TIME photography

Celebrating 80 Years of Associated Press’ Wirephoto

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 4×5 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 4×5 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.”


The War After D-Day: Deeper Into Hell

Photos from Saipan, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Berlin, Nagasaki: places where the war did not stop when Operation Overlord ended

The Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, was so vast in scope — and so punishingly effective in establishing an Allied beachhead on European soil — that people sometimes forget just how long the war lasted, and how brutal it remained, in both Europe and the Pacific after D-Day. The successes at Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword beaches remain, rightly, among the most celebrated military operations in history — but for more than a year following those landings, the fighting went on, and on, and on in some of the war’s most appalling battles and campaigns.

Hundreds of thousands of Allied and Axis troops and untold thousands more civilian men, women and children died before Japan surrendered in September 1945, finally ending the war that for six years had reshaped the globe. This gallery features photographs — some of them iconic, many of them little-known — from Saipan, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Berlin, Nagasaki: places where the war did not stop when Operation Overlord ended.

[WATCH: ‘Behind the Picture: Robert Capa’s D-Day’]

TIME iwo jima

VIDEO: The Story Behind the Iconic Iwo Jima Photograph

The photo depicts the raising of the American flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima, which drew to a close 69 years ago this week

When AP photographer Joe Rosenthal watched marines hoisting the flag on Iwo Jima in 1945, he wasn’t sure he got the shot. It turned out to be one of the most famous photographs from WWII.

In the video above, Hal Buell, former photo editor of the Associated Press, narrates the history and significance of what Rosenthal captured in the image. The battle ended 69 years ago this week.

TIME Japan

Japan’s New Nationalist Streak on Display at Iwo Jima Battlefield

Prime Minister Abe Visit Ogasawara Islands
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers a flower durinf a memorial service to commemorate the war deads of the World War II at Iwo Island on April 14, 2013 in Ogasawara, Tokyo, Japan. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to boost defense spending and ease restraints on the country's armed forces. But on the 69th anniversary of the bloody World War II battle, concerns resurface over how Japan's nationalist government remembers the past

Sixty-nine years after one of the bloodiest battles of World War II was fought on this tiny island, a new conflict is underway – how to remember Japan’s role in the war.

“I am deeply concerned that the memory of the battle of Iwo Jima is gradually fading,” says Tetsuro Teramoto, whose father was among the more than 21,000 Japanese soldiers who perished in the fighting. More than 6,000 U.S. Marines died there, as well, and another 20,000 were wounded.

“We have a responsibility to devote ourselves to passing our memories to the following generations in order not to repeat such a tragedy,” said Teramoto, who heads a support organization for families of the war dead. Teramoto was not yet born when his father was killed by the Marines.

Nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sparked bitter criticism last year when he visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals – wartime leaders — are enshrined along with more than two million other Japanese war dead. A museum associated with the shrine teaches that the United States tricked Japan into starting the war; that atrocities like the infamous Nanking Massacre never occurred; and that Japan fought to liberate its neighbors from Western colonialism, as opposed to establishing its own empire.

That does not sit well with many of 250 Japanese and American veterans, family members and supporters who gathered here this week to honor those who fought and died on both sides.

“That’s hogwash. They attacked Pearl Harbor. They started it and they know it. But it’s over now. We should let bygones be bygones,” says Bob Hensley, 89, a Marine rifleman who was assigned to collecting bodies during the 37 days of brutal fighting.

“We should never forget that the peace and prosperity we enjoy today is built on the sacrifice of these soldiers. For Japan to move to the (political) right absolutely is not acceptable,” says Teramoto.

Iwo Jima – now Ioto – was the first battle fought on Japanese soil. The Americans wanted the island as a fighter base and emergency landing site for B-29 bombers attacking the Japanese mainland.

Defenders were prepared to fight to the death. They spent nearly a year building an intricate system of reinforced bunkers, connected by 11 miles of tunnels and caves. They survived a three-day naval barrage nearly unscathed and poured murderous fire on Marines who had to slog through deep black sand into the teeth of Japanese defenses. Of the entire garrison, only 210 Japanese soldiers survived.

The battle produced the iconic photo of Marines raising the flag over Mt. Suribachi. And it inspired a pair of acclaimed 2006 movies by director Clint Eastwood – Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which told the story from the American and Japanese perspectives.

Among the Japanese delegation to this week’s ceremonies were two dozen members of parliament from the Japanese Diet. They included members of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party, nearly all staunch defenders of Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Abe, a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance, wants to boost defense spending, ease restraints on Japan’s self-defense forces and promote a more “patriotic” view of Japanese history. Abe has acknowledged being strongly influenced by his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was a member of Japan’s wartime Cabinet and was arrested on suspicion of war crimes. Kishi was released without charges and later served as prime minister.

Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, in Tokyo, and a former Marine Corps liaison with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force, says that Abe’s rightist views are not shared by the majority of Japanese society. “Abe and a slice of Japan’s ruling class believe Japan did a noble deed with its war to throw off the white man’s yoke in Asia… But is Japan becoming more militaristic? No, I don’t see it,” Newsham said at a recent forum in Tokyo.

And that’s fine with Bob Hensley. “When we were here, we hated them and they hated us, and we were trying to kill each other. But that’s changed,” says Hensley. “We’ve been friends a long time and I hope it stays that way.”

TIME World War II

World War II: Photos We Remember

Seven decades have passed since World War II ended, but the power of these pictures has barely faded.

No conflict in recorded history transformed the globe as thoroughly as World War II. Cities were obliterated; national borders were altered; revolutionary and, in some cases, fearsome military, medical, communication and transportation technology were invented; and tens of millions were killed — the majority of them civilians. Simply put, the world of August 1945, when the war ended, bore little resemblance to that of September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

During those six long, uncertain years, LIFE covered the war with more tenacity and focus than any other magazine on earth. Twenty-one LIFE photographers logged 13,000 days outside the U.S.; half of that time was spent in combat zones. In tribute to those journalists, and to the men, women and even children who sacrificed so much in the Allied war effort, LIFE.com combed the magazine’s unparalleled archives for some of the greatest pictures made during WWII — often searing, occasionally lighthearted, always memorable images from the streets of Blitz-ravaged London to the sands and jungles of Saipan, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

Seven decades have passed since the war ended, but the power of these pictures (several of which were never published in LIFE) has barely faded: confronting them today, we’re still dumbstruck by the destruction; we still flinch at the scale of the suffering; and we marvel at the courage of the men and women whose unity of purpose kept the flame of hope alive in the darkest hours.

TIME Behind the Picture

Behind the Picture: Marines Blow Up a Blockhouse, Iwo Jima, 1945

LIFE.com presents a series of photos — many of which never ran in LIFE magazine — made in the Pacific by the great W. Eugene Smith near the tail end of World War II.

In April 1945, LIFE magazine published one of the most memorable cover images of its four-decade run as a major photographic weekly. The picture, made in March 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima by W. Eugene Smith, captures the deliberate violence inherent in all war as graphically as any photo ever published in LIFE. At first glance just another explosion in a war filled with millions of explosions, the picture grows more extraordinary the longer one gazes at it.

For its part, LIFE described Smith’s picture this way:

The scene of demolition on Iwo Jima symbolizes the saga of battle that in years to come will take on the epic quality of Roncevaux, Agincourt and Gettysburg. Blown up into this column of smoke is a blockhouse and some stubborn Japs who would not leave their hiding place, although invited by the Marines to surrender quietly.

Here, LIFE.com presents not only the full, uncropped photograph, but an entire series of other photos — many of which never ran in LIFE — that Smith made on that sterile volcanic outcropping in the South Pacific, where thousands of men were fighting to the death as the long world war was winding to its grisly close.

Marines crouch behind hillside rock while blowing up a cave connected to Japanese blockhouse in WWII action on Iwo Jima, 1945.
W. Eugene Smith—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The cover of that April 19, 1945, issue of LIFE is remarkable on a number of levels. For instance, aside from the LIFE logo and the most rudimentary information—the issue date, the price—there is no language, no text, no cover lines. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 2,000 LIFE covers ever published have at least some words letting the reader know what he or she is looking at, even if it’s something as straightforward as “Basketball,” or “Florida” or “Summer Fashion.” But the Iwo Jima cover has absolutely nothing but Smith’s picture.

No words. No descriptors. Nothing.

It’s almost as if, in April 1945, there was no need to let people know that the photograph was made on Iwo Jima. After all, was there anything else on most Americas’ minds that spring besides the war in the Pacific?

And then, of course, as with all of Smith’s photographs, there’s the sheer technical brilliance of the picture: the grim clarity of the scene, despite the chaotic nature of the explosion that serves as the thematic and visual center of the shot; the four Marines, barely visible at first, crouching behind a rock in the lower right of the frame; the terrible, blasted landscape that might have been the inspiration for stage directions in any number of Beckett’s plays—all of these elements cohere into a masterful, one might even say (through clenched teeth) a beautiful portrait of destruction.

LIFE, meanwhile, described the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the island itself, in words that, at times, sound weirdly reminiscent of Tolkein’s unforgettable depictions of the desolate land of Mordor the Lord of the Rings:

Of all the places where American have fought, none looks so much like a poet’s nightmare of a battlefield as Iwo Jima, the bare, ugly, sulphurous spot of land where 4,700 Marines were killed and missing and another 15,308 were wounded. In only one offensive action, Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, has so great a percentage of casualties ever been suffered by American fighting men. On the battlefield of Iwo Jima the Pacific War reached a peak of concentrated ferocity. It was a terrifying distillation of the kind of battle the Marines had learned to fight at Tarawa, Palau and other small but valuable Pacific Islands.

On eight-square-mile Iwo, men rediscovered, as Marine correspondent S/Sgt. David Dempsey wrote, “something that almost been forgotten: there are places where there is no use sending bombs and shells to do a job. Instead, you must send men, alone and willing to die.” The Japs were deadly earnest about keeping Iwo Jima. The Marines took it away from them because the Marines were even more serious about getting Iwo Jima.

For a month Iwo was one of the most densely populated eight square miles in the world, with 10,000 men to the square mile. It then became one of the most densely populated cemeteries in the world, with 20,000 dead Japs and 4,100 dead marines. But Iwo has always seemed a place better suited to death than life. Its southern end is a sulphur-steaming volcano, about as high (546 ft.) as Little Round Top at Gettysburg. This runs into a bottleneck slag heap of fine volcanic dust, which rises toward a plateau about as high as Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, where a little kunai grass and a sickly salt bush grow. At the north end it becomes a jungle of tumbled stone wreathed in clouds of sulphur steam.

All this had been spotted by the Japs with invisible thousands of pillboxes, honeycombed caves and tunnels. Brave men had to go in after the Japs, trading lives for pillboxes. More than half the assault troops became casualties.

W. Eugene Smith—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
LIFE’s W. Eugene Smith, in Marine Corps garb, studies action in distance during Battle of Iwo Jima, 1945. W. Eugene Smith—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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