Hindenburg, May 6, 1937

Figure 1 – Hindenburg Disaster by Sam Shere, Zeppelin the Hindenburg on fire at the mooring mast of Lakehurst (United States of America) 6 May 1937. Ballast water is thrown down. Exit airships.From the Wikipedia, from Flickr Commons, Nationaal Archief/Spaarnestad. In the public domain in the United States.

One of the most famous of news photographs ever taken was Sam Shere’s (1905-1982) image of the Hindenburg disaster that occurred on May 6, 1937, eighty years ago today and shown in Figure 1. Sam Shere famously said of the moment: “I had two shots in my big Speed Graphic, but I didn’t even have time to get it up to my eye. I literally ‘shot’ from the hip–it was over so fast there was nothing else to do.”  He was awarded the Editor and Publisher Award for best news picture for 1937 for this photograph.

There were ninety-seven people on board and thirty-six casualties including one worker on the ground. Equally, iconic is Herbert Morrison’s iconic reporting of the terrible moment. (Click here to hear it.)

“It’s practically standing still now they’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) they’ve been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again; it’s… the rain had (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from…It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it – I can’t even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It’s… it… it’s a… ah! I… I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it’s just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. I… I… I’m sorry. Honest: I… I can hardly breathe. I… I’m going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that’s terrible. Ah, ah… I can’t. Listen, folks; I… I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Shere’s photograph is truly one of the most famous images in the history of news photography. It is, in fact, the case in modern times that our collective memory is defined and frozen in these great images of “newsworthy” events. They actually define the news. Indeed. In 2001 as I watched the news image, the live reporting, of the World Trade Center attacks, Shere’s picture from another generation kept coming to my mind. It is so ingrained in the pantheon of human imagery.  

Again, I can vividly remember two and three decades later watching dirigibles pass overhead in New York City. Today’s Goodyear Blimp, the icon of modern day sporting events, is the magical heir of those great airships.

This entry was posted in History of Photography.