One hundred years and two days ago, readers of the April 2, 1914 edition of the Charleston Mail saw a paper dominated by text. For the most part, words and illustrations told the news of the day. A portrait of the 18-member West Virginia Wesleyan College Glee Club adorned an inside page.
The printed photograph revolutionized the way people received the news. Before the Internet, television and even radio, newspaper photos told stories that words could not and gave readers a glimpse at the people and scenes that had to be portrayed through words or sketch artists before.
The Charleston Daily Mail operated without a photo department until 1938. Before then, the newspaper contracted the work of area commercial photographers whenever a local photo was needed.
Ray Wheeler would become the Daily Mail’s first staff photographer. Fred M. Staunton, former publisher of the Daily Mail, talked to Wheeler in 1937 and decided to open a photo department the following year with Wheeler at the helm.
Earl Benton, now deceased, began work for the Daily Mail on January 1, 1943 at a salary of $18 a week. Chester “Chet” Hawes, 83, of St. Albans, was the third photo department hire on March 27, 1950.
The technology of Wheeler’s first years was vastly different than it is today and dictated the way photographers gathered news. The tools of the trade were Graphlex Speed Graphic cameras that recorded images on 4” by 5” two-sided slide cartridges.
“You only got two shots out of each one,” Hawes said. “You didn’t waste a lot of film back then. It wasn’t like 35 millimeter where you could get so many exposures. Two pictures are about what we would average on an assignment.”
The process of taking a photo was unforgiving. The convenience of a shutter button did not yet exist. Photographers had to cock and release the shutter, then close the shutter again to manually expose the film. Automatic focus wouldn’t become mainstream for 40 years.
The process of developing the slides was no less strenuous. It had to be done in complete darkness.
“In order to speed up the process, we never dried the film,” Hawes said. “We made prints from the film while they were still wet. There was sort of tricks to the trade, things you would learn from the old-timers.”
Benton learned many photo shortcuts during his time in the Navy. He was drafted in 1943 and worked under Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz at a news operations center at Pearl Harbor. He developed hundreds, if not thousands, of war images, including the famous “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” regarded as one of the most reproduced photographs in the world.
Hawes said Benton even developed a second copy of the iconic photo for himself.
Roll film cameras eventually took the place of the Graphlex cameras. Hawes said 35 millimeter film cameras became commonplace in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and the Daily Mail became one of the first newspapers in the state to begin printing color photographs soon after that.
“It all had to be done by hand. It took so much time, it was labor intensive to get it done,” Hawes said.
“We couldn’t run color every day because of the system they had to do that. Maybe once a week or once every two weeks they’d run a color picture. It wasn’t until they went to digital that they started using color photographs every day.”
Simply developing a color photograph took 45 minutes. Then the press department would have to develop separate cyan (blue), magenta (red), yellow and black negatives of each page with a color photo and make a press plate for each color.
“Getting a color picture ready for the press took upward of two hours. It was a real challenge, not like it is today,” said Bob Gay, 59, a former Daily Mail photographer who now works at The Dominion Post in Morgantown.
“It was all done with film and chemicals and things that took a good bit of time, and it took a good bit of skill on the part of the people doing it.”
Gay said color photography was a tedious craft in the 1970s. Shutter speed, aperture and focus had to be manually controlled; handheld light meters were used to estimate correct exposure; the slightest overexposure or underexposure could be the difference between a compelling color photo and a failure.
“The color images we shot had to be perfectly exposed,” Gay said. “You couldn’t Photoshop and lighten and darken like you can now. Everything had to be properly exposed in the camera and then done properly in the back shop. It was very challenging in that part to make sure you did exactly right.”
The digital age revolutionized photography for newspapers around the world. The Daily Mail’s transition occurred gradually through the early years of the new millennium; before digital cameras came to the newsroom, photographers scanned film negatives into a computer and ditched the darkroom for Photoshop while still using 35 mm film cameras.
Daily Mail chief photographer Craig Cunningham said the newspaper’s first digital cameras were Nikon D1s, which cost $5,000 each at the time. Cunningham and staff photographers Bob Wojcieszak and Tom Hindman had only one Macintosh computer to share for processing initially, but former editor and publisher Nanya Friend said the photographers eventually each got their own workstations.
“It’s like the difference between a horse and buggy and a rocket ship,” said Cunningham, comparing film and digital mediums. “It’s significantly quicker. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how we did as many assignments with film as we did.”
Friend said the Daily Mail wasn’t the first newspaper to make the switch to digital because she felt it was important not to force the new technology onto the veteran staff members who were masters in the darkroom.
“Some of them had gotten to be real artists in the darkroom and they didn’t want to give that up,” Friend said. “Many papers forced them to make the transition and I’m glad we didn’t.”
Daily Mail photographers have produced iconic photos on both the local and national scale throughout the paper’s existence. One of the earliest examples is a photo called “Look Mom, Two Fingers,” taken by Wheeler on Oct. 1, 1949 during a football game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Washington and Lee Generals at Laidley Field. The photo depicts Washington and Lee quarterback Gil Botecci cartwheeling through the air, feet above head, with two fingers to the grass after being tackled by West Virginia’s Len Bellas. The photo ran in newspapers nationally and was featured in Life Magazine.
Gay, who was on staff at the Daily Mail from 1979 to 1981, took a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photo of a hostage situation in a St. Albans church.
A Vietnam veteran took a church congregation hostage and sent a member of the church to call local media. Bob Welling at the Associated Press’s Charleston office received the call and immediately called Gay, who lived nearby.
“I went down to the church to see what was going on and there was a lady inside the church, an elderly lady who thought she was having a heart attack,” Gay said. “He said he would let her go if a member of the media would exchange for her. So I went in so the lady could come out.”
Gay said the ordeal lasted about three hours. Donning three cameras, Gay captured harrowing images of the gunman aiming his weapon at the hostages.
“At some point throughout the incident , he decided things weren’t going fast enough and he said he was going to have to shoot someone and he said he was going to shoot me first,” Gay said.
The gunman raised his gun at Gay. Gay raised his camera to the gunman.
“If you shoot me, the last thing I will do is take a picture of you doing it,” Gay told the gunman.
Police defused the situation and no one was injured. Gay said he was the last hostage, and the gunman held the gun to his head and used him as a shield as police moved in to apprehend him.
Gay said police would likely not allow such a hostage exchange in today’s day and age, but at the time, he had no doubt that he was willing to put his life on the line to get the shots.
“Standing outside, I wasn’t going to get anything,” Gay said. “The chance to go inside and see what was actually going on, the chance to see first-hand what was happening inside that church, at the time there was no question.
“The fact that there was a lady in there, she was clearly in distress. It’s not only the chance to get into the middle of the story, it’s the chance to do something that would help somebody,” Gay said.
Gay said his image was published around the world, including the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post — a feat he believes had last occurred when Neil Armstrong was photographed taking his first step onto the surface of the Moon.
Had Gay gone through the hostage situation today, he could have sent his photographs from the church, perhaps even from his mobile phone. The Daily Mail’s new content management system, launched on March 4, 2014, allows photographers to send in their photos for the print edition and publish their digital photographs online at charlestondailymail.com with a few clicks of the mouse from anywhere in the world.
“It’s just absolutely amazing to think that 40 years ago, people didn’t see that picture until the next day,” Friend said. “That’s amazing change.”
Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/amtino.