Sending Photos Before the Internet

Last week’s post about using the iPad to work up and send photos prompted me to dig out a few old photos and share with you how it was done in the early 1980s at the SF Chronicle when we were on out of town assignments. Remember this was before digital cameras and even before Photoshop. 
Sometimes getting the pictures back to the office was more of a challenge than the shooting, especially if the assignment was a daily one. 
If there was a friendly non competing newspaper office nearby then the job was an easy one. Just swing by and use their darkroom and photo transmitter. Easy! Most of the time however, this wasn’t possible. So, we had to lug around with us a portable darkroom and photo transmitter. This also meant that we had to find a suitable room that we could make lightproof. Not as easy as it sounds! Usually the motel bathroom was the best choice. Most were windowless or just had a small window to tape over and water was convenient for the chemicals. We carried with us plenty of duct tape and the lightproof paper that came wrapped around the photo paper. Worked perfect for making a room light tight. The portable enlarger was usually set up on the toilet seat and the developing trays set in the bathtub. This usually worked out pretty well.
Here’s a photo of Art Frisch and me in a motel bathroom working on some photos. This was in 1981 and we were covering a series of protests down at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant near Avila Beach, CA. Note for this setup, we used a makeshift shelf for the enlarger and I sat on the toilet! Since we were covering a 2 week long series of protests, we brought a Kodak Ektamatic printer which produced dry prints in just minutes rather than taking the time to use trays.
For transmitting photos back then, we used a rotary drum scanner that scanned the 8×10 inch photo and sent it over a phone line. Took 8 minutes for a black and white photo if all went well. Unfortunately it didn’t always go well and we would have to resend the photo if there were any hits to the image caused by a poor phone connection. This would cause a line through the image which in pre Photoshop days was impossible to correct.
We also used another clever method to get the images back to the paper. If a convenient airport was nearby, we’d find the next flight to SF and beg a passenger to carry our bag of unprocessed film with them, asking them to leave it at a predetermined airline counter where we would have a runner pick up the film and bring it into the office. I actually did this a few times although it could never work these days especially after 9-11.
And this was way before my time at the Chronicle but certainly a very clever solution. The ever-resourceful photo staff at times used carrier pigeons to take film back to the paper. I think this method was used during the historic Beatles concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966.
Anyway, that’s how it was done in the “old” days. Much prefer these digital days when all that’s needed is a laptop (or iPad) and a camera. Photos in my editor’s hands in minutes anywhere there is a cell signal. No lugging around a darkroom kit (or a messy bird cage) or begging airline passengers!   
Chronicle photographer Lacy Atkins and I work up our photos on our laptops at an Oakland Raiders game recently. Thanks to technology, between the two of us, we were able to edit, process and send over 50 photos in less than 2 hours. Gotta love technology!

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