So the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided to take a look at other photographers who managed to be in the right place at the right time with their cameras.
Such photographs were found in much greater variety than had been expected. The subjects were drawn from all parts of the world. Bombs were shown exploding in war, and a volcano at the moment of eruption. A big Japanese shell was divulged soaring in the air, plain in the picture, though invisible to those behind the gun that fired it. A steamship was caught at the moment it was submerged. A queen’s horses, which had plunged from the low parapet of a bridge, struggled wildly to keep afloat in a French lake. In many instances the photographs were taken as part of thrilling experience…
Those who have passed through such periods of excitement say that a man is likely to do one of three things. He will stand facing the danger, inert and with paralyzed faculties; he will lose his grip on his mind until a great fear seizes him which, in a crowd, means panic, or else he will face the crisis with faculties excited to abnormal acuteness.
The photographers who took the pictures mentioned belonged, almost without exception, to the last-named class. Accident may play a small part, but not a great one. The force of habit has a larger share in it. As an old fireman once described his dangerous duties, they “came naturally, because he had always done it.” In this spirit the photographer is impelled to press the lever of his camera. It requires much less force to do so than to fire an automatic revolver.
What follows then are stories behind those photos. The photographers in the article include Enrique Muller, Herbert Ponting, James Ricalton, Underwood & Underwood, and an anonymous passenger of a steamship who captured a photo of another steamship sinking (seen above). It reminds me of the Staten Island Ferry passenger who took the iconic photo of US Airways Flight 1549 after it landed in the Hudson River.
It’s worth pointing out an interesting paragraph towards the end of the article that describe the beginning of the stock footage industry, where outtakes from journalistic shoots were later used in fictional narrative works:
“Accidental” moving pictures are now usually held in reserve until a story is invented to fit them. Then they become a realistic scene in a series. A moving picture man, for instance, happened to be on the spot when a ship was wrecked off the coast of Florida recently. He obtained a film of the stormy sea, the wreck, Atlantic City. A fire horse collided with and the crew being rescued with a breeches buoy. A story of a castaway was built around it. Those who saw the film marveled at the realistic “faking” of the wreck. One New York manufacturer has a moving picture of a railroad crash on an up-State railroad in a snow storm last Winter. Obtained by accident, he is holding it until a story can be invented for it.”
UNUSUAL SNAPSHOTS TAKEN AT THRILLING MOMENTS: Work of Camera Men with Presence of Mind to Press the Button at Critical Times (PDF)
From August 14, 1910