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TERRY WOSTER: For some, 1,000 words are better than picture

  Fifty years ago this month I started a college course called "Press Photography.''

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I had just transferred to South Dakota State College from Creighton University, and photography was a sophomore-level course for journalism majors. These days, I suppose the course would be taught with smart phones and various tablets and other handheld electronic devices. Back in my time, the camera of choice was an unwieldy contraption manufactured by Graflex and called a Speed Graphic.

If you've ever watched any old-time movies about the newspaper business, the kind of movies in which the reporters and photographers wear fedoras with PRESS cards in the hatbands, you probably saw the photographers brandishing Speed Graphics. They're pretty impressive looking things, but the one I used was an absolute bearcat to master. (No, I never really did master it. I fought it to a draw, though. I might have ended up with a "B'' for the course. I'd have taken a "C'' just to get out of there.)

The camera I used had two sheets of film, back to back. The film holder fit into a slot in the back of the camera. Once it was in place, a slide was removed to expose the actual film sheet, the camera was focused, the shutter was cocked and then released with a resounding click. The photographer had to remember to replace the slide to avoid letting light get at the exposed sheet of film. The film holder then was removed, flipped over and re-inserted in the camera, and the second sheet of film was ready to go. It wasn't quite an iPhone for ease of handling, but with the right exposure and a steady hand, it worked.

I read an online piece somewhere that talked about how Speed Graphic photographers, with only a couple of sheets of film and a complicated process of changing one sheet for the other, had to be very conservative and alert in their picture-making. Here's what it said:

The cry, "Just one more!" if a shot was missed was common. President Harry Truman introduced the White House photographers as the "Just One More Club."

I missed more than one shot as I fumbled with the film holder, and I ruined more than one image by taking the film holder out of the camera before replacing the protective slide. That made it a little bit like fishing, in that a guy could tell his buddies, "You should have seen the one that got away.''

The photography class was on the top floor of one of the oldest buildings on campus, way in the back of the building. There was a ladder fastened to the wall outside a window in the room, which only made it more difficult not to consider alternative escape routes in case of fire.

The instructor would hand us cameras and send us off to scout around campus in search of decent photos. A big chunk of our final grade came from the photo album we compiled during the semester with the photographs we captured on those outings. We learned to develop the negatives and make the black-and-white prints in big trays of foul-smelling chemicals and under soft, red safe-lights that for some reason didn't ruin the exposed sheets of film.

My first photograph during that class showed three Hobo Day-bearded upperclassmen digging post holes near the Campanile to hold a sign that proclaimed the campus the home of South Dakota State University. The school didn't officially make the change until the next summer, but the Hobo Day guys were making sure motorists passing by on Medary Avenue were aware it was coming. I was pretty proud of the picture I made that day, even though the instructor had many, many suggestions for ways to improve my camera technique.

I'm pretty honest about my limited ability with a camera. I never had the soul of a photographer, never had the natural feel. I'm better off using a thousand words instead of one picture.

Even so, my first newspaper job was as a photographer. I was pretty pumped, but I nearly quit when I walked in the darkroom and there wasn't a Speed Graphic to be found.