I got a good lesson in how much photography has changed not long ago, when I went to my local Barnes & Noble to hear Bill Eppridge speak. His book “A Time It Was – Bobby Kennedy in the 60s” had just come out. The book chronicles Bill’s days photographing Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president – the campaign that, as we all know, ended fatefully by an assassin’s bullet. Bill had a front row position for that final night and made an amazing set of pictures. The B&N was packed that evening, and everybody in the place wanted to know more about the Kennedys.
Everybody, that is, but me.
After politely fielding one Kennedy question after another, Bills face lit up when he heard my question, the only photo related question of the night. I wanted to know about his iconic picture, the image of Bobby Kennedy on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, moments after he had been shot. My question was this: “How many hours after you shot the picture did you know whether you had gotten the shot?’’
It was just after midnight on June 5th, 1968 when Bill made that shot. He was shooting with a Nikon Nikkormat camera and tri-X film so there was no LCD screen on the back of the camera to quickly check to see if see if he had gotten the now famours picture. This was black and white film so couldn’t just download the pictures onto his laptop and in five minutes know the answer. No, this was 1968 and technology was very different back then. Bill told me he gave his film to a reporter who hand carried it to the Life offices in Los Angeles.
It was around daybreak the next morning, he said, when he got his first feedback on the film. It came from a Time Magazine photographer who told Bill he had seen the contact sheets and said, “I don’t know what else you’ve got, but you have one hell of a picture.”
I wasn’t that surprised to hear it took a full night for Bill to learn what he had. But what did surprise me was something else he said in his talk that night: he mentioned that before the big events of that evening in the Ambassador, he went to his hotel room to pick up 10 or 12 rolls of film. After all, if Bobby Kennedy won the California primary that night, he would have sealed up the Democratic presidential nomination. Bill figured he would need that much film to record a major moment in the campaign. In my head, I quickly calculated the equivalent in CF cards. With my camera, 10 of 12 rolls of film equals about one-8 gigabyte card. I bet if you look in the camera bags of the people covering campaigns today, they would easily have five or 10 times that CF capacity.
It made me think. Technology has never been better, cameras can shoot 9 frames a second and we can make pictures in near total darkness. But I wonder: As photographers, are we making better images or do they just have lower noise in the shadows?