Humble Cameras in Iconic Moments

Humble Cameras in Iconic Moments

Photojournalism helps to shape our collective consciousness. In thinking about how important photojournalism is, I’ve often found myself considering what happens when amateurs with amateur equipment find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.  


Susan Sontag said:

. . . photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced –for many reasons, among them the large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias towards the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect. There is no comparable level playing field in literature… or in the performing arts… or in film-making…

Iconic Images Shot by Pros with Pro Gear

Take a moment and conjure up a few iconic news images. The type of images that depict the changing world or that themselves effect change in the world. 

You can almost guess which iconic cameras took which images. Armstrong on the moon: Hassleblad. The Normandy beaches: advanced rangefinders that could take a licking and keep on clicking. Starving children in Africa stalked by vultures or the Twin Towers falling: advanced motor drive SLRs with several hundred millimeters of glass. A kiss on V-J Day: a sleek unobtrusive Leica. The massive landscapes of the U.S. South West: 8x10 Deardorff view cameras. 

In each of these cases, the gear was, in no small part, integral to the shot.

But what happens when amateurs are placed in these situations?

Gear Can Provide Opportunity to Amateurs

Some amateurs happened to be at the right place at the right time and, critically, also had the right equipment. Charles Porter of Oklahoma City happened to have taken a photo class in the weeks leading up to April 1995. His instructor had suggested that he always leave a loaded camera in his car. It just so happened that on April 19, 1995, Porter had an underwhelming consumer SLR, but a pretty nice piece of glass to get up close and personal with the tender touch of a fireman after the bombing. 

Zapruder’s few moments in Dallas may have made him one of the most famous amateurs, but his 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series was one of the nicest portable units money could buy in November 1962. 

Zapruder's Bell & Howell. Photo from National Archives. Public Domain.

Without this gear, these amateurs may not have captured the memories we all share today.

Frame from Zapruder's film lifted for the Warren Commission. Public Domain.

Humble Cameras

Today I want to focus on the iconic image taken with a humble camera. 

I can’t really define what a humble camera is, but I sure know it when I see it. I do, however, know what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about Alberto Korda telling the world to 

Forget the camera, forget the lens, forget all of that. With any four-dollar camera, you can capture the best picture.

After all, he was shooting Che Guevara with a Leica M2. I’m also not talking about the various cheap camera challenges you can find around the web. No cute toy cameras here. 

I’m talking about people reaching for the closest or most efficient item on hand and making history with very basic equipment. It doesn’t happen often, but, when it does, it’s magic.

So, let’s thank George Eastman for his desire to create a camera that he could market with: 

You press the button, we do the rest

Without him, we might not have any of these images. Historical events, captured by amateurs, with amateur gear: 

Jack Aeby’s Perfex 33

Jack Aeby's photo of the first nuclear test, the Trinity Shot

Color photo of the Trinity Shot by Jack Aeby.
Photo from National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office. Public Domain.

Jack Aeby was originally a civilian contractor hired to work on the Manhattan Project. Aeby had been taking work-in-progress photos for the project for a while. Just before test day, he was invited to the Trinity shot to take similar photos. Of all the photos taken that day, Aeby’s was the only color photo to turn out. There are some high-speed black and white photos and a lot of overexposed photos from the official photographers, but for some reason it’s Abey’s fire in the sky photo that really captures the mood of the moment: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” What did he use? A popular consumer camera, a Perfex 33. No fancy Leica or Hassey here.

John Glenn’s Minolta

John Glenn's camera from his Mercury 6 mission. NASA image. Public Domain.

John Glenn used a cheap Minolta that, get this, he picked up in a Coco Beach drugstore to take the first photographs of space. Sure, automatic cameras had taken photos before – the Russian had taken a short video and printed stills from it – but this was a moment where Glenn held a camera, decided where to point it, and squeezed the trigger. Modified to be used in space, sure, but the camera itself was about as simple as simple gets.

John Glenn's Mercury 6 image. NASA. Public Domain.

Peter Leibing’s Exacta 

And example of Peter Leibing's Exacta. Photo from Wikicommons, Bartolomeo1978.

Peter Leibing, a budding photojournalist, managed to take a photo of Conrad Schumann of the East German border patrol as he jumped over the first stages of the Berlin Wall with a cheap East German Exacta. He did have a 200mm lens, but he had to manually focus and time his agonizing single shot. Of note, this is something that nobody else managed to do that day, not even the seasoned pros that were all sitting around and waiting for the moment.

Annie Leibovitz’s Polaroid

Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono hours before John’s death was reportedly taken on a Polaroid Instant Camera. This has been hard to substantiate. Leibovitz often used Polaroid film in her Mamiya so the image may have been made on that medium format camera. However, the decision to settle on the populist Polaroid, such an ephemeral medium for a moment that would transcend time, certainly seems humble.

Ricky Powell’s Minolta

The enigmatic Ricky Powell actually photographed the rise of rap culture using the same camera as John Glenn did in space: a Minolta Hi-Matic Af2. It’s certainly an odd and humble way to link John Glenn to Run DMC. 

John Labriola’s Coolpix

Nikon Coolpix circa 2001. Image from

More recently, using a Nikon Coolpix, John Labriola took a photograph in the stairwell of firefighter Mike Kehoe climbing WTC One on September 11, 2001. During my research, I was surprised at how few of the iconic images of 9/11 were shot with what I’ve termed humble cameras. I suppose that, because the towers were in New York City, the call to journalists was immediately met by dozens of pros who happened to be there for Fashion Week, the U.S. Open, or one of another dozens events. These journalists showed up with top of the line equipment. In the days and weeks following, the iconic images that were burned into our collective memory were from these pros and their cameras.

The Concorde

The crash of Air France 4590, the Concorde, was recorded by two amateurs, Toshihiko Sato and Andreas Kisgergely, using point and shoot cameras. Sato took his from another plane waiting for take off.

Closing the Technology Gap and the Death of the Humble Camera

Things are starting to change. Spectacular events are captured all around the world by amateurs using smart phone cameras. CNN, Reuters, and AP have all learned that the camera that happens to be on-hand is the best camera. On top of this on-hand criteria, the technical quality of smart phones is, at least in my opinion, much closer to professional journalism cameras than very basic point and shoot cameras were to their contemporaneous professional counterparts at almost any point over the last 100 years. 

In terms of on-the-spot news reporting, today’s smart phones provide a sophisticated level of photography, even in relation to professional cameras. For example, Janis Krums' shot on the Hudson:

Eventually, these smart phone cameras will produce the images that are seared into our collective consciousness. There won’t be any need for humble cameras when everyone is carrying such sophisticated phones.

Can you think of any other examples of iconic moments captures using humble cameras?

Photos are in the Public Domain or otherwise attributed.

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Rod Kestel's picture

Wow, what a great story, and you've done a spectacular job with your research. I think you're onto a theme here, you could probably write an entire book on the topic.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks Rod! It took a while to pull it all together. Sometimes the information about the types of cameras used has disappeared! A book you say . . . Hmmmmmm

Rod Kestel's picture

I think you're onto something.People will love the blend of technical and personal stories connected to historic events.It's a rich theme for sure.

As author of 2 books I can confrim that it's a shirtload of work, but fun and hugely rewarding. The hard part as you say, is the research. You should be able to pick up some original sources for this one.

Oh - I should add, expect an income of $0.01 per hour before tax and expenses.

Do it! Message me privately if you'd like to continue this conversation.

EL PIC's picture

It’s not the Gear .. It’s the Event !!

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I mostly agree. Sometimes a particular piece of gear makes a shot possible. But, you need someone to make the right choice!

EL PIC's picture

All of the above shots are great because of the event they recorded and none because of the brand or model of gear.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree if we’re only talking brand or mode. But, the type of gear can be critical. The Oklahoma City shot is MUCH different without several hundred mm of glass. Zapruder’s film may not have captured THE moment if he had been using a cheaper camera that had speed problems. Capa’s camera was robust enough where as others may have failed. There is a reason NASA shifted to more reliable cameras for every mission since Glenn.
I think gear can be critical for certain situations. But, clearly, it isn’t always. As the Minolta, Perfex and iPhone shots prove!

Boris Rathard's picture

Beautiful, nothing else can describe, awesome.