The German dirigible Hindenburg crashes to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding on May 6, 1937, at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, N.J.
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The German dirigible Hindenburg crashes to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding on May 6, 1937, at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, N.J.Murray Becker—AP
The German dirigible Hindenburg crashes to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding on May 6, 1937, at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, N.J.
New York Yankees' Lou Gehrig wipes away a tear while speaking during a sold-out tribute at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939.
The destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
U.S. soldiers of Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry Division march along the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe in the background, on Aug. 29, 1944, four days after the liberation of Paris during WWII.
U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on Feb. 23, 1945.
Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of New York subway grating while in character for the filming of The Seven Year Itch in New York City on Sept. 15, 1954.
The Reverend Thich Quang Duc, a 73-year-old Buddhist monk, is soaked in petrol before setting fire to himself and burning to death in front of thousands of onlookers at a main highway intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963.
South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972.
South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, fires his pistol and executes suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem in Saigon on Feb. 1, 1968.
Released prisoner of war Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm is greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., as he returns home from the Vietnam War on March 17, 1973.
With their heads bowed, President John F. Kennedy, left, walks along a path at Camp David near Thurmont, Md., with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower on April 22, 1961, as the two met to discuss the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Jacqueline Kennedy holds the flag that covered the coffin of her husband at graveside in Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 25, 1963.
A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963.
Firefighters turn their hoses full force on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., on July 15, 1963
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine.
Richard Nixon says goodbye with a victorious salute to his staff members outside the White House as he boards a helicopter after resigning the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan raises his left arm as he is shot at by an assailant outside a hotel in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1981.
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro exhales cigar smoke during a March 1985 interview at his presidential palace in Havana.
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.
Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie, walking hand in hand, raise clenched fists upon his release from Victor prison in Cape Town on Feb. 11, 1990.
Julie McDermott, center, walks with other victims as they make their way amid debris near the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
A man jumps to his death from North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
An Iraqi prisoner of war comforts his 4-year-old son at a regroupment center for POWs of the 101st Airborne Division near An Najaf on March 31, 2003.
An Iraqi man celebrates atop of a burning U.S. Army Humvee in the northern part of Baghdad on April 26, 2004.
Ahmed, center, mourns his father Abdulaziz Abu Ahmed Khrer, who was killed by a Syrian Army sniper, during his funeral in Idlib, north Syria, on March 8, 2012.
The German dirigible Hindenburg crashes to earth, tail first, in flaming ruins after exploding on May 6, 1937, at the U.S. Naval Station in Lakehurst, N.J.
Murray Becker—AP
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Celebrating 80 Years of Associated Press' Wirephoto

Jan 01, 2015

Exactly 80 years ago today, on Jan. 1, 1935, the Associated Press sent its very first photograph over the organization’s brand new Wirephoto service: an aerial photo of a plane crash in upstate New York. The photo was delivered across the country to 47 newspapers in 25 states.

In an article published that day in The Bulletin newspaper, AP president Frank B. Noyes named each of the papers that had opted into the service saying, “These are the pioneers of wirephoto, which outstrips other messengers in conveying the news in pictures just as, a century ago, the telegraph came to outstrip the carrier pigeon and the pony express, and, a little more than a generation ago, the typewriter relegated the stylus to oblivion.”

Photos up to that point were largely delivered by mail, train or airplane, taking up to 85 hours in transit. AP Wirephoto could transmit a photo in minutes.


The first AP Wirephoto with original caption affixed: The wreckage of a small plane lies in a wooded area near Morehousville, N.Y., on Dec. 31, 1934. AP 

AT&T had made a previous attempt at their own photo wire service. In 1926, the telephone company had succeeded in setting up eight sending and receiving centers across the nation, which AP and other outlets had put to use. It was, however, a hugely expensive endeavor for the company and its users; after spending over $3m dollars with comparatively small returns, the service was shut down in 1933.

Before AT&T closed down its service, AP General Manager Kent Cooper had made it his mission to develop such a service in house. “KC was the father of the AP Newsphoto Service,” former AP executive photo editor Al Resch was quoted as saying in the company magazine The AP World in 1969. “He was deeply dedicated to the proposition that the day’s news should be just as thoroughly and competently covered in pictures as in words.”

Cooper prevailed, despite hefty internal opposition (the service posed a threat to Hearst and Scripps-Howard, AP member organizations that owned competing photo services) and under the spectre of the Great Depression. The story is well documented in AP’s annual report for 1934: “After discussion it was voted that Mr. Howard be informed that the Board and Executive Committee would be glad to confer with representatives of the Scripps-Howard and Hearst member newspapers, on the basis that the Board was always willing to consider any problem affecting its members and in which there was any mutuality of interest.”


Photographer Bill Allen uses the trunk of his car as a darkroom to develop film coverage of a 1938 Virginia mine explosion. Associated Press Corporate Archives 

The system was comprised of three main elements: transmitters, receivers, and 10,000 miles of leased telephone lines - the wires. The transmitters required first a print - AP photographers would either send in their film to be developed and printed at an AP darkroom, or develop and print it themselves using portable darkrooms. At that time, they worked mainly with Speed Graphic cameras and 4x5 film.

Once the print was made and ready to be sent, it would be wrapped around a cylinder on the transmitter. At the push of a button, the cylinder, which could hold up to 11 x 17-inch prints, would spin at one hundred revolutions per minute underneath an optical scanner. The optical scanner would shine a very thin beam of light onto the spinning print, which would then reflect light back into a photoelectric cell, which, in turn, would translate the reflections of light and dark tones into signals that would be carried across the wires.

The receiver on the other end had a similar spinning cylinder with a negative on it. As the transmission came in, the signals would be converted back into light, which was then recorded onto the negative, reproducing the original image.

AP stationed a network monitor in their New York bureau to control the sending and receiving of images. It was his job to listen to daily offerings from the member papers who would call in descriptions of the best images each outlet had to send, and then to decide which of those photos would be transmitted to which member papers at what time. Each transmission could take from 10 to 17 minutes depending on the size of the print, so the network monitor’s challenge was to decide, within the time constraints of a given day, which photos the world would see. See a dramatization of this process in the video below.


A man carries AP's portable WirePhoto transmitter. AP 

Over the next 20 years, AP Wirephoto technology would be continually streamlined as the network grew. By 1936, AP technicians had made available portable transmitters that came in two 40-pound suitcases. They were bulky and required trained technicians to run them. By the end of 1937, the stationary transmitters and receivers at the AP bureaus and newspapers were replaced with ones that were smaller, lighter, and could be plugged into a wall socket instead of taking power from a wet cell battery. By 1939, the portable transmitters were made more compact and AP had 35 units ready for use. Color transmissions, which took three times as long as black and white due to color separation, became available that same year.

Picture quality on the receiving end was continually improved and fine tuned. More newspapers signed on for the service, the network continued to enlarge. As America entered WWII, the demand for pictures – and for picture delivery – forced advances in Radiophoto transmissions. Wirephoto had also transmitted maps and charts from its inception, but these became especially valuable during war time.

Postwar, the transmitters and receivers became yet again smaller, picture quality and transmission of tonality improved, and AP developed receivers that were capable of producing positives as well as negatives, again cutting down time-to-market. By 1951, over 20,000 pictures were transmitted via Wirephoto annually.

By 1963, North America and Europe were connected via a leased circuit. In the same time period, as AP began its historic coverage of the Vietnam war, its photographers were making the transition from shooting 4x5 and 120mm film to 35mm film.

Between the 1960s and the 90s there were three major leaps in technology, ultimately leading to digital transmission. The first big jump was the establishment of the Electronic Darkroom in 1978 which digitized the signals coming through on the wires. It featured computers that could crop, tone, and sharpen images as they came through. It was in a way an early, crude version of Photoshop. Operators could receive an image, edit it, and send it back out to the network without the added delay of developing a negative or making prints.

Promotional brochure announcing the AP Leafax 35, a picture transmitter that requires only a negative to transmit photographic images. 1988
Promotional brochure announcing the AP Leafax 35, a picture transmitter that requires only a negative to transmit photographic images, from 1988. Associated Press Corporate Archives 

Negative scanning was the next push forward in the mid-80s with AP’s procurement of the Leafax, a compact and portable picture transmitter held in a briefcase-sized case. AP photographers could take color or black-and-white negatives, scan them into the Leafax, tone, sharpen, crop and add captions, then send them through to the network. With the exception of developing film, the Leafax eliminated darkroom work and printmaking for photographers and again cut the amount of time it took for the picture to travel from the camera to the news consumer.


President George H. W. Bush raises his hand as he takes the oath of office as President of the United States outside the Capitol on Jan. 20, 1989, Washington, D.C. Ron Edmonds—AP 

“That was the first step,” Hal Buell, AP’s former head of photography, tells TIME. “The next thing was to set up a digital network which we called Photostream.” Photostream was announced in 1989, and offered all digital transmission via satellite. It reduced transmission time from 10 minutes to 60 seconds, and offered a method of delivering higher quality color pictures. AP supplied every U.S. newspaper with a Leafdesk to receive the new digital transmissions.

“We had to send a representative into every newspaper in the U.S. that took photos and show them how the digital system worked with incoming wire pictures,” says Buell. “We put these desks in every newspaper, and that not only changed the way AP handled pictures, but it changed the way newspapers handled pictures.”

AP’s first digital news photo was made and transmitted earlier in 1989 at George H.W. Bush’s inauguration by Ron Edmonds using a Nikon QV-1000c. The advent of ever more powerful computers and laptops, portable satellites, improvements in image compression, and the lightning fast evolution of digital cameras, now with possibility of in-camera transmission and video, has continued to accelerate and increase AP’s delivery of images from the late 1990s to the present. Whereas in 1951 the service transmitted 22,000 images annually, AP now transmits over 3,000 images daily.

In that early 1935 Bulletin article, Noyes touched on something that was, and continues to be, essential to the news: speed, the need for which has driven the evolution of communication technology to this day. This may seem self-evident; however, as these technologies have evolved, they directly affect how news is created and how it is digested, and thus, in very profound, sometimes imperceptible ways, how we conceive of the world around us.

The launch of AP’s Photowire service initiated just that sort of weighty paradigm shift. “From Jan. 1, 1935 on, you could say that as far as the news goes, the visual had become newsworthy and capable of carrying the news, of being news,” Valerie Komor, Director of AP’s Corporate Archives, tells TIME. “Photography could be news.”

Photography is now indeed news, as is, increasingly, video. If we think of the way in which we – as news consumers – receive and read news images today, the experience feels instantaneous. Our understanding of the world is a constant, and rapid distillation of an ever increasing number of images spread over innumerable platforms. We are offered ever more perspectives, and a wealth of information. The responsibility now often falls on the reader to pace their intake of information.

“In the same way that a story can be read at the viewer's leisure, a photograph can be contemplated at the viewer's leisure,” says Santiago Lyon, the Vice President and Director of Photography at AP. “You are able to consider it and you're able to have an opinion about it. And the discerning viewer won't just look at a photograph, they'll read a photograph, and they'll look at all of the details in the picture and they'll notice things and they'll spend some time looking at a picture.”

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