For the amateur photographer, trying to set up for a portrait with a digital camera is sort of like showing Wolfgang Puck how to microwave a TV dinner.
Lederhandler, now 88 and living in a condominium in Hackensack, took some of journalism’s iconic photographs in his 66-year career with the Associated Press. He shot everything from D-Day to 9/11, from Fidel Castro to Queen Elizabeth, from Mickey Mantle to Rocky Marciano, and along the way he even got a shot of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan posing with the Elmo the Muppet.
But there I was, trying to position Lederhandler for a photo. I know a thing or two about f-stops and apertures and film speed, but none of them would come into play here, as I was going to let the light meter of the fancy-shmancy sissy Minolta I was using take care of the actual craft.
It felt like blasphemy to be doing this to the guy at whom, according to legend, Winston Churchill barked, "Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes," as he shot financier Bernard Baruch in Churchill’s apartment.
In this photo of the 1980 Columbus Day Parade in Manhattan, Lederhandler captured nine acrobats in the air at once. PHOTO BY MARTY LEDERHANDLER, COURTESY AP.
And Lederhandler in his day was great at doing just that, getting himself in position to take the perfect shot at the perfect time. When Fidel Castro visited the United Nations in 1960 for the General Assembly, it was Lederhandler who was in position when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sidled up next to the Cuban communist and gleefully wrapped his arm around him.
"I stayed close to Castro, and when Khrushchev came up, everyone crowded around us, and no one else could get the shot," he tells me as he flips though a series of photographs that he will show to the Jewish War Veterans post #741 on Sunday.
Lederhandler got the shutterbug as a kid. When he was 13, he and his older brother Harry, who would later become the chief photographer for UPI, started fooling around with a photo enlarger in the basement of the Boro Park pharmacy where they worked. Harry got a job working as a messenger for the AP, carrying film cartridges from the single load fixed focus Speed Graphic that press photographers used in the 1930s back to the AP. In 1936 Marty joined him. Together they bought a used Speed Graphic for $30 or so, and on the weekends or whenever the AP was short-staffed and needed a photo in a pinch, young Marty would shoot.
His first AP picture was a shot on the George Washington Bridge. He climbed up into bridge’s support wires, aimed his camera up, and snapped, and from the angle it’s impossible to tell if he is looking up or down.
"I was paid $3 for that photo," he recalled."
But he didn’t even get paid for his first famous picture. Drafted in 1941, he ended up in the Army’s Photo Corps with the Fourth Division Infantry the same unit with which ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff was embedded when he was seriously hurt last week. A few days before D-Day, Lederhandler was assigned to shoot the impending attack. The plan was to cross the English Channel with the army and send film back to the English side via carrier pigeon.
The way Lederhandler tells it, though, the attack was called for June 5, 1944, but because of bad weather, Roosevelt delayed it to June 6. The thing about pigeons, he says, is that they need exercise in order to fly. A pigeon can stay in a cage for two days without exercise and still be able to fly. The delay, however, kept the birds cooped up for an extra day. So, when Lederhandler packed his pigeon’s film-carrying case with his film and captions and tossed the bird into the air, it simply fell to the ground and wandered off. He did this with two pigeons, losing the film forever or so he thought.
A few weeks later, his division invaded a German outpost in France, and Lederhandler found a local German newspaper, Laufitzer Zeitung. On the front page was one of Lederhandler’s shots, credited and all.
"I was shocked," Lederhandler recalls fondly. "They must have seen the caption and assumed I was a nice German boy."
When he was discharged, he returned to the AP, and was named a staff photographer in 1947 a post that he held until ’00’, shortly after he took what will most likely be his last iconic shot.
On 9/11, when the rest of the press was literally running downtown to get as close to Ground Zero as possible, Lederhandler, who was 84 at the time, realized that he could not make the foot journey. Instead he went to the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center, near the AP’s offices.
From there, he took a photo that has been used over and over in papers around the world, that made the cover of New York Magazine the week after 9/11, and that was on the cover of the best-selling book "September 11, ‘001."
Set against the cloudless New York skyline, it shows the Empire State building in the foreground and the smoldering Twin Towers off to the right as smoke wafts across the sky to the left.
Lederhandler stores his keepsakes and old photographs in a series of envelopes, and as he looks for a photo of which I am particularly fond one of seven Santa Clauses directing traffic as two others resuscitate an elderly man who had been hit by a car history flips in front of my eyes: Arthur Ashe taking his trophy as he becomes the first black to win a U.S. Tennis Open; the bank robber Slick Willie Sutton smoking a cigarette in prison, looking debonair and sinister at once, who when Lederhandler asked, "why do you rob banks, and not homes," the thief replied, "Because that’s where the money is"; the boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter standing over Florentino Fernandez as he falls out of the ring. "There’s my buddy," he says as he pulls out one of himself and Mohammed Ali, taken by someone else.
Here is Marty Lederhandler, who calls history his first hand memories, who never lost his eye, but left the AP only because the speed of the news these days and digital photography, just made it a little too hard for him to keep up in his mid 80s.
"You had to look for the shot," he says of the way photography used to be, when cameras didn’t take ’00 shots a minute, when each frame was more precious than it is today. "You have to feel it about to happen . Wait, wait, wait then capture the moment."
And here I am, setting up a photo of this guy, with a faux single lens reflex camera.
"What kinda film do you have in there?" he asks.
"I don’t, it’s digital," I reply sheepishly.
"That’s okay," he says, smiling.
"No it’s not," I answer.