour before he could get his pictures. When he finally got home to bed it was the first time he’d slept in 74 hours. He didn’t awaken for 30 hours, he says.
“Only once did I play a dirty trick on a competitor,” says Davis, explaining that one winter afternoon he waited for four hours outside the private railway car of Prime Minister King near Newmarket, Ont. At length a meeting inside the car broke up and the party stepped to the platform for a picture. Just as Davis recorded the event he heard the click behind him. "A so-and-so from a morning paper had just arrived,” says Fred. “He’d
go to press before me and I’d be stuck with the same picture. I asked him to take a different picture. He looked at me for a moment and then he said: ‘No, I think this one will do.’ I then figured I’d have to get another one but the party had gone back into the car. Well, the competitor made the mistake of walking away from his camera. All I did was open his film magazine—just a little bit.”
Out of all his travels Davis has concluded that the Queen Charlotte Islands, 100 miles off Prince Rupert, are the most interesting part of Canada. His face lights up as he talks of the tiny deer there, no larger than St. Bernard dogs. “There are thousands of them,” he says.
Davis, who has two acres of land 21 miles west of Toronto where he dwells with his wife and two children, now lives the normal life he seldom
knew as a news photographer. Two of his favorite diversions are pickerel fishing and barbecuing. He loves to barbecue heavy steaks, chicken, legs of lamb and pork, invariably cooks the week-end meals out of doors in the summer. He works from 8.30 to 5 for Canada Pictures, feels that if the foursome had made their move five years ago they’d be spending their winters in Florida now. He feels his old motto, Be Prepared, applies more than ever to the photographer of the future.
“He’ll need a college education,” predicts Davis. “Photography, with its strides in color and the imminent arrival of television, will become an exact science. The cameraman of tomorrow will be required to illustrate newscasts with Kodachromes that he’ll have to snap, develop, process, print and deliver with speed hitherto unknown.” if