What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Nothing, but I had the chance and I failed to photograph prominent Washington photographer Arnie Sachs who died of bone cancer on Friday, Nov. 3. He was 78.
Sachs was not a household name, yet you may know his work. He took the photo of then 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking President John F. Kennedy’s hand on July 26, 1963, during the American Legion Boys Nation’s visit to the White House.
In professional circles he is known for introducing the use of 35mm cameras to the White House press conference during the Eisenhower administration and pioneered satellite photo transmissions in the early 60s and the White House News Photographers Association honored Sachs with the lifetime achievement award for still photography in 2001.
As this election entered its last throws in the past weeks, Sachs came back into my mind.
In 1973, he gave me work with his Consolidated News Pictures Inc. It was co-located with the Congressional Photo Shoppe at 308 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C., just a few blocks east of Capitol Hill. It was a second-story business above a barbershop and deli, directly across the street from the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress.
He started by having me shoot new apartment complex interiors and exteriors. I shot using his Hasselblad. I used a very wide-angle lens for the interiors. He was leery of it, being very worried of distortion that could be introduced into the pictures.
Soon after he called me to shoot for him again. I knew that he liked my work because on the wall of the stairwell leading up to the store, he displayed about 10 large prints representing the work of the agency. The first two prints were from my first assignment and a third was farther up the staircase.
I nearly blew an assignment, however, when he sent me to the Israeli Embassy to photograph the ambassador. I didn’t have a flash, and the desk in the ambassador’s office was in front of a large set of windows causing a severe backlight situation. Sachs groused about the problem of an apparent near silhouette. But instead of firing me or refusing to use me again, he challenged my talent by sending me to the darkroom with my roll of negatives and instructions to make best of them. I worked for quite awhile before I got an acceptable print, then with a few more sheets of paper I produced a good image.
At the same time, but on my own, I covered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 57th International 500-Mile Sweepstakes, on May 28, 1973, representing the Albuquerque News. My focus was on the hometown boys involved in the race: The Unser brothers, Bobby -- in the middle of row one -- and Al -- in the middle of row three, and Johnny Caples, chief mechanic for Joe Leonard’s car was also part of the coverage.
That was the year of the terrible first-lap fiery accident that so badly injured rookie David "Salt" Walther. The event was delayed by rain the next day, and Gordon Johncock eventually won on the third day in a rain-shortened race. Two other drivers were killed that year at the speedway: Art Pollard in practice and Swede Savage during the race.
I had concentrated on the Unser brothers at the front of the pack as the accident unfolded back in the sixth row. I could not see the front stretch and only could see the tops of the low-slung cars that slid into the infield below the pavement after the accident. I was presented with little to photograph, and I hadn’t caught the high drama.
I had fired off three shots at the end of the accident. they showed, what I have come to believe was the bravest act I have captured on film: race driver Wally Dalenbach in car 62 sliding into the infield of turn one, just past the overturned drivers section of Walthers 77 car.
Dalenbach had been in the middle of row seven, directly behind Walther. At the start of the race, A.J. Foyt Jr. jumped the start by pulling up from row nine, prior to arriving at the start/finish line’s yard of bricks, from directly behind Dalenbach and to pass the seventh row into the row six. There were then four cars wide in row six. The three cars assigned to the row were: Billy Vukovich, car 2, Salt Walther’s 77 and Jerry Grant, car 48. As the row squeezed right, Walther’s right front tire contacted Grant’s left rear tire. Walther’s car went airborne, flipping into the high catch-fence. A fuel tank ruptured, spraying almost 35 gallons of fuel into the crowd injuring, about a dozen spectators when it ignited.
When Walther’s car came back down to the track, the front end was gone and his feet were exposed. The car was inverted and was then struck by another car, which spun him around several times, shearing off the right rear tire; more fuel spilled and ignited, engulfing the width of the racetrack.
According to an unofficial Indy Motor Speedway web site http://indymotorspeedway.com/500d-73.htm, Walther came to rest right in front of Dalenbach. "I had the gloves on, so I grabbed the hottest thing, the turbocharger, which was one of the corners that was grabable," Dallenbach said. "We flipped it over and I didn't want to see him because I knew I had to race. So I just walked away."
My photographs show a slightly different account, however. Dallenbach slid past Walther, he ran back to the overturned car that was still on fire and into the invisible methanol flames. He grabbed what was left of the right rear axle. The turbocharger was mounted on the left side of the McLaren-Offy engine that was now upside down. Dallenbach lifted the car to almost 90 degrees before the half shaft appeared to break. Walther's car fell back on its top. Moments later several safety personnel, fire fighters and rescue workers arrived, extinguished the fire, turned over the car and extricated a badly burned Walther.
Walther spent several months in the hospital, slowly rehabilitated and returned to race the next year.
A couple days later, I had my negatives processed at the Congressional Photo Shoppe. Upon reviewing my negatives, Sachs had expected to see shots of the accident and said I had an obligation to picture the carnage as news. I had gotten what I could of the incident. These photographs have never been published, mainly because I had not stayed for the third day of the race and cover the entire event.
However, I did fulfill my assignment for the Albuquerque News which published a picture page of the Unsers and Caples, but not the accident, on June 14, 1973 with the headline, “Frustration Mars 'Indy' for Bob, Al.”
In spite of what Sachs saw in my lack of sports timing, he hired me full time as a darkroom technician at his shop in early July 1973.
With only a couple of weeks on the job for him, I chose to leave photography. I had previously applied for work at several law enforcement agencies and I was offered a deputy sheriff’s commission in Prince Georges’ County, Maryland. Sachs was a Democratic Party volunteer in Prince George's County and knew Sheriff Don Edward Ansell. Sachs suggested that I pursue my law enforcement interests.
I last saw Sachs in 1990. We talked about my decisions and how in spite of being a police officer, I was still involved in photography and videography. He supported both my decisions to go into law enforcement and to continue photography.
It occurred to me recently to contact Sachs. I wanted to see whether he had certain negatives in his archives that he might scan for my own files. I had photographed the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. in the spring of 1973. At the time, it might have been Yitzhak Rabin. My research shows that Rabin was Ambassador until Simcha Dinitz replaced him. I wasn’t sure which one I photographed. I didn’t contact Sachs; I wish I had.
Sachs passed his talents on to his son, Ronald, who is photographing for the Consolidated News Pictures Inc.