Damaged R.B. Graphlex 4 x 5 inch Series B camera: Ray Olson, 'Sunday Sun' war correspondent

Accession Number REL/03894
Collection type Technology
Object type Optical equipment
Physical description Aluminium, Glass, Nickel-plated steel, Wood
Maker Eastman Kodak
Place made United States of America: New York, Monroe County, Rochester
Date made c 1940
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945
Period 1940-1949

R.B. [revolving back] Graphlex 4 x 5 inch Series B camera; a rectangular box camera, made of Honduras mahogany covered with black leather. The right hand side bears a enamelled brass plate giving the model number, a list of curtain apetures, and the maker's name (Eastman Kodak / Folmer & Schwing Dept); a knurled wheel for opening the lens; a nickelled plate with levers for setting the mirror and a winder for setting the apeture; a lower plate contains the controls for the shutter speed.

A small button controls the ability to revolve the film magazine (sized for 4x5 inch film), which is positioned at the back of the camera. This allows the photographer to shoot a horizontal or vertical shot. The magazine has a small external leather sleeve attached to it; this magazine has been pierced and damaged.

The top of the camera houses a hinged wooden lid which is release by a simple spring catch. This in turn releases the focussing hood, a pyramidal reinforced leather arrangement which unfolds from the camera. A leather handle was once rivetted to this lid - it has since been lost.

The front of the camera features another hinged metal door which is released by the previously mentioned knurled wheel. This wheel can be further turned to allow the lens to run along a toothed rail. The lens is a Cooke-Luxor 5¾ inch Anastigmat, serial number 97459.

On the base of the camera is a brass plate with a list of patent dates for the R.B. Graflex; the last date is for a Canadian patent dated 1913. The base also has a screw fitting for a tripod.

History / Summary

In late October 1945, after the surrender of the Japanese on 14 August 1945, correspondent and photographer for the Sydney Herald newspaper 'The Sunday Sun and Guardian', Ray Olson, was sent to Sourabaya in Java. Olson had just completed an assignment photographing the destruction of the Balikpapan oil fields (see AWM photographs 118777 to 118787) and was sent to the Javanese city to cover the recent movement for Indonesian independence.

What Olson was to experience was the worst and most terrifying four days of his life. In the account of his experience published in 'The Sunday Sun' on 24 November, 1945, Olson writes that he came close to death on a number of occasions over the period October 28 and November 1, when he found himself caught up in the preliminary skirmishes of the Battle for Sourabaya.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, when it seemed the Dutch were attempting to return to the pre-war status quo after 145 years of colonialism, and with military aid and intervention coming from the British, the Indonesian people decided that enough was enough. They had just endured three years of Japanese occupation and were in no mood to compromise. Indonesian nationalists declared independence.

The arrival on 28 October of British and Indian 49th Brigade forces under the command of Brigadier A.W.S. Mallaby as a result of this declaration only served to bring these simmering tensions to a head. Mallaby's death (variously reported as the work of a sniper, a shell or rioter) on 30 October precipitated a leaflet drop by RAF planes which stated that there would be reprisals. This provoked a violent reaction of rioting and atrocities in which Olson found himself at the centre.

Shot at when his party of journalists exited the Liberty Hotel, Olson was forced to return to the hotel where they had 33 Indians soldiers as protection. They were under siege for 26 hours. "The mob was armed with rifles, Jap machine-guns, and grenades," Olson recalled, "One of the grenades thrown into the hotel fell within a few feet of where a small party of us were crouching. … But nothing happened. We found later that it was one from a box of Japanese 'dummies' used for training." The Japanese, after the surrender, had handed their stock of arms to the Indonesians; instead of passing on the weapons to the Allies, the Indonesians had kept them.

After 26 hours, a truce was arranged. "We sat in the dining hall of the hotel in stony silence surrounded by hundreds of fearsome-looking Indonesians armed with spears, swords, rifles, and machine-guns." The truce resulted in the party of correspondents being "slung into a stinking cell. We did not have much hope of getting out alive."

Olson and his companions endured five hours of captivity before they were rescued by a representative of Sukarno, who was rapidly emerging as the hero of the independence movement. Tony Rafty, a cartoonist from the Herald, had met with Sukarno a few days earlier and the two men had got on famously. When Rafty heard that his fellow journalists were imprisoned, he convinced Sukarno to have them set free. A representative of the Indonesian press, Jamel, was sent with the message.

In the meantime, the Liberty Hotel was ransacked by a mob and Olson’s camera, a professional Graphlex Series B, was looted. "There was not even a toothbrush left behind...Jemal turned up at about 8 am on October 30, with most of our cameras and gear, which he had recovered from the looters." But the crowd was still hostile. "I have often read of people 'sitting on a barrel of gunpowder.' I know now what it feels like."

Eventually, after being turned back and deciding to bluff their way out of the city, Ray Olson managed to get back to Australia.

The damage to the Graphlex is evident - the film magazine on the rear of the camera has been pierced by a sharp object at an angle; the hole continues through the magazine to the other side. The exterior of the damage has lost paint.

Raymond Thomas Olson's work mainly seems confined to the 1930s to the late 1940s; he was part of the Herald stable of press photographers, and joined Associated Newspapers as a young man. His name appears against 'Pix' photos in the 1930s and 'Sun Herald' images during the 1940s. He left the Herald in 1947 and started his own business, but in 1953, he died of a heart attack, aged 41. He specialised in colour photography in an era when colour images weren't prolific; a number of his colour photographs feature in the Sunday Sun issues of the paper, both pre and post war. During the Second World War, he was on assignment in Java, Burma, China as well as locally in Australia.