My first forty years behind a newsreel camera
From the days of nickelodeons and beauties in bloomers to stereo sound and bikinis, I’ve been photographing a fascinating world —including three men trying to make a moose climb stairs. King George VI was different—he photographed me
FOR MORE THAN forty years I have been peering through a piece of glass less than half an inch square at fires, floods and famous people; at hoboes, beauty queens, athletes and statesmen. The regattas, cornerstone layings, and disasters which you see in newsreels at the theatre, I see first through the viewfinder of my camera, which works for Associated Screen Industries.
1 have photographed the last eight governorsgeneral. Take any page from the international Who's Who and many of the names will have come before my lens. I have "shot Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Anthony I den, Tord Attlee, Hilly Bishop. Sir Arthur Currie, General Jan Smuts. General ( hartes de Gaulle. Prime Minister Nehru. Mary Picktord, Queen Juliana. King Olaf ot Norway, the Duke ot Windsor and nearly all other members of the royal lamily. I love taking pictures. When I'm not at work with the movie camera. I am taking color transparencies with my Leica for my own amusement.
Anyone turning a camera on me, tor a change, would get a shot of a lanky, slightly greying, thinfaced man with a perpetual worried frown. 1 cant explain the frown, for I am never mad at anybody or anything.
A movie news photographer is always rushing to where things are happening, but often things happen to him. I was the first movie cameraman to arrive at the bleak Dionne farmhouse at ( orbeil. Ont., a few hours after the quints were born. There was no electricity so my photo-flood equipment was useless. For a frantic hour 1 became my own technical assistant by rounding up all the car batteries l could find in North Hay. and hooking them up until there was enough juice lor my lights.
I here is a framed photo in my office of Khrushchov sitting in a Cadillac on the Canadian side of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara, grinning at me as 1 rest the camera on the door of his car. shooting right into his face. Visitors look at it and exclaim, “When was Khrushchov ever in Canada—when was that taken?" It was taken in May, 1959. and the Khrushchov in the picture is from the C anadian waxworks exhibition set up by Tussaud's ol London at Niagara earlier
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“LOOK AT ANY PAGE OF WHO’S WHO,“ SAYS TASH. “THOSE ARE THE NAMES I’VE SHOT“
this year. The shots are an example of how you have to work sometimes to get a few feet of good film. When people go into a movie they expect to sec pictures that move, so even the news photographer must see that there is action in those brief shots sandwiched in between the cartoon and the feature. The opening of the Tussaud exhibition was news but wax dummies are rather lifeless. To make a picture of it 1 had the director seat Khrushchov in a Cadillac (courtesy of the Niagara Falls dealer); the dummy was driven to the bridge and the car backed out a few hundred feet. Then, as it drove up to the Canadian shore again 1 got my moving pictures.
Last summer when the Golden Age Club of Montreal visited Ottawa 1 had to arrange for action. The club is composed of people over sixtyfive, determined to enjoy the golden age of life. Taking a standing group shot with a movie camera is as good as handing in your resignation. I got them assembled on Parliament Hill and when I was ready to shoot they all broke into a square dance, on cue. That made it a movie.
The picture arrangement which gave me my greatest buzz was the take-off of the Boyd-Con nor trans - Atlantic flight in 1930 from St. Hubert’s airfield in Montreal. Trans-Atlantic flights were still exciting news. It occurred to me that if the movie audiences in London could see the take-off shots at the same time they saw the landing at Croydon it would make them sit up and perhaps add a brief chapter to cinematographic history. Boyd agreed to stop just before becoming airborne (it always amazes me how co-operative most people will be when you’re trying to juice up a picture), return to the starting point and pick up my film of the take-off. Then he made the real take-off. I cabled the London studios telling them what to expect. The film was processed and spliced to the shots made of the landing at Croydon and shown in English cinemas that same day. That footage was shown all over the world, and news stories of how it was done appeared in papers everywhere. Sometimes your lucky star can be in the ascendant without your knowing it. You may recall a short Easter feature, a couple of years ago, showing a toddler crying with fright in the centre of a large flock of newly-hatched chicks. The youngster, who is my grandson, was frightened by all the chirping and by the nearer chicks pecking at his toes. I couldn’t reassure him. I was about to pack up in despair when it struck me that the picture was at least unusual, so I shot it anyway. Audiences thought it was cute. More favorable remarks came back to me about that one than about many which have been more newsworthy or spectacular. Except for that minor role, my family hasn't joined me on the firing line. My two daughters, Norma and Bette, both married, have always been keen on still photography; there may have been some unintentional paternal influence there, but that's as far as photography goes in my family, apart from my own work.
Of course you don't have to arrange them all. In 1955 I was sitting at my desk in Toronto wondering what to do next when the building was shaken by a terrific blast. People started running through the streets, so 1 grabbed my camera and ran with them. The lower part of Spadina Avenue, just a couple of blocks away, had been shattered by a gas-main explosion. Fissures rent the pavement. broken glass was everywhere, and 1 was in time to photograph the last few people rushing panic-stricken from buildings.
But I’m not always that lucky. In fact, I have had my full share of bad luck. One day in Montreal, in the twenties, the studio got word that the
famous song writer Irving Berlin was about to arrive. Berlin was known to be camera-shy. I hustled down to Windsor Station, fairly sure that I could recognize him as he came through the gate: but I had the inspiration of buying a copy of his latest hit. bearing his photograph, on my way. At the station I soon spotted him amid the crowd surging through the gate from the New' York train. I stepped up and asked if he would pose for a moment and “say something.” The something he said was, “Don’t bother me, mister, I am not Irving Berlin.” I whipped out the song sheet, studied the photo and the man in front of me for a moment and replied. “Come on now, Mr. Berlin. This is the price you must pay for greatness—just a couple of shots please.” He turned on his heel and walked away. 1 followed, dodging among people, camera grinding away, trying to get some good angles. His anger, the crowd's amusement, and my embarrassment mounted steadily, so two hundred feet of film later I decided I could afford to call it quits. Back at the studio I plunked the film on the boss’s desk and reported, “He was as tough as they say he is, boss, but there he is—Irving Berlin in the can.” When the film was processed and studied on the screen the boss w'earily had his say: “That guy w'as telling the truth — he isn't Berlin.”
I was equally embarrassed in 1938 w'hen the famous old Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls started to buckle under the pressure of an unusually heavy ice jam, caused by a sudden thaw'. Within a day or two engineers were certain that another twenty-four hours of such punishment would bring dow'n the bridge. The suspension bridge was a sentimental landmark at the Falls, and when the news of its expected collapse was spread movie-news cameramen flocked to Niagara from all over the continent. We set up our cameras on the Canadian side, the best vantage point, and waited. We waited for a day, two days, three days, while neither ice nor bridge changed position. By the end of the week, on a cold, raw morning, we all decided that the situation could be ignored for just a few minutes while we hied to the coffee bar in a nearby hotel for a much needed break. We gave a boy a couple of dollars to stand guard over the score or more of cameras, and hurried away. And while one boy stood impotently amid a small forest of tripods, the ice moved with a roar we could hear in the hotel, the bridge buckled, sagged, and subsided like a baited beast brought down by growling dogs, and our sprint from the hotel didn’t get us to the scene fast enough to get any of it on film. Later we learned that an amateur with a 16-mm. camera, more vigilant than we. had got it all. I hope he made his fortune.
In spite of that experience Niagara Falls has always fascinated me as a place to work. It's a natural for a cameraman. One February day several years ago I picked up a hitchhiker just cast of Hamilton. He told me he was a cold-water swimmer. He didn’t say whether he made a living at it or just did it for kicks, but I turned the car, pointed out that I was a cameraman, and hadn't we better go to work. We went to the Falls and were just making some dandy shots in the lower river, with the Horseshoe Falls as a backdrop when the police chased us away. I still wanted a few more feet to complete my story so we w'ent on to the lake shore and found a spot where the snow and ice were heaped up as high as in the Niagara River. My friend peeled off his clothes again and jumped in. I dubbed in the Falls for this sequence, to maintain the background, and had a complete picture. I think that was the only time I faked a shot without anything in the sound commen-
tary to let the movie audience in on the fact.
Whenever I tell anyone I'm a newsreel cameraman I have to answer one of two questions, and sometimes both. Where do I get my information which gets me to all these spot news stories, like fires, explosions, and so on? What kind of a camera do I use and what kind of film? The latter question has become more and more frequent in recent years, I suppose because amateur moviemaking is so popular.
As for the first question, news tips come from all kinds of sources. I keep the radio tuned in to newscasts and my wife does the same. And then, a tip may come from the most unexpected quarter. The first word I had of the burning of the pleasure steamer Noronic, when it was tied up at a Toronto dock one September night in 1949 and more than a hundred people sleeping on board were burned to death, was a telephone call from a Columbus. Ohio. TV station. They wanted to know if I could supply them with some footage and how soon! I still can't understand howthey knew of me. and why all my usual sources of information failed
that night. Anyway, it got me on the job. And the Spadina Avenue blast isn't the only such incident to happen under my nose. When oil warehouses on the Toronto waterfront burned in a threehundred-thousand-dollar night blaze in 1948 I arrived with the fire engines. 1 was on my way home from a job east of the city and was passing the very spot where the fire started.
As for the news cameraman’s equipment and technique, the camera is a Bell and Howell 35-mm. hand-held job. It weighs about fifteen pounds. Ninety-nine percent of newsreel work is in black and white. Like any cameraman, movie or still, I use a tripod whenever I can, but hand-holding, by a pistol grip, is necessary much of the time. There is usually an exposure meter in my pocket but it is seldom used. More than forty years behind a camera have made my eyes trustworthy exposure meters and besides black-and-white film has more tolerance than the color stuff the amateurs use. The camera holds one hundred feet of film, when hand-held. A four-hundred-foot magazine can be clipped on
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My first forty years behind a newsreel camera continued from page 31
“When I began, a cameraman was part organ grinder and part hod carrier”
when necessary and if a tripod is bearing the load. Mechanical turning exposes twenty-four frames a second. My camera cost about a thousand dollars, with normal, wide-angle and telephoto lenses; I have a spare, just as good, which I picked up for $250 from War Assets.
It was a different story when I started out in Chicago early in the century. In those days a movie photographer was part organ grinder and part hod carrier. The cameras, crowned with their two large magazines, or retorts, tripods, and maximum load of two hundred feet of film could weigh as much as a hundred and fifty pounds. It played you out just toting the things around. Film was exposed by hand cranking and you had to hit an exact speed of two turns a second, which gave you sixteen exposures a second. That was only the half of it.
Projectors were also hand-turned. The man in the projection booth had to synchronize his turning speed with the photographer’s. It wasn't easy. No wonder characters in the early movies moved about as if they had ants in their pants. 1 once turned in a film which no projectionist could have coped with. It was a military parade. Quite unconsciously my hand began to crank in time with a .Sousa march instead of the regulation two turns a second. Next day the proudest regiment in the American middle west was shown on Chicago screens alternating between a goose-step and a buckand-wing dance. The film was quickly withdrawn.
My first effort was with a homemade camera, showing my family playing croquet. It was taken a year or so after I entered the movie industry by sweeping up the peanuts in a neighborhood nickelodeon after school. In 1914, when sixteen years old, I managed to scrounge a defective projector. I fixed it up. put in new gears, and enclosed it all in a light-proof box with only the crank and the lens protruding. Thus, it became a movie camera. It was as heavy as a branch bank’s safe, and just about as awkward to move. It should have been mounted on a hay wagon.
There was a movie-news studio a few blocks from where I lived. The cameramen there would save me the short
lengths of film they snipped off bulk rolls when loading their cameras.
Enough twoor three-foot scraps put together gave me about fifty feet a month to play with. I was learning; and saving my earnings as a janitor. By my seventeenth birthday I was able to buy a proper camera, a used Universal.
Curtis Pritchard worked out of that Chicago studio. He was one of the greatest movie-news photographers of the day. He was a slight, dark, quiet fellow. He would take any risk to get an unusual shot, such as walking around on the high girders of skyscrapers then going up, or snuggling close to the rail to get worm’s eye shots of approaching express trains. Pritchard took me under his wing and from him I really learned the basis of professional movie photography.
He fell 1,000 feet and lived
I came to Canada in 1919 to form a movie-news partnership with Blaine Irish, a former Chicago projectionist. We got some financial backing from Clifford Sif-
ton, a wealthy newspaper owner, and Irwin Proctor, an aviation pioneer in Hamilton. Our two-man company, Filmcraft Industries, opened for business above the old Photodrome theatre across from the Toronto city hall, and our first job was a meet of the Toronto Hunt Club, with Sir George Beardmore master of the hunt. I believe the shots of horses jumping fences and hounds tearing across fields that afternoon were one of the first news films ever taken in Canada.
Those were eventful days for the cameraman and for a lot of other people
too. Beauty contests were starting, and the girls didn't look any worse in their bloomered bathing suits than in the lowwaisted dresses and coal-scuttle hats they donned when the contests were over. They looked awful in both.
It was the era of aerial acrobatics. It seemed that at least once a week 1 was aloft in a Curtiss “Jennie" taking pictures of some Hairbreadth Harry standing on his hands on the wing tip of an accompanying plane. George “Peanuts” Doan was such a daredevil. I was shooting him when he fell off the plane and dropped about a thousand feet into Lake Ontario.
Doan wasn’t killed, but it was a long time before he felt the same again.
We were burned out in 1924 and the partnership was dissolved. I picked up a job with Associated Screen News (now Associated Screen Industries) and have enjoyed every minute of it since. In the summer of 1925 I was assigned to the Dominion Government’s Arctic expedition under the famous Captain Joe Bernier. We crawled to within five hundred miles of the pole in the government ship Arctic. In addition to the documentary of the expedition which I was hired to make, the government got some bonus shots of a polar bear charging—charging me. The bear was first seen when several hundred feet away, on an ice pan which our ship was nudging at the time. I was content to get some pictures of the bear from the rail of the ship. Some of the crew urged me to walk out on the ice and get some close-ups. One man had a sporting rifle with which he claimed to be a crack shot; he would come and cover me if the bear became bellicose. We were several yards from the ship when my companion started firing in the general direction of the animal, “to get some action out of him.” We got it. He turned toward us, studied us a moment, then charged. “Keep grinding," my friend urged, “I’ll stop him.” So I kept grinding; there wasn’t time for us to get back to the ship anyway. It was the Roger Bannister of polar bears that was coming at us. He charged right into the lens for more than a hundred thrilling feet. My protector, as good as his word, brought him down with the ninth or tenth shot. The bear rolled and slid a few yards and came to a stop less than ten feet from the camera.
Shooting Joe La Flamme’s pet moose wasn't as exciting but it was a lot funnier. La Flamme was a backwoodsman from Gogama, in northern Ontario, who won a certain notoriety twenty years ago because of a moose he had reared from a calf and kept for a pet. I had a letter from Joe one day asking me to come up and get some pictures of the moose and him, eating their meals together at the table! Joe must have been exaggerating his pet’s prowess a bit, for when I arrived it took Joe and two of his pals half
an hour to push and pull the moose upstairs to the dining quarters in La Flamme’s two-story frame shack. The moose showed no interest in food. But the shots of three men trying to get a full-grown moose up a flight of steps made one of the best newsreel stories of all time.
They have been wonderful years. And I’m far from through yet. I will go on adding to the store of episodes that crowd my memory whenever I look back —Mackenzie King's abhorrence of having a breeze lift that sparse little tuft of hair on top of his head, and his quick look of gratitude when you would stop grinding until he had patted it down again —Churchill looking flabbergasted as I emptied his ash tray into my hand, after taking some shots of his Ottawa visit in 1941. “What are you going to do with those?” he demanded. “Put them in this envelope and save them, the ashes of a great man,” I replied. He grinned, then walked over to me. “Have some more,” he said, flicking fresh, hot ashes into my palm. And the time in 1934 when Billy Bishop invited me to photograph him when he took a refresher course, and the enraptured expression on his face as soon as we were airborne.
The one that tickles me the most happened during the royal tour of 1939. King George VI was a home-movie addict, and from the few questions he asked me I judged him to be a knowledgeable one. He carried a dandy 16mm. camera, and it was no royal toy; he knew all about it. One day when the train had stopped between stations in northern Ontario and everyone tumbled out I started zooming some of the magnificent scenery. When my camera stopped I was startled to hear a similar mechanism purring just a few feet away. It was the King, taking some shots of me for a change. I gaped straight into the lens in amazement and he continued shooting for a moment. Then, with a wink, he walked to his coach.
Perhaps in the film library at Buckingham Palace there are a few feet of Roy Tash, photographer, at work. Anyway, it’s nice to think so. ★