Off the Press

August 28, 2012

By Greg Farrar

When news photographs whistled through wires

Our recent story about the book by Barry Sweet, the Seattle Associated Press photographer for more than three decades, brought back a lot of memories. I visited with Barry at the Issaquah Costco and enjoyed reliving old times.

Greg Farrar
Press photographer

Would you believe that once upon a time, it took 10 minutes to send one black-and-white photograph to newspapers across the country? And 40 minutes to send color?

While studying at the University of Washington, I landed a job in 1977 as one of five wirephoto operators at the Seattle bureau, working right next to Barry Sweet at the same desk and the same darkroom for two years.

A wirephoto — or Laserphoto — transmitter was about the size and weight of a carton of 10 reams of office paper. We typed a caption on sticky paper, put it on the margin of an 8-by-10 print, put it in the slot and pressed start.

The picture would slowly feed at an inch per minute as the laser would scan 120 lines an inch, turn the shades of gray into a constant rapid whistling of high- to low-pitched sound frequencies and send it across telephone lines.

Receivers at the nation’s newspapers would expose glossy thermal paper with synchronized lasers at the same time and spit out their reproductions when the transmission was done.

The job included calling stadiums across the country to talk to their AP photographers for away games of the Mariners, Seahawks and SuperSonics. I would “split” Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska off the national network, the photographer would start the print and I would run it through a switchboard.

I think my most fabulous day was when the SuperSonics won the NBA championship in 1979 at the Kingdome against the Washington Bullets and there was a stack of Barry’s prints to send on the morning shift. Everyone answered New York’s roll call — Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles — and then I crowed, “Home of the world champion SuperSonics, Seattle!”

One night, the Anchorage Daily News, trying to save money by putting their Laserphoto receiver on a timer, missed the photos of the finish of the Iditarod Sled Dog race shot by their own photographer. Boy did I learn to swear that night!

There were some amazing news stories from 1977 to 1979, when computers took over the job, and on shift I got a first look of every photo. Two popes died and two were elected. There was the Jonestown Massacre. There were Barry Sweet’s photos of Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Seattle with Sen. Scoop Jackson. There was Ted Bundy’s conviction in Florida. There were even three times the AP used a photo by me.

So, today when you are emailing or posting hundreds of color pictures that all your friends in the world can see instantly, consider a bygone era when sending photos around the world was once real work! And in some ways it was the best job I ever had.

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