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Sixty years behind the camera

Elwood Smith remembers a lifetime of photojournalism.


Published in the February 2006 NewsPhotographer magazine.

The fans were tearing Connie Mack Stadium apart, piece by piece, and Philadelphia Daily News photographer Elwood P. Smith watched it all unfold.

"You could see guys carrying whole rows of seats across the field," Smith said in December. "Some people were even tearing up the grass.

It was October, 1970 and the last Phillies game ever played at the old Philadelphia baseball landmark had been repeatedly interrupted by fans storming the field to steal dirt, equipment, signs, whatever. Smith documented the spontaneous demolition that continued well after the game from his spot on the photo platform, high above the field.

"They were crazy!" he said. "They were tearing toilets out."

The pictures he made that night - just like so many of the images he made during his 60-year photo career - were memorable. There were fans silhouetted on the main concourse with others behind them, dancing on the infield. A band of men held a urinal trough in the air like it was a championship trophy. There was an image of the stadium after the assault, looking like a mouth full of broken teeth.

Smith started at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1937 as a copy boy earning $7.56 for a week in which he hustled for six days, including two nights with overtime. He became a mail clerk, cashier and then a bookkeeper.

He joined the Marines, got married, fought in the South Pacific, learned the art of photography and returned to Philadelphia. He became a shooter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and he joined the NPPA in 1946 as a charter member.

"Joe Costa signed me up," he said, referring to one of the organization's founders.

Smith wound up back at the Daily News again, left for a while, and returned for good in 1962.

Along the way, he became a Philadelphia institution.

When Smith retired in November at the age of 86, the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team honored him during a game and presented him with a watch. Teary-eyed Daily News staffers - who never thought the day would come - lined up to have their picture taken with the legend.

Forever clad in 70's era blazers and ties, Smith was a fixture in the newsroom, constantly flirting with the women and joking with the men. He liked to stare into your eyes, flash that big, easy grin and shake your hand just a little longer than necessary, making sure you appreciated his amazingly soft hands.

Every day until his very last night, he shot assignments using a minimal number of frames - a holdover from his Speed Graphic days - but he never missed a moment: Allen Iverson gliding through the air, John LeClair getting slammed against the boards, a grieving mother, an excited politician, a grisly crime scene.

Over the years, he photographed Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Durante, Joey Bishop, Brenda Lee and countless others. He documented Jimmy Hoffa during Hoffa's last visit to Philadelphia

"I made him walking across the street at Broad and Cherry Streets," Smith recalled. "After that, he disappeared."

Smith was a close friend of Grace Kelly's family. On the eve of the Philadelphia actress's marriage to the prince of Monaco, Smith talked his way into the family's home where he photographed Kelly's nieces who would be flower girls in the ceremony.

"The next day, we come out on the front page with a beautiful shot I made of the two kids saying prayers for their aunt," he remembered.

What he most enjoyed about that night, however, was that a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer arrived while Smith was still there, but the family wouldn't let the other guy inside.

Nearly 50 years later, Smith still revels in that victory.

And this is a man with a lifetime of victories. For instance, in 1974, he won the Football Hall of Fame Photo Contest with a poetic image of a perfect circle of Colts lineman staving off Eagles defenders from sacking quarterback Bert Jones. Smith playfully titled the winning picture, "Ring around the Rosie."

"You never saw so much food in your life!" he recalled of the dinner that culminated his weekend celebration in Canton.

Early in his career, he would photograph 2 or 3 college basketball games in one night, making a few frames at one, driving back to the office to process, print and caption, and then dashing off to another. On busy days, he would shoot 5 or 6 assignments.

"I'd think nothing of it," he said proudly.

Smith photographed Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson. 

He frequently traveled to Florida for Spring Training baseball camp. On one occasion, while he was shooting the Phillies in Clearwater, Smith was called to attend the Ali vs. Frazier fight in New York. The paper had arranged a ringside location for him.

"But I get there and do you know who has my spot? Frank Sinatra!" Smith laughed. "I had to shoot from up in the balcony. I still got a good picture of Ali getting one in the jaw, with Frazier in full-stretch."

His greatest passion, aside from his wife Anne, was hockey. Smith started photographing the sport during its professional infancy.

"When I first started covering the Flyers, if they had 5,000 people there, they were lucky," Smith said.

His pictures of toothless bullies bashing each other on the ice were played large in the paper and the readers loved them. The relatively unknown sport was popularized in Philadelphia through his images.

"The next thing you knew, the crowds came and you couldn't buy a ticket," Smith recalled.

Years later, he lost an eye after being struck with a puck. He continued shooting despite having a glass replacement. And he remained a fan of the sport.

On his last day at the paper, Smith - dressed "like a regular gentleman" as always - worked his full eight hours and then turned the lights out in the newsroom, a habit he developed after a lifetime of working the late shift.

Since then, he has traveled a bit, visited with family, cleaned his house and relaxed. His primary job now is being a full-time husband.

"I've always been a full-time husband," Smith countered.
"You can quote that."