Seventy years ago, Wayne Sherwin’s mother gave him his very own Kodak Brownie Reflex camera.
“I went all over Washington with a streetcar pass taking pictures of things,” said Wayne, who’s 82 now and lives in Bowie, Md. “I snuck in every place I could.”
Wayne visited the Jefferson Memorial when it was a construction site and the statue of Thomas Jefferson was still in pieces. He took the trolley out to Glen Echo Park in Maryland. He climbed the fence at Griffith Stadium to snap a photo of Harry Truman throwing out the first pitch. (“You show me anybody who got that close to the president — without buying a ticket,” Wayne said.)
Nothing made the world look more interesting than seeing it through a viewfinder.
And when Wayne got to McKinley Tech in Northeast Washington in 1951 and joined the school newspaper, he was handed a key that could open nearly every door in town: a Speed Graphic.
“That camera passed you off as a lot of things,” Wayne said.
Big and boxy, with a big flash gun that hung off the side, the Speed Graphic was a serious piece of equipment. When Wayne heard a train had overshot the platform at Union Station, he grabbed the camera and ran the 15 blocks from McKinley. Soon he was ambling through the rubble, snapping away.
Wayne liked going to National Airport when celebrities or politicians would be arriving. When Winston Churchill came to Washington, Wayne pushed the Speed Graphic against the rain-streaked window of the former prime minister’s limousine. He waited four hours to shoot Douglas MacArthur there, too, the general weary after a transcontinental flight with his son.
Wayne made a print and sent it to MacArthur, who dutifully signed it and sent it back.
“The Washington press corps that came to meet him that night were all wearing football helmets,” Wayne said. They’d heard that some of MacArthur’s aides had jostled the scrum of photographers out in San Francisco. Some joker had the idea to borrow equipment from the Redskins. A phalanx of helmeted photographers atop a flat bed truck greeted the general.
Wayne made a picture of that, too.
It’s no surprise that after high school, Wayne became a professional photographer. He did a lot of things, actually. Always obsessed with trains, he became a brakeman on the Pennsy line, the first of several railroad jobs. He joined the D.C. Air National Guard and became its official photographer. Then he went to work for the federal government as the photographer for the Office of Emergency Planning.
The agency needed a photographer to shoot photos of disaster scenes: the wreckage caused by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. Said Wayne: “My bag was always packed.”
After Alaska’s Good Friday earthquake in 1964, Wayne documented the damage, flew back to Washington, developed the film in the basement of the Winder Building, near the White House, then made enlargements for the president.
Wayne remembers thinking, “I took these pictures yesterday and Johnson’s looking at them now.”
Wayne has scanned most of his favorite photos into his computer, and recently I sat with him as he clicked through them: a McKinley Tech pep rally, a quartet of Air National Guard jets flying in close formation, a train chugging through Alexandria’s Potomac Yard, JFK’s funeral procession, a boat tossed against a flood-ruined house . . .
Each a moment in time captured forever.
“I’m just an old-time Washington, D.C., photographer who never became famous,” said Wayne.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.