The Wow Factor – May 18, 1980

The eruption of at 8:32 a.m. Sunday May 18, 1890 killed 57 people and still is considered one of the deadliest and most destructive natural disasters in United States history. The “Wow Factor” as I see it, besides the actual event itself,  is how Longview Daily News photographer Roger Werth’s powerful photograph of the mountain exploding that’s been reproduced hundreds, maybe thousands of times world wide since then, became the cover photo on the June 2, 1980 edition of Time Magazine. To me personally, the “Wow Factor” was when I first saw the image.

Time magazine cover photo by Roger Werth

First off, it’s the tale of two newspapers – The Journal American in Bellevue Washington and Longview Daily News in Longview Washington clsoe to Mt. St. Helens and about 130 miles south of Bellevue. Both papers were owned by John McClelland’s Longview Publishing Company. The two newspapers had teams of young, dedicated journalists and editors who understood the power of the moment.

Second, it’s the story of how, under difficult circumstances, we maximized contemporary technology to be able to make a color image of the “The Big Blowup” available to Time Magazine in time for their June 2 edition that hit newsstands the Thursday after the mountain blew.

Thirty six years later Roger Werth and I discussed that day in history earlier this year. We needed to refresh our collective memories about that day and just how frantic and dangerous – for Roger at least – the situation was. We also talked about the technology advancements since then that have made our experience seem so primitive.

I was a staff photographer at the Journal American in Bellevue Washington scheduled to work that Sunday. Roger in Longview was on alert to fly since geologists had predicted the mountain looked like an eruption was imminent.

In preparation for a possible eruption the Journal American had arranged for a commercial color film processor in Belleuve to have someone available 24/7  if and when the mountain blew. We had coordinated with our flagship paper in Longview  to have Roger’s color film flown to Bellevue to be processed. Roger said he shot both black and white film and color transparency film during the event from a twin-engine, low-wing aircraft. He said even just a half-mile from the exploding mountain there was “no turbulence, it was very smooth flying.”

No cell phones, no wi-fi, no internet in 1980.   It was all land line communication and pagers. After I got the heads up late Sunday morning that Roger’s film was on its way I drove to the small airport  that no longer exists near Eastgate just north of the 148th ave interchange with I-90 to wait for the plane arrive.  I then drove the film to the processor who had been alerted then an hour or so later picked up the approximately dozen sleeves of processed color slide film.

To see that film for the first time under a 4X Lupe on a light table at the newspaper was one of my most memorable experiences as a photojournalist. I think I said “Wow” several times during the edit. History literally spread out in front of me over two light tables. Roger’s shoot covered the mud flows and devastation from the initial blast, but the one picture that stood out during the edit was the picture that ended up on the cover of Time magazine as well as covers of both the Journal American and Longview Daily News Monday morning May 19.

After color separations of the images we used in our local editions were finished Sunday night the film was packaged up and flown to New York  and photo agent Woodfin Camp who negotiated with Time Inc. on Wednesday for Thursday May 22 publication.  Per news magazine edition dating procedures “The Big Blowup” edition was dated June 2.

Roger told me the $10,000 fee Time Inc. paid for his photo at the time was the most ever paid by the company for a cover photo. Because of the difficult logistics and communications in those days, Roger said Time had no choice but to pay Woodfin Camp’s price – it was the best picture of the explosion available and in their hands soon enough to reproduce it on the cover for Thursday’s publication.

Today, “The Wow Factor” during major news events seems to happen in mili-seconds compared to our experience with the technology of 36 years ago.  Today, Roger could have boarded that twin-engine airplane with a cell phone, shot the event, transmitted the photo to Time Inc. in a matter of minutes or even seconds after he shot it, and his photo may have been tenth or twentieth inline for consideration. The power of his image will never be diminished of  course, but my, how the speed and impact of “The Wow Factor” has changed.