Larry Millett worked for three decades as a reporter, editor and architectural critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press before retiring in 2002. His books include Lost Twin Cities (awarded an AIA International Architecture Book Award), Twin Cities Then and Now, and five Sherlock Holmes mysteries including The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes.
He is currently at work on a comprehensive guide to the architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The guide will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
A Conversation with Larry Millett about Strange Days, Dangerous Nights
- How did you first come across these photos?
I first encountered these photos and many others like them in the early 1970s, when I went to work as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As I familiarized myself with the “morgue,” as the newspaper’s library was called, I began to run across old file photos by accident as I was doing research for stories. It took me many years to appreciate the full extent of the newspaper’s photo collection, which probably contains at least 100,000 images from the Speed Graphic era.
- How did you first get the idea to pull this collection together?
The idea came to me as I made plans to retire from the newspaper in 2002. I’d been looking at – and marveling over – the photos for years, and I thought the time had come to collect some of the best images in a book, so that the public could see them.
- How was the exhibit born?
Several months ago my editor and I were going through some of the images for the book in a conference room at the Minnesota History Center, when the head of the exhibits department walked by. The photos caught his eye, so he stopped to take a closer look. He was so taken by them – and by the stories behind them – that he eventually proposed that the Society mount an exhibit based on the book.
- What made you decide to focus on images from the Speed Graphic era as opposed to those taken by journalists during other periods in history?
Two reasons. First, I love the pictures from the Speed Graphic era. They’re unmannered, richly detailed and sometimes disconcertingly blunt in their depiction of the world. Second, the newspapers’ archives are incredibly rich with images from the Speed Graphic era as compared to photos from other periods in history. So in a sense, the decision was made for me.
- What was your criteria for selecting photos?
I simply looked for photos that caught my eye, of which there were a great many. I then started sorting the photos until they seemed to fall into general themes or categories, since I wanted to create a book that would include a representative sampling of pictures from the era. After that came the really hard part – winnowing the photos until I reached a number that made sense for a reasonable-sized book. That turned out to be about 220 photos. I could easily have done 500 or more, and there are many wonderful images that didn’t make the final cut.
- What did you learn about the lives of newspaper photographers during that time? How do you think their jobs differed from that of photographers today?
I was perhaps most surprised to learn how many assignments – sometimes 10 or more – the news photographers “shot” every day. Today, I’d guess three or four assignments a day would be the maximum for a news photographer. The Speed Graphic photographers really did have to work fast, and because of that fact – and the nature of their cameras – they snapped off far fewer photos at each assignment than would typically be the case now.
I was also surprised to see how many staff-generated photos the newspapers printed in those days. Because of this insatiable demand for images, the photographers were expected to bring in plenty of pictures at the end of the day. A lot of these were humdrum images that got printed, simply because there was so much space to fill. Today’s newspapers are much more selective about how they use photos.
Perhaps the most significant difference between then and now involves the kind of imagery that newspaper photographers sought. The Speed Graphic photographers were extremely oriented toward spot news and used police scanners to stay on top of things. They truly were ambulance chasers, to an extent that is simply not equaled today. It was not unheard of for Speed Graphic photographers to arrive at a crime or fire scene ahead of the authorities. Now, if that happens, it’s likely to be a local television crew that gets to the scene first. Another surprise for me was how many staged photos were taken in the Speed Graphic era. Pictures of that sort are generally taboo today.
- Is there one particular image that really speaks to you? Why?
I think an especially powerful image is the one that shows a woman sobbing over the body of a drowned child while behind her a newspaper reporter interviews a policeman about the tragedy (p. 39). It’s not only a very moving image but it also displays, for better or worse, many key features of the news photography of the era. The photo demonstrates the tremendous access to crime and accident scenes that photographers enjoyed and also speaks to the belief that private tragedies were public news to be shared with the community. And, of course, there’s also the straightforward nature of the photograph itself, which is much more about storytelling than trying to create an artistically memorable image.
- How do you think photojournalism has changed since the Speed Graphic era? Why do you think it has changed?
The most obvious change, of course, is that today’s newspaper photos tend to be less graphic and intrusive than those from the 1940s and ‘50s. For whatever reason, today’s newspaper readers (or perhaps it’s a case of today’s newspaper editors) are much more sensitive about blood and gore than used to be the case. I find this somewhat odd, given the incredible levels of violence common now in movies, video games and other forms of mass entertainment.
The other big change has been among the photographers themselves. Few of the Speed Graphic photographers had college degrees and most learned their trade in a non-academic setting: in the military, say, or simply by picking up a camera and fooling around with it. Another difference between yesterday and today is that the Speed Graphic photographers, for the most part, didn’t place a high priority on capturing beautiful images. Spot news – raw and ugly as it might be – was their grail. That is no longer the case today.
What do you hope people will take away from book and exhibit?
I hope people will take away some appreciation for the remarkable work of the photographers (many of whom are now deceased) who made this exhibit possible. A particular set of circumstances – easy access to crime and accident scenes, hard-nosed ideas about the nature of journalism, and the use of the large-format Speed Graphic camera – made these images possible. I doubt we will ever see their likes again.
- Tell us something about the research that went into the book, about
finding these images published in the newspaper.
Once I had selected my final list of photographs, I needed to find out something about the story behind each of them. This meant going back into microfilm collections to track down when each photo appeared in the Pioneer Press or Dispatch. This proved to be quite time-consuming, though I was fortunate to have help from an expert volunteer researcher named Susan Dowd. Between the two of us, we were able to locate the publication date and edition of virtually every photo that appears in the book. However, in a few cases we were stumped, either because the photo was probably used to illustrate a feature story that appeared months after the picture was actually taken or because the photo may have appeared in an edition (the newspapers had many) not covered in the microfilm collections.
Susan and I made copies of all the stories that went with the pictures. Armed with this information, I was able to provide an informative caption with almost every photo. In some cases, I was astonished to find that extremely graphic or disturbing photos (for example, a picture of two dead toddlers who had suffocated in an old icebox) were published on the front page of the newspapers. It truly was an era much different from our own.