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March 2, 2024

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Mount St. Helens: Reid Blackburn and an array of equipment were lost; a notebook survived

A photographer's final assignment

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
4 Photos
Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn adjusts one of two remote-controlled cameras on Mount St. Helens in 1980.
Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn adjusts one of two remote-controlled cameras on Mount St. Helens in 1980. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Columbian photographer Reid Blackburn made a slight revision to the cover of his notebook that explained his role on Mount St. Helens 36 years ago.

In a spot for his contact information, Blackburn filled in the line for his telephone number with KA7AMF: his amateur radio call sign.

As a professional photographer and ham radio operator, Blackburn was just the right guy for a collaboration that included The Columbian, National Geographic and the U.S. Geological Survey. It was a photo project in which the Kentucky Derby, of all things, played a small role.

Blackburn, one of 57 people to die in the eruption, was loaned to National Geographic to operate a pair of remote-controlled cameras. One was with the 27-year-old photographer at the camp dubbed Coldwater I, about 8 miles northwest of the volcano. The other camera was to the east, above Spirit Lake. As a licensed ham operator, Blackburn could fire both cameras at once with a radio transmitter.

The cameras were advanced Nikons, former Columbian photo editor Steve Small said.

“We checked them out from Nikon Professional Services, a special account for professional photo-journalists,” he said. “They were not even in production.”

The cameras had auto-focus and 250-exposure film capacity as well as remote-control technology. “Now all these things are common; in those days, they were rare.”

The original plan called for a network of five cameras, but there weren’t enough to go around that May. Several of the remote-controlled cameras wound up instead in Louisville, Ky., photographing the Kentucky Derby.

Blackburn was our man on the mountain, but Small and fellow Columbian photographers Ralph Perry, Dave Olson and Jerry Coughlan helped set up the equipment.

Nikon’s two loaner cameras were mounted on heavy-duty studio tripods. “One of the tripods was mine,” said Small, who now lives in Florida.

Each camera unit was powered by a car battery. Both cameras were placed inside Styrofoam ice chests, Small said, “to protect them from the elements.”

It wasn’t enough to protect the cameras from the pyroclastic surge, however.

Small was uninsurable when it came to photo gear, but he didn’t have to write a large check to Nikon after the eruption.

“I was worried about that,” Small said. “I didn’t have a policy. I had trashed so many cameras that I couldn’t get insurance.”

Small elaborated on what “trashed” meant: “Drop them in a forest fire from an airplane, things like that.

“Ralph took care of that by insuring them on his policy at the last minute,” Small said. Without Perry’s insurance policy, “It would have been like $18,000 for both cameras.”

While none of his images survived, Blackburn was able to safeguard his notebook. The first Sunday entry at 7:11 a.m. shows he triggered his cameras once, with the comment: “Totally clear, no activity.”

Based on the other two entries on the May 18 page, Blackburn was still shooting photographs after the volcano’s initial eruption. He fired off a two-shot sequence and logged it as 8:33 a.m.; he took another two-shot sequence a minute later, logging it at 8:34 a.m. There was no time to write comments. He locked the notebook inside his radio transmitter case and took shelter inside his Volvo.

Blackburn’s body was recovered four days later.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter