Photojournalism’s Black-and-White Era
By Nancy Luse. Photography by Nanci Bross, Darlene Wiles Burall, Bill Wood, and Janet Worne
Not to be mean, but the old Frederick News-Post building was a dump. The newsroom’s beat-up metal desks looked like something from an army surplus store. Ashtrays were overflowing, coffee mugs needed washing and stacks of newspapers in varying shades of yellow were everywhere. Papers piled on desks threatened to tumble to the floor with the next vibration from an ever-ringing telephone.
Walking into 200 E. Patrick St. in late 1979 as a new employee on the news desk, I looked at the clutter, sucked in the smell of ink and knew I had found a home. Walking into the photo lab, I figured I’d hit the big time. Photos taken by chief photographer C. Kurt Holter of the Camp David peace talks were blown up and hanging on the walls—images of world leaders Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, captured by our little local newspaper.
In the 30-some years spent at the News-Post, my appreciation for the talented photo staff only grew, but no more so than during the era between the late 1970s and mid-1990s when black-and-white images were captured on film. No digital cameras. No way of immediately knowing you got the shot.
Photographers worried about having enough film. In the heat of an assignment some harried shooters would pop off the top of film canisters with their teeth, resulting in dental problems down the road, but nothing compared to the sore necks and shoulders from carrying their heavy gear.
There were no cell phones. You had a pager, and when it vibrated giving a number to call, you had to search out a phone to get an actual message. Police scanners, whether in the office, car or bedside table, were crucial. It helped to have a discerning ear to distinguish calls for more fire trucks from the usual public works chatter.
We had a robust staff back then, a large paper (thanks to plentiful ads) and two editions a day. Newspapers around the country were experiencing similarly heady days and many of us thought it would last forever. But readership habits and the way businesses advertised began to change, due in large part to the internet. The news biz would never be the same as papers scaled down staffs or closed altogether, including some of the country’s oldest publications.
A couple of years ago a handful of News-Post veterans gathered for someone’s birthday and, like always, began talking about the glory days. The idea of putting together a photo exhibit was hatched, but along came the pandemic.
Now, with things getting back to normal, the exhibit is on.
It’s called “Unshuttered: Celebrating Frederick News-Post Photojournalism.” Funded by the George Delaplaine and Frances Randall families, former owners of the News-Post, along with Delaplaine Foundation President Marlene Young and PNC Bank, the show will be at Gaslight Gallery, 118 E. Church St. The formal opening is Sept. 10 with the show running through the end of October. The gallery is a fitting choice for the display, located within sight of the old News-Post building where, on the second floor, all the magic played out.
The photo lab was just off the composing room, up a short set of steps from the newsroom. A light table and more of those banged-up metal desks dominated the space. At one end was a separate room for developing film, entered through a rotating door not unlike the transporters on the Starship Enterprise. An adjoining room was where prints were made.
Some of the equipment was jerry-rigged and homemade, like a long skinny box where the freshly developed film was hung and dried with an attached hair blower. Space was tight, but reporters and editors also managed to squeeze in with the photographers especially on deadline. Coming back from breaking news with an editor barking about the waiting presses, photographers expertly went through the motions with little fuss. The passion came later when they stood at an editor’s desk lobbying for a certain photo and always pleading, “Can’t you run it bigger?”
In those days reporters and photographers often stayed around past their shifts while the morning edition was being put to bed. After midnight, feet pounded down the back steps. The ink-stained doors into the pressroom swung open and that day’s effort rolled off the noisy presses, the papers still damp as they reached waiting hands.
When an especially big story was running, people were likely waiting in the parking lot outside the pressroom, unwilling to wait to have it delivered to their homes or a news stand. Someone always brought papers to the Olde Towne Tavern on North Market Street, the News-Post’s watering hole, where customers and bartenders grabbed them up.
For a small city, Frederick nonetheless was the scene of national and international news like the Camp David peace summit, as well as a daily stream of spot news from fires to weather events, police raids and Klan rallies. Heartwarming feature shots of kids on the first day of school, a gardener who grew a potato that looked like Richard Nixon or young athletes also came from staff cameras. Readers often clipped these images from the paper and posted them on their refrigerator doors.
The “Unshuttered” project is not meant to diminish the hard work being done by today’s newspapers, rather it’s an attempt to shine a light on what came before, to celebrate the work and talent of these photographers and to impress upon people the importance of local news coverage.
Attempts were made to gather as many photos and involve as many News-Post photographers from the day as we could. You may recognize the names of Sam Yu, Kelly Hahn, Skip Lawrence, Richard Meagher, Janet Worne, Bill Wood, Timothy Jacobsen, Bill Green and others. Drop by Gaslight Gallery and see if you recognize what’s hanging on the gallery walls.
Like many of the photographers displaying their work, Nanci Bross Fregonara has left the profession. “I still miss the noble cause of journalism, to seek truth and report it, whether with words or photographs,” she says. “Everyone has a story, I believe. I always felt so honored when it was shared with me.”