Frank E. Cancellare, 75, a news photographer who for more than 50 years covered the greater and lesser events of Washington and the world beyond and did it with an unblinking discipline that produced some of the truly memorable pictures of his time, died yesterday at the Hospice of Northern Virginia in Arlington. He had cancer.
At the end of 1979, Mr. Cancellare retired from United Press International in Washington, where he spent most of his working life. He began his career 52 years earlier in New York City, working as a "squeegee boy" in a darkroom for the old Acme Newsphotos. He later joined United Press, a predecessor of UPI.
As a young man Mr. Cancellare elbowed his way into the very front rank of news photographers, and his assignments reflected his skill: the China-Burma-India theater and the making of the Burma Road during World War II, Capitol Hill, the White House under every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, political campaigns all over the country and presidential trips all over the world, the Preakness Stakes and other famous sporting events.
His most famous picture was of a grinning Harry Truman holding aloft the copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that wrongly proclaimed the Democratic president had been defeated in the 1948 election by Republican Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York.
Mr. Cancellare's numerous awards included a first place in the National Press Photographers Association. His responsibilities included the presidency of the White House News Photographers Association in 1960 and the chairmanship of the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Photo Gallery.
His frequently expressed advice to younger colleagues was, "Kid, don't spin your wheels." By this he tried to convey the necessity of concentrating on what the picture should be, not on the power and celebrity ofits subject. For "Cancy," this meant keeping a certain distance in his personal relations with the personages he regularly covered.
Even in the days of motor-driven 35mm cameras, Mr. Cancellare worked with unusual economy. Where other photographers would shoot a whole roll of 36 frames, he might shoot just two or three pictures. He used to say that a normal working supply of 35mm film could take more pictures than he did during all of the war.
"The camera doesn't make the picture," he used to say. "The photographer does."
Colleagues attributed Mr. Cancellare's skill to his early training with the old Speed Graphic cameras. These cumbersome devices had to be reloaded after each shot. There being few second chances in such a game, the convention was to get one useable picture "in the bag" and then wait for something memorable to happen. Success depended on alertness, stamina and a quick eye.
Combined with the brashness needed in a profession as competitive as Mr. Cancellare's, the Speed Graphic taught many useful lessons. As expressed by Mr. Cancellare, one of these was that "as soon as you get something you want, say, 'Thank you,' and the whole thing breaks up and you're the only one with the picture."
Another involved presetting the focus on the camera. This could be crucial in covering a notorious trial, for example, where the only sure picture was one of the miscreant holding his coat in front of his face. According to Mr. Cancellare, the best procedure was to set the focus for the distance at which the felon was expected to pass. At the right moment, "Cancy" would yell, "Hey, Sam!" -- or whatever. Sometimes this was just enough to cause the bad guy to peek out from under his coat, and the result would be a wonderful picture.
For many years Mr. Cancellare covered the finish of the Preakness. He would station himself along the rail on the infield with his focus set for the near distance. As the horses thundered for home, all eyes would be on them, including those of the police and other security personnel. "Cancy" would roll under the fence, where no one was supposed to go, and wait, as he said, "until it looks like the horses are jumping right out of the frame. Then shoot."
And, so as not to interfere with the race, he would lie there as the horses galloped almost over him.
As for the police, whether at the Preakness or the White House, Mr. Cancellare's practice was never to argue with them. If they tried to keep him away from an event he wanted to cover, he would simply walk around them. This was a prominent part of the advice he passed on to younger colleagues.
Mr. Cancellare, who lived in Arlington, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He went to work for Acme at the age of 18 and transferred to Washington while in his early 20s. In later life he was a member of the Westwood Country Club.
On hearing of his death, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, "Frank Cancellare epitomized photojournalism at its best. He was one of the true originals in his profession, and on top of his superior professional ability he was a prince of a fellow -- a gentleman in every sense."
And George Tames, a New York Times photographer for 40 years, said Mr. Cancellare was "a photographer's photographer. He was unflappable, steady and influenced other and younger cameramen."
Mr. Cancellare's survivors include his wife, Rose, of Arlington, and three sisters, Margie Mastroangelo, Marie Dragonetti and Jenny Caputo, all of Brooklyn.
Mr. Cancellare denied that he ever retired. "I didn't retire," he said. "I quit. I was tired of the 4 a.m. baggage calls and some of the rest of that stuff. I had fun all the time. I made my own fun and loved the parties.