Charles Dunagin: A picture from the past


An Associated Press article and picture in the newspaper the other day got me to reflecting on my experiences with the Speed Graphic camera.

The story was about Jerry W. Keahey Sr. donating his Speed Graphic, with which he was pictured, to the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Keahey, who was a student at Tougaloo College in the 1960s, used the camera to document images of Touglaoo students challenging segregation laws of that era.

If you have  recently seen old movies that included reporters or crime scenes, perhaps you can visualize the Speed Graphic which also resembles some of the portrait cameras still used by commercial photographers..

It was standard equipment for many American press photographers until the mid-1960s. According to Wikipedia, the Speed Graphic was first produced by Graflex in Rochester, N.Y.,  in 1912. Production of later versions continued until 1973.

With  4 by 5-inch sheet film, the most common size, the Speed Graphic could produce excellent black and white photographs at fast shutter speeds.

I learned how to use one, as well as taking lessons on developing the film and printing pictures, in a journalism class at Ole Miss in 1955 or 1956.

As a reporter in Jackson in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was fairly proficient at using the ones provided by the newspaper.

By the time the civil rights movement hit full stride, including the turbulent summer of 1964 in McComb, I was using a much smaller Rolleiflex or a 35 millimeter.

Advantages  of these smaller cameras were that they were easier to lug around and a little less conspicuous if you happened to be in an environment unfriendly to  news reporters and photographers.

An unfriendly environment for reporters and photographers in the late 1950s and 1960s most often involved civil rights but not always.

One of my early assignments at the now long defunct Jackson State-Times was to cover the  trial in Raleigh of a Smith County supervisor who had been charged with embezzlement.

It was a heated event with families and political rivals pitted against each other. I, lugging my big Speed Graphic with a flash apparatus attached, stood out as an outsider. No one threatened me, but I could tell that I was not as welcomed as I would have been — and later was — at the annual tobacco-spitting contest.

The trial produced some good copy with the tobacco-chewing defendant often acting irrationally. One witness described a rival as having “one foot on a banana peel and  the other in the grave,” a quote I duly recorded.

The federal judge presiding over the trial — who probably was a little uncomfortable himself — finally had enough of the supervisor’s antics and committed him to the state mental institution at Whitfield for examination.

A big crowd was inside and outside the courthouse waiting to see the defendant placed in a lawman’s car for transfer to what they called the insane asylum.

I was about to go outside to try to get a picture when a friendly courthouse employee motioned to me to follow him.

He explained I probably didn’t need to be in that crowd taking pictures, so he directed me to an upstairs room in the courthouse directly over the area where the supervisor was to be placed in the car. He opened the window, and I got a great picture of the screaming defendant as he was about to be whisked away.

These days, of course, half the people in the crowd would be video recording it on cell phones and posting it on social media. No one would need a Speed Graphic.


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