7:25 p.m. May 6th 1937. Lakehurst, N.J. It was a routine assignment. Assembled as part of a massive PR campaign by the Hindenburg’s parent company in Germany, twenty-two still and newsreel photographers were on hand for the landing of 803-feet dirigible Hindenburg, the largest aircraft ever built. However, this publicity backfired when the airship burst into flames and exploded.
The event was widely reported by film, photographic, and radio media. It was one of the biggest disasters covered by the nascent non-print media. Herbert Morrison’s recorded, on-the-scene, eyewitness radio report (Oh, the Humanity!) became a media catchphrase. However, his recording was not broadcast until the next day. Parts of his report were later dubbed onto the newsreel footage, giving a false impression to many modern viewers that the words and film were recorded together. The print media was not lacking either: the New York Times dedicated 3-pages (below) which included Sam Shere’s above photo. LIFE magazine dedicated a 4-page tribute.
Although many similar photos were taken of the disaster, Sam Shere’s photo became known as “the most famous news photograph ever taken,” a description used by Beaumont Newhall in his The History of Photography. The book, one of the most significant photohistory books, has since become a classic photohistory textbook. Ironically, Shere was reluctant to take the assignment, which was to get shots of the celebrities leaving the airship. Shere recalled: “I had come to think of myself as a “hard news’ photographer, and sort of resented the assignment.” After waiting for over three hours in drizzling rain, Shere saw the explosion; he didn’t have time to put his camera to his eye–he shot the iconic image from the hip.
As with subsequent mass media events of the increasingly tech-savvy century, the Hindenburg disaster was culturally alluded to several times, the most obviously by the English rock band, Led Zeppelin. The group’s eponymous first album has a picture of the Hindenburg disaster on the front cover.
Other photographers who made iconic Hindenburg shots that day: Charles Hoff of the New York Daily News; Gus Pasquarella of the Philadelphia Bulletin; Bill Springfield of Acme-NEA; Jack Snyder of the Philadelphia Record; Murray Becker, of Associated Press. The World-Telegram carried twenty-one pictures of the flaming Hindenburg and its survivors. The New York Post ran the photographs over seven editions, the Daily Mirror, nine. The New York Sunday Mirror even ran full color shots in its 23 May issue, taken by Gerry Sheedy on 35 mm Kodachrome.