The Harley Davidson of cameras…

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Bikers, Tamworth, circa 1982

Long before digital photography was there to provide me with everyday excitement and enthusiasm, whenever my work became stale and predictable, I would try to introduce a change of pace, subject or format to freshen up my eye. Sometime in the early 80s, I suggested to my then assistant, Frank Lindner, that we take a trip to the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival, to see what it was about.

For change of format from my usual 35mm work, I borrowed a 5×4 Pacemaker Speed Graphic from my good friend and colleague, Simon Cowling, and with a couple of Grafmatic backs loaded with T-Max 400 set off on the 600 kilometre drive to Tamworth.

We arrived mid-morning and drove around the city looking for picture opportunities. We drove all over town looking at all these boring, cowboy-hatted, line-dancing types and country yodellers, but just couldn’t get excited about the subject. Now don’t get me wrong. I like country music. The real thing, American country music, that is. I just don’t enjoy the derivative Australian version that masquerades in pseudo-American accents as the voice of rural Australia. But that’s another story, and will probably get me a whole lot of rude comments from Slim Dusty or Lee Kernaghan fans. To me, Tamworth lacked authenticity, and I wasn’t in the mood to make pictures taking the piss out of imitation cowboys.

In cruising through town we had both taken a sideways glance at a particular noisy pub. The Locomotive Hotel had been adopted by biker gangs as their headquarters for the weekend and the noise of their rioting could be heard for several blocks. Neither of us said anything. But on our third pass, I said to Frank, “What do you reckon?” The answer he gave was probably not the one I wanted or needed. “I’m game if you are.” Now, we were committed by our egos, come what may.

Finding a parking spot nearby we tried to insinuate ourselves quietly amongst this rough and rowdy crowd. As we arrived they didn’t seem to take much notice of us, but they were too pre-occupied throwing beer cans at a singer on a makeshift stage on the back of a truck and also, as we were, distracted by biker women who were flashing their breasts. Frank and I tried to look as tough as we could. Anyone knowing Frank is probably laughing right now. I at least had the advantage of size, but in reality there was no disguising the fact that we were soft civilians. I also had that Speed Graphic hanging like a baby coffin from my left hand and in my mind it now took on the dimensions of the Polaroid 20×24 camera (and I’ve been lucky enough to shoot with that monster too, but that’s another story altogether). Discrete photography was never an attribute of the Pacemaker Graphic.

Frank and I separated to look for pictures. In less than ten minutes, he was back having been immediately robbed of his cash in the hotel. Luckily they let him keep his cameras.

Things were looking decidedly perilous. After about half an hour of trying to get up enough courage to take pictures, some burly bikers bailed me up, eyed the Speed Graphic and demanded, “What the fuck is that?” This was it, I thought. The moment when I’m kicked to the ground and stomped to death by a crowd of enraged bikers.

Seeking an appropriately conciliatory response, I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline. I briefly weighed up my chances of using that big camera as a weapon. I’d once seen one used to knock out a photographer, but that’s yet another story. I immediately thought the better of it. Suddenly, inspiration! Trying desperately to conceal the quaver in my voice, I said, “I guess you could call it the Harley Davidson of press cameras. It’s called a Speed Graphic”…a couple of beats while this information penetrated their beer and dope-soaked brains…”Shit mate, that’s cool. Take our photo!” they ordered.

I didn’t hesitate. Desperately struggling to hide the trembling of my hands while cranking away at the rangefinder I got away a couple of frames. They bought me a beer…

PS If you are old enough to remember using a Speed Graphic, please feel free to add your memories of this wonderful camera…


Filed under Australian, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls

4 responses to “The Harley Davidson of cameras…

  1. “I guess you could call it the Harley Davidson of press cameras”

    I’m filing that away into my head for future use.

  2. Theo. Bennett

    An excellent site Rob.

    I’ve enjoyed swimming in your Mondrian colours, enjoying the moods of your exemplary images.

    The tribute to Penn is worthy. He was indeed one of the finest. A photomedia man to emulate as you say.

    Your photography, hence your photojournalism, has always been superior. And your scribe journalism, literary ability is keen too.

    I’m envious. I’ve been a photojournalist for decades now, but I’d never pretend to be a photographer. Perhaps an illustrator, a chronicler, but I recognise my own strength as a researcher wordsmith.

    Your undeniable strength is photomedia, photojournalism. Publishable, viewable, expressive, at times provocative images that are worth spending time with and revisiting.

    On this watery Canberra weekend while the Lib-Nats huddle to cobble their ETS amendments I must pen a piece for the Swedes on our forthcoming joint House agreement, or the threatened double dissolution over the ET Bill.

    Denmark and December loom. Scandinavia takes us seriously. More so than the Japanese, the Chinese, and save the education and coal industries, more than the Indians.

    I’m wondering too how I might express through photojournalism as well as the scribbled word, our present ET debacle in the Federal Parliament?

    The usual headshots are… well… the “usual”.

    Pix of the Federal Parliament House are synonymous with
    that other House, the opera one on Sydney Harbour, well-known to the Scandinavian audience.

    My thoughts wander more appropriately to the places of reality in Australia like Arkaroola in the Flinders Ranges, SA, and the fount of energy resources harboured beneath this oldest part of the word’s geomorphology. A photojournalism account of our ignorance of nuclear energy, of thorium use, seems far more appropriate.

    And how much happier I’d be at a campfire in the Flinders, the inspiration of those extraordinary Hans Heysen eucalypts, the shaman light and mysticism that always inspires.

    Like your splendid waterfalls here.

    But no, I’m velcroed to Canberra, focusing on the political rather than the policy.

    Perhaps that’s where we go wrong too many times. We simply report. Our chronicles aren’t those of a Steinbeck
    or a Hurley.

    Would it be better to use a Speed Graphic and (5×4)” sheet
    Kodak Plus for my images of pompous politicians?

    Is the Graphic really the “Harley” of cameras? Surely not.
    What an injustice. The Speed Graphic was always more reliable than a “Harley”. More reliable than a Hasselblad 600 too. You didn’t necessarily need a kit of tools with you to keep it going on the job.

    I’d hold it fondly in memory more as a “Triumph” of camera engineering and design.

    You really don’t need be a dinosaur to have used one, y’know.

    As a cadet I’d carry larrikin lensman Johnny Jones large black leather Speed Graphic case with its enormous flash gun and Phillips incendiary single-use bulbs.

    Much later, running a commercial agency and studio in Sydney during the 70s I had the chance to buy one with all the fittings for less than $1,000.

    I did. It worked brilliantly to supplement our Linhof studio three-quarter plate.

    The Hasselblads and Nikons were preferred mostly in the field, on assignment, but there was a romance quintessential with the Speed Graphic.

    And it was mighty heavy too. As Jones had once commented while he was being hauled down from the palace wall in Jogja, “I can take out at least three cops with one swing with the thing.”

    A press photographer in Sydney called Lou used one as a freelance in the 60s. who usually lurked by Town Hall Station waiting for a human interest shot for the Communist Party Tribune newspaper.

    One night at a party in Balmain he admitted he preferred his Leica, but used the Speed Graphic to “look like a proper
    Press photographer”.

    It was a credibility thing.

    I wonder if we’d fare better using one these days to defy the Politically Correct thought police? I mean, it worked for the Trib’s Lou as he lurked at the intersection of George and Park Streets surreptitiously photographing “birds with good legs, always a shot to have.”

    I somehow think though that the “birds with good legs” were playing to the camera. Lou’s efforts could not have been covert. A Speed Graphic is a camera of monument. Large. Recognisable. You can’t mistake it, nor ignore it. A Speed Graphic demands respect. It has authority. It gets response. People react.

    And perhaps there’s the thing: By contrast, today’s nifty
    and so useful DSLR cameras are tiny. We’re virtually an
    amalgam of snapshooters here in Canberra among the tourists.

    Would something as iconic as a Speed Graphic with flashgun rampant set us proudly, stridently, apart – formidable photographers bent on genuine professional

    At the very least we’d be capable of defending against Tasar attack and of fending off three plods as we ran away.

    More power to your website, your camera, and to your pen:

    – Theo. Bennett
    Canberra Oct 18 2009


    • With comments such as that, Theo, I think you should start your own blog. Too many questions for me to answer, but on the subject of political photography, having photographed every Prime Minister since Menzies (excepting the latest incumbent) I am in the process pf preparing a short piece on that very subject.

      Whether the Graphic is the “Hog” of cameras was always debatable. US made, an iconic design, a certain style…my description was mainly arrived at to distract my subjects from their hostile intent. Faced by a different adversary I would have come up with a different description.

      By the way, a certain old freelance (and active member of the AJA) admitted to me that he used the Speed Graphic to photograph anti-Vietnam demonstration for ASIO. The big neg gave him the advantage of being able to make ID photos of militant protesters from a single frame…

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