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Photographing history: Vet looks back at 100 years of Naval photography

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mike Lenart photographs amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge from a MH-60S Knight Hawk helicopter with the "Sea Knights" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22. Kearsarge is the command ship of Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.

SCOTT PITTMAN/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By TYLER H. JONES | LaGrange Daily News, Ga. (TNS) | Published: January 10, 2015

(Tribune News Service) — When LaGrange resident Jane Dorman served in the military during the Vietnam War, she shot a lot of people – but never with a gun. Instead, her weapon in the war was a camera.

Dorman, now a deacon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on North Greenwood Street, was a Naval photographer in Washington, D.C. The Navy is celebrating 100 years of Naval photography, and current and former photographers – including Dorman – are looking back at their heritage and profession.

From 1972 to 1975, Dorman worked at the Naval Photo Center in the Washington Navy Yard processing imagery from other Navy photographers around the world and shooting portrait photographs of senior officers.

“I did all kinds of things. I really did,” Dorman said. “I guess mainly I was doing portrait stuff, but I also did (public relations) photography, some aerial photography, and also dark room stuff.”

The Navy Photo Center where she worked was a centralized location where Naval photographers from across the fleet would send their photographs to be distributed to the public and civilian news outlets.

“It was fully operational,” she said. “All the photographs that were taken in other stations or overseas would come through us, and then be distributed through us. It was sort of a clearing house. It was a pretty massive place, like four stories tall.”

Photography was actually an enlisted, go-to-boot-camp job in the Navy, and was a specialized position – something Sailors call a “rate” – from 1914 to 2006. Sailors with that rate were known as Photographer’s Mates. A multimonth-long school existed for decades at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, but was shuttered and moved to Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland, in 1998. The Photographer’s Rate was merged in 2006 with the other rates of Navy journalist, draftsman and lithographer to create a new rate known as mass communication specialist.

Dorman never went to NAS Pensacola’s photography school, though.

“Before I went into the Navy, I’d already been operating professionally as a photographer for some years,” she said. “There were several of us in my (boot camp) class that wanted to go to the school, so they asked me if I would be willing to go straight to my duty station to open up a spot for people who didn’t have the experience, so I did.”

Still, she said she learned to hone her skills with hands-on training and from other photographers at her duty station.

“In my time (at the Photo Center) I learned so much there, things I don’t think I would have learned in a school – all the different aspects of photography and things,” Dorman said. “But for me, it all came down to personal relationships, and spending months, sometimes years, with a person … it really is like a little city, where you’re sort of in this little bubble because you spend so much of your time there – all of your time if you’re on a ship.”

Todd Beveridge of Charlotte, North Carolina, is a retired Naval photo officer and an advocate for the preservation of Photographer’s Mates’ history. He told the Daily News by phone Wednesday that Naval photographers played an important role in keeping the public informed and telling the Navy’s story.

“Naval photographers help inform the public what the military is up to,” Beveridge said. “Some of them did incredibly heroic things, and they recorded history. Some of these photos are iconic and especially during war time, like World War II, it let the public know all of their efforts at home were worthwhile and we were winning the war.”

Beveridge said it’s the training and specialty that the Navy is known for that made Naval photographers so great at what they do.

“They’re highly trained photographers that understand not just the technical process, but the power and emotion of photography,” he said. “Photography has huge power to influence.”

He explained that the Navy found the need for official photography in 1914 when a cook aboard the battleship USS Mississippi started taking photos of storm damage after a hurricane at NAS Pensacola. Today, Naval photographers consider that cook – Walter L. Richardson – the father of Naval photography. Soon, the Navy realized how valuable the photographs were and established the first photo school there at the air station.

In LaGrange, Dorman said she agrees with Beveridge and the Navy on the importance of Naval photography.

“I think certainly in the 20th century, it had a really major impact in terms of helping people get a picture of what was going on in other parts of the world,” she said. “In that period, during the Vietnam War, military photographers and journalists were about the only way people could get information. There were some civilian news people involved, but in terms of really being in the middle of everything, that was the main way that the civilian world got their information.”

Moving forward to the next 100 years of Naval photography, Dorman said she know she can rely on the Navy to continue to bring the public high-quality, professional imagery.

“In the 21st century, because of all the social media, I think (Naval photography) has a different impact – not necessarily less of one, but a different one,” she said. “If I saw two things: one on social media and one coming directly from a Naval photographer or a Naval reporter, my inclination would be to put more trust in the one coming directly from the military. Maybe that’s naive, but I’m not real trusting of social media, and I think there are more checks and balances because of the necessity of going up the chain (of command).”

Anyone seeking more information about Naval photography may visit the Navy’s official in-house magazine, All Hands, online at www.navy.mil/ah_online or find the magazine on Facebook. A short documentary on Naval photography by All Hands is also available on the magazine’s website by searching the keyword “photography.”

(Editor’s note: Daily News reporter Tyler H. Jones served alongside Naval photographers as an enlisted Navy journalist, but said his experience did not influence his objectivity in reporting this story.)

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©2015 the LaGrange Daily News (LaGrange, Ga.)

U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bounome Chanphouang of Dover, NH photographs a firefighting drill in the hangar bay aboard USS Teddy Roosevelt (CVN 71).
ROGER S. DUNCAN/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

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