As It Happens

Why this photographer brought a 1940s wooden camera to the impeachment inquiry

Renowned photographer David Burnett was just one of dozens of photojournalists in the crowd at the public hearings in the U.S. presidential impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. But he stuck out, because of his World War II-era wooden camera.

It is 'inconvenient and clumsy', and sometimes it even takes a good shot, says David Burnett

David Burnett taking photos Wednesday at the impeachment hearing of U.S. President Donald Trump. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Listen6:34

David Burnett covered the impeachment hearings of former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. He also captured crucial moments of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and has taken photos at every Summer Olympic Games since 1984.

And on Wednesday, he joined a throng of other photographers to capture the opening of the public impeachment hearings against current U.S. President Donald Trump.

But unlike the other photographers, Burnett had to wait a couple of days to see how his photos turned out — because he was using a 1940s-era large-format wooden camera. His photos were still being developed when he spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off on Thursday. Here is part of their conversation.

Why did you take this camera? What was your motivation?

Just to set the record straight — as they might say at one of these hearings — I did also carry a digital camera with me, like, in case news actually breaks out

The big camera for me is a kind of a self-inflicted challenge. I started shooting maybe 15 years ago, around the time of the 2004 Olympics. And I was looking for some other manifestation or artistic form of using cameras to take pictures, and that the pictures will represent an event.

[By 2002] pretty much everybody working in the press who had to get a picture and do something with it quickly had gone to the then digital cameras. And I had this feeling that ... the look of those pictures, based on the kind of lenses that we all were sharing at that time, there was a sameness to that — while the pictures were different, there was kind of a stylistic thing that was bugging me.

And I wanted to just see if I could find something else. I started shooting this 4x5 film. And all of a sudden it was not only inconvenient and clumsy, but it occasionally actually made a pretty good picture. 

The camera is quite beautiful. It's wooden, isn't it? 

This camera is a real piece of artwork. It's called the Aero-liberator. And the guy who made it is one of these guys that I kind of refer to as the mad scientist of our photo world. His name is John Minnicks.

Essentially, he's taking a 75-year-old camera, stripping the black leather off of it down to the wood, putting a lens on it from a 1943 or 1944 World War II aerial reconnaissance camera that was not only beautiful, but it was fast — meaning you could shoot it in low light.

And he called it the Liberator, he said, because this is a camera that you can hand-hold. You don't need a flash. You don't need the tripod. So I just had to have one. 

You covered Nixon's impeachment hearing, didn't you? 

I was around in '73 and '74 for the Watergate hearings, which led to Nixon's resignation. And in '98, I was still living in Washington, D.C., when they tried to get Bill Clinton for having lied under oath. So the whole impeachment thing is kind of a curious beast. The Nixon era, you had both people from both parties saying that there's something odd here, there's something that isn't right. Nowadays, it seems to be a little bit more on party lines. But whatever it is, it is the thing of the moment. 

Burnett in Tehran in 1979, and now. (Submitted by David Burnett)

But it is, as you say, a thing of the moment. Everybody else's pictures are already in some newspaper ... wrapping fish someplace. 

Those are the pictures of yesterday's moment. Mine'll be the pictures of tomorrow's, because I think that's when I get my film back. 

As wonderful as the camera is, in the end, it is a former ambassador, a diplomat, some State Department official. How exciting will these pictures actually be?

I'm not shooting for the wire services. But if I shoot it, yeah, I don't want it to just sit around forever. I'd like to see it. But I mean, my lab is now turning stuff around in two days. And you have no idea how quick that is. It's really — they're burning the coal all night. 

Burnett aims his large-format customized Aero-liberator at U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor, as he readies to testify at the impeachment inquiry. (Screenshot from NBC video feed)

There's video of you taking a picture, and you see how slow this is as you change the film in order to get another shot. Does it actually force you to focus in a way that maybe the other photographers don't have? 

It is an interesting sort of psychological exercise. I describe it as sometimes working with these cameras is like purposely putting one hand behind your back.

On my camera, you have to focus. You have to make sure the aperture of the lens is set. You have to make sure the shutter is set. You have to load the film holder just the right way. And the mirror has to be down blocking the light coming in. And then you have to pull a dark slide. And there's so many things that can go wrong just because you miss one little step along the way.

And yet, the stuff that's worth doing is worth doing because what you get out of it is something that you feel is special enough. So, I mean, maybe when I look at tomorrow's pictures, I'm going to say, "Wow, that was a real bust." There's about a ... 60/40 chance of that happening, actually.

Because you're right — this is not a situation in which there was so much literal tension in the room and people biting their fingernails. I mean, a few moments, but really nothing that was terribly out of the ordinary.

Except you. Which is why we're talking to you.

Well, that's the first time that happened. But it's fun.

It's like when somebody said ... "What's the key to your career, or your success?" or whatever. And I think I said, you know, "When the chance comes along, don't screw it up too bad. Do the best you can with what you've got. And if it's good, it'll kind of rise to the surface. Somehow."


Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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