We’ve All Seen His Photograph, But Never Heard of Him
Waiting for the “Hindenburg” to arrive at its mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey, were about 22 still and newsreel cameramen. Practically all of them took pictures of the disaster. Nearly all of the still photographs are practically identical to each other; certainly it would be impossible to assess authorship from the intrinsic nature of the images. Merely as a few examples, we can name several photographers whose pictures of the “Hindenburg” crash are as similar to Shere’s as two peas in a pod: Charles Hoff of the New York Daily News; Gus Pasquarella of the Philadelphia Bulletin; Bill Springfield of Acme-NEA; Jack Snyder of the Philadelphia Record. Then there was Murray Becker, of Associated Press, whose picture of the disaster was selected for publication in Great News Photos.
In fact there was almost a surfeit of pictures, by so many photographers, of the Hindenburg crash; perhaps never before had a disaster been so thoroughly documented by the camera. The next morning, the New York newspapers were full of the images; the World-Telegram carried no less that 21 pictures of the flaming Hindenburg and its survivors. The New York Post ran the photographers over seven papers, the Daily Mirror, nine. The story, and the pictures, appeared in newspapers everywhere. The New York Sunday Mirror even ran full color shots in its 23 May issue, taken by Gerry Sheedy on 35 mm Kodachrome.
Any one of these photographers might have taken the image of the “Hindenburg” explosion which is so clearly etched in any viewer’s mind. More likely, our memory is an amalgam of several pictures by different photographers seen over the years in different circumstances.
But it is Sam Shere’s image which is featured in The History of Photography and for this reason it is appropriate to add a few details of his life and career.
Sam Shere - Born Samuel Shereshewsky, in Minsk, Russia, c.1904, Shere was brought to America by his orthodox Jewish parents and grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City. His father was a hat maker, who wanted his son to be a doctor. Unfortunately, young Samuel could only tolerate school until the seventh grade.
His first job was carrying a tripod for Pathe News cameramen, at a wage of a $1/day + lunch. After following the cameramen to five-alarm fires, naval yards, and parades, he was settled in his career. He wanted to be a news photographer.
Resigned to young Sam’s choice of a profession, his father bought him a 4x5 inch Speed Graphic camera, the standard equipment for a newspaper photographer at the end of World War I (1918). Within a year, Sam had sold his first photograph: a picture of a young girl walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan during a New York snowstorm. The New York Illustrated Daily News bought the picture for $7.
At this time, however, Sam’s interest in photography was in conflict with his even greater interest in going to sea. He signed on as a mess-boy with oil tankers plying between New Jersey and California via the Panama Canal. Even though he spent most of his time on board ship for the next 10 years he quickly found that life at sea was not incompatible with professional photography. He soon had an on~ship darkroom and managed to freelance during stays in port.
One of these stays lasted for a year, in 1923, when Sam Shere (the name had been abbreviated the previous year) became a photographer for the New York Evening Graphic for $50/week. But he was soon missing the smell of the sea, and signed aboard the S.S. George Washington as ship’s photographer. After one transatlantic crossing, he visited Germany and bought one of the new Leica 35 mm cameras, for $42 “and spent the next few years on the other end of ridicule, enduring sarcastic remarks and innuendoes from American news photographers who regarded the Leica as a ‘toy’.”
In spite of the constant ribbing, Shere persisted in carrying the Leica everywhere, along with the Speed Graphic, and is now credited with pioneering the use of the discreet 35 mm camera in American news photography.
In 1926, he became ship’s photographer for the S.S. Leviathan (flagship of the United States Line). He made good money for those days, earning $300-400 per round trip across the Atlantic, by selling pictures to the passengers as momentos of the voyage, public relations shots for the shipping line, portraits of notable passengers, and scenics of icebergs and storms.
Altogether Shere made 126 crossings of the Atlantic on the Leviathan. While disembarked in Europe, waiting for the return voyage, he began freelance work for the prestigious International News Photo (INP), a part of the
William Randolph Hearst publishing empire. In 1934, Shere left the sea to take a full time position with INP It was also the year that Shere’s persistence with the Leica led to a celebrated scoop. During the first arraignment of Bruno Richard Hauptmann a suspect in the Lindberg kidnapping case, Shere smuggled his small camera into the court room and, unnoticed, shot exclusive pictures of the proceedings.
The Leica was also used the following year for a major story on the inside Sing Sing prison. Shere claimed that the series would have been a total failure if it had not been for the speed, ease and silence of the miniature camera.
“(It) gave me mobility and did not attract much attention from the inmates. I was able to film, for the first time, candid shots of the prison’s rock pile, fire department, flag making shop, a cell block, the prison parade, the warden’s office, the execution chamber and adjacent autopsy rooms... My ‘toy’ was gaining its place in news photography through these series.”
By 1937, the date of the Hindenburg’s explosion, Shere had paid his dues as a news photographer, withboth 4x5 inch and 35 mm formats. He was not only in the right place at the right time, but also he was “primed” to take picture advantage of every situation, such as Hindenburg’s arrival.
Ironically, Sam Shere was reluctant to take the assignment, which was considered a routine one. He had been assigned by his editor at INP to get some good “society type” shots of the celebrities leaving the airship.
“I had come to think of myself as a “hard news’ photographer, and sort of resented the assignment,” Shere recalled. “I just wanted to get my pictures and get out of there.”
After waiting for over three hours in drizzling rain, the airship came into view through the evening murk.
Suddenly the dirigible exploded.
“I had two shots in my big Speed Graphic,” Shere said. “But I didn’t even have time to get it up to my eye. I literally ‘shot’ from the hip - it was over so fast there was nothing else to do.” Out of 4 x 5 film, Shere switched to his Leica and began taking shots of the passengers and crew members fleeing the wreckage. “Only one of these pictures – because they were so ghastly and graphic, were ever used...”
Asked to comment on the significance, and fame, of his photograph, Shere replied: “Many photographers got similar shots. I guess I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I don’t really think it my most singular feat.”
After 1937, Shere’s career as a news photographer was extraordinarily varied. A few highlights include: a story on the return of Wrong-Way Corrigan using carrier pigeons to deliver negatives from the SS Manhattan to New York (1938); photographing the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated his throne, in the Bahamas (1940); an Atlantic Air Patrol which was cited as the most outstanding news event of the year (1941; the World War II invasion of Sicily (1942); several stories for Life beginning more than a decade of work for this magazine (1943); the Lepke execution and Dewey presidential campaign (1944); VE Day reaction and Pearl Harbor investigation (1945); death of Al Capone (1947); construction of the SS United States (1948).
Sam Shere shot his last assignment in Ireland at the age of 75 and died in poverty in government housing on July 8, 1982.
Sometimes we toil away at our profession, do it well, but go unnoticed. Sam Shere “invented” 35 mm photojournalism, took one of the most famous photographs in history and died virtually alone and penniless. What a shame.