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Remembering Helen Brush Jenkins Tweet This   Forward This

14 June 2013

Earlier this week Helen Brush Jenkins passed away at the age of 94. The pioneering photojournalist got her start in the business when World War II caused a shortage of local photographers.

She went down to the Los Angeles Daily News and applied for the job.

Charlie Judson was on the city desk. Out of desperation, he said, "We'll try you out for a week." [laughs]

Want to know what my first assignment was? Sixteen hundred head of cattle had gotten loose in East L.A. near the stockyard and they sent Sparky Saldana and myself out to photograph!

I wound up riding around on the running board of my car, with Sparky driving, having fights with the cowboys who were mad at me because they figured I was going to stampede the herd. I got one picture of a cow on somebody's front porch and another one chased me around a tree.

Oh, God -- what fun!

She become the only female photojournalist in Los Angeles. "Not only L.A., but in the U.S. and I believe also in Europe." Brush did, however, acknowledge Margaret Bourke-White worked at Life Magazine then, too. And Lee Miller was a war correspondent in the European theater during World War II.

Among her more renowned assignments was shooting the birth of her own child (the photos appears in Life Magazine) and covering the first atomic explosion in Nevada -- from 300 miles away. Talk about blown highlights. She tells that story:

Here's the way I did it. It was 5 a.m. and I had the early shift and it was still dark and so I came in and the city editor called me over and said "They're going to shoot off an atomic blast at 5:25 -- get up on the Daily News roof and see if you can get it." Boy, that's something to figure out.

So we used Speedgraphics 4x5 and I tried to ascertain -- well, this is really a miraculous thing. I was the only one up there. So St. Joseph's Church was right there next to us. So I framed the horizon with the steeple of the church. And it was supposed to go off at 5:25.

I got up there, got my camera set up, pulled the slide from the back and was holding it over the lens. And at about the right time, I took the slide off of the lens so it started to expose. I had it set at f16 and I'm counting. And I get to ten and I said, "Oh, I've got to change the film!"

And boom, it went off! So I got the lights of the city and the steeple of the church on the right hand side, shadowy and here is this huge, huge light that came -- and it made kind of a half-moon, you know?

She had an exclusive, she explains, because the fog came in and nobody else got the shot.

You can see a number of her images, including her daily shots of Lake Michigan taken in her nineties, and hear an interview with her in Flashes of Light, an extended trailer for the upcoming documentary directed by Bryan Carmody on her life:

She lived life "on her terms," as her niece-in-law put it.

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