film photography · Film Photography Community · Interview · Nikon Camera · Photo essay

A Snapshot of the Film Community – Lee Dudley and How the Nikon F Took Him from Hell to Heaven During the Vietnam War

Today’s Snapshot of the Film Community is going to be a little different. It is not going to be an interview like usual. In fact, I am not even going to ask this person questions. I will simply let him tell his story. Let me explain.

One of the first videos I created on my YouTube channel was about the Nikon F. In the video (and article) I just talked about my favorite SLR, because it was bringing me so much joy. I created it while I was still recovering from a bad Crohn’s disease related flare up and my face was still very swollen from the high dose of prednisone that was keeping me alive. I am not particularly proud of it, because I knew nothing about making videos at that point. Ironically, that video is my best performing to date.

I have had many comments left on the video, but there was one in particular that recently caught my eye. It was left by a man named Lee Dudley and he mentioned in his comment that he has a Nikon F that he used over in Vietnam. This interested me, because I have been very interested in the photojournalists, such as Don McCullen, that used the Nikon F during the war. I responded and asked him if he was a soldier or a photojournalist over in Vietnam. His reply was amazing to me and I have asked him to share it for this edition of Snapshot of the Film Community.

The Nikon F was a very versatile camera for its day, but I never imagined it could take me from hell to heaven. It was a masterpiece in its day. 

Lee Dudley

How the Nikon F took Lee Dudley from Hell to Heaven

It all started upon my graduation from high school in 1965 when my dear, dear Uncle Sam, not the government one but a real one, gave me my first camera. an Argus C3, alias “The Brick” as a graduation present. It was fascinating to me at the time because you had the ability to vary shutter speeds, lens openings and actually focus.

This Argus C3 was actually my father’s who passed away just a year ago at 98. I sold mine to a soldier earlier but this is the identical camera. In my Facebook I added a similar picture to a short story telling of the fact that most of the pictures of our family in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up were taken with this camera. It had been shelved in the early 70s when my dad bought a Pentax Spotmatic and had not been touched since then. The Mallory batteries you see were still in the flash when I obtained it and not only had they not leaked but still held a 1 volt charge. They were at least 50 years old.

It was fun considering the times and my age. Most of my friends had point and shoots with waist level finders or Instamatics. The thing was that it led me to the local camera shop where SLR’s were appearing on the shelves. Very sleek and professional looking but most of them looked pretty much the same aside from the brand name printed on them.

One did, however stand out from the rest. The beautiful and majestic looking Nikon F with a 50mm f1.4 lens staring right at me. Then came the sad part. The price tag of $404. Considering you could buy a nice new car in those days for about $2200-$2700 it was just a dream. I would be going to school and a toy like that was pretty much out of the question but over the next few years my good friend Ken got drafted and wrote to me that if I was willing to wait for his return he could get me a brand new one for half price.

This Nikon F is the second one I used over there and did almost all of the work. I sold the Nikon my friend picked up for me when one evening, the day before I would be going on R&R to Hong Kong a soldier came to the photo lab and begged me to sell him mine. He didn’t want to go home without a nice camera and he was to leave the next day. He offered me more than enough to cover the cost of a new one and since I was going to Hong Kong I could easily replace it with a new version with the ftn finder. 

So in 1968 I got my Magnificent Nikon F with a 50mm f1.4. Well it wasn’t long till I got drafted. I left my beautiful girlfriend behind, my nearly new ’67 Olds Cutlass, my family and friends, my new job and my Nikon, and found myself in the delta area of South Vietnam.

I would like to make note at this time that my girlfriend, before I left, bought me a Minox spy camera to take with me. If you don’t know what that is you should look it up.

“The Minox C subminiature is the camera my girlfriend gave to me when I left for Vietnam. A kind and loving gesture as these things were expensive. It does still work but I haven’t used it for a long time. I don’t know if the 8mm film cartridges are even available. This is the same camera used in many 1950s spy movies you might see on Turner Classics. The metal chain/lanyard is used to stretch between the camera and a standard 8-1/2X11“ sheet of paper/document to properly crop the image to be copied. Clever huh? It has a working built in light meter that does not require batteries. It focuses to 8” with shutter speeds from 1-1000th of a second with B and T time exposure.”
Photo By Lee Dudley
Taken with the Minox in Vietnam
Lee Dudley “being introduced to an M79 grenade launcher.”
Photo By Lee Dudley
Taken with the Minox in Vietnam
“A soldier that just ran a check on our sighting orientation marker that all of the Howitzers reference from.”
Photo By Lee Dudley
Taken with the Minox
A chinook helicopter leaving the pad.

After being assigned to an artillery battery in a remote area I had my father send me the Nikon, but now instead of shooting pictures with my 35mm SLR, I was now shooting a 105mm Howitzers in the middle of the night. This went on for 5 very long months, but here comes the good part.

Photo By Lee Dudley
Taken with the Minox
the side of a 105mm Howitzer toward the rear of the gun

The Sargent in charge told me one day to accompany a truck driver to headquarters to drop off some paperwork and bring back some items like diesel fuel and rations. I was the guard riding shotgun. I decided to bring the Nikon with me just in case I saw a pretty girl or something.

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

When we got to headquarters, a Captain walked over to me, seeing the Nikon camera hanging from one shoulder and an M16 in my hand and asked me if I knew a lot about photography. I of course said I did, though I really didn’t, but I figured I knew more than most. He then asked if I had ever worked in a darkroom to which I again replied “yes”. I had never seen a darkroom. He told me that they had a photo lab on base and that the soldier that was operating it was due to go home in about a week and wondered if I would be interested in taking over. I would have to take unofficial pictures for the base commander, run the air conditioned photo lab and occasionally drive him to places he needed to go.

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

I have the Nikon F to thank for getting me the recognition from the right person at the right time who noticed me and that wonderful camera.

Lee Dudley
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

The photo lab was actually a recreational place where soldiers would come and I would educate any of them as to how to develop their own film and print their black and white photos. The lab was essentially a mobile home with 4 Omega enlargers, a print dryer and everything needed to easily make pictures. In addition to all of this I was occasionally sent out on an assortment of duties; to take pictures with a ranger squad, the Navy on their PBR river boats, the company doctors who would go to schools and orphanages to examine and treat Vietnamese children, and with helicopters on occasions.

Taken under a pavilion with a 200mm f4
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken under a pavilion with a 200mm f4
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

This was almost a dream come true. I never imagined that one day, make that one night, I would be out feeding artillery rounds to one of the Howitzers, sometimes under fire, to running my own photo lab, teaching myself the trade, and accompanying rangers, sailors, doctors and helicopter pilots, and seeing all kinds of interesting places and making oh so many friends because everyone wanted to come to the lab and everyone wanted pictures to send home. There I was helping them, and in the end I have the Nikon F to thank for getting me the recognition from the right person at the right time who noticed me and that wonderful camera.

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

The next day when I returned to the artillery base the First Sargent called for me and said, “I don’t know how you did it but get your things. You’re going to headquarters.” The Nikon F was a very versatile camera for it’s day but I never imagined it could take me from hell to heaven. It was a masterpiece in its day. 

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
ABC News Photographer
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Duce and a half truck with M60 machine gun, a quad 50cal. On the back and my old 105mm Howitzer on the right.
Photo by Lee Dudley
“Duce and a half truck with M60 machine gun, a quad 50cal. on the back
and my old 105mm Howitzer on the right.”

Final Thoughts

Writing this article, and getting to interact with Lee has quite possibly been the most rewarding experience I’ve had since starting this blog. Growing up I was always curious about the Vietnam War because I saw the profound affect it had on my stepfather and my best friend’s father. I took many trips to the VA hospital with him, and witnessed a lot of the damage the war had done to many people.

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

When first talking to Lee, (Ironically was also my stepfathers name), I was amazed at his sense of humor and ability to talk about his time during the war. I was cautious at first in asking for his participation, because I didn’t want to put him in any uncomfortable position, but I am so grateful that he was so willing and generous in sharing these photos and memories with me. I love these photos so much that I have suggested he create a book.

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

Lee’s experience with photography is a great example of the way this medium can save your life. In his case, it may have been extremely literal, but I know for myself and many others, it has been a lifesaver in so many ways. I want to thank Lee for his service to our country, and thank you all for reading this.

Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F
Photo by Lee Dudley Taken with the Nikon F

To check out my other Snapshots of the Film Community click here. Please sign up to get my articles in your inbox down below.

Lee Dudley
Lee Dudley

Lee Dudley was born in St. Louis Missouri on May 2nd 1947. He married Janice on June 9th 1973. His photography interests began as a result of a high school graduation gift in 1965, his first camera an Argus. He began shooting Nikons in 1968 with the Nikon F Photomic Tn. He spent 7 months as the company photographer in Vietnam in 1969-70.

If you would like to help me out with the cost of film, developing chemicals, and the upkeep of this website, please consider making a small donation. If you would rather purchase one of my zines, that would also help.

Until next time, stay motivated and keep shooting.

14 thoughts on “A Snapshot of the Film Community – Lee Dudley and How the Nikon F Took Him from Hell to Heaven During the Vietnam War

  1. I learned about your blog from Lee’s brother, Steve Dudley, a former neighbor of mine, who is a very talented photographer in his own right.

    Lee is to be thanked for having the foresight, of recording this part of our history for future generations, and, by someone who had “boots on the ground”.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it and to comment.
      I agree, I am so grateful he did so and Part of what made me want to do this with him was the fact that he was a soldier with a camera and not the usually photo journalist which I’ve seen A lot of already.

    2. Thank you Michael, I have wanted to show these for 50 years now but no one wanted to see them when I returned home in 1970. You could see all of the war you wanted on the nightly news so I understand. I felt these were an intimate look at life in the field and I had a good time with these guys. I was very fortunate for the opportunity. ✌️

  2. Outstanding article Aly, the photos and story are perfect , it could be made into an autobiography. Good job

  3. I loved reading this story. I am glad to say that “Uncle Lee” is my mother’s brother and I’m so excited to see this article and hear the great back story. My mother has always adored Lee and I still have a letter from Lee he sent me when I got my first film camera many, many years ago. I still have my Nikon FM2 and always loved to see my Dad’s own Nikon F, as well. It has such a terrific lens. Thanks for putting out this article and for sharing my Uncle’s wonderful story. Lee is a great man and has never failed to be a faithful family member to us. I was glad to get to see my family again at his father and my grandfather’s passing late last year.

    1. I’m sorry about your loss.
      I am very grateful to have met Lee and to have gotten to share his story and photos. I’ve told him that I hope one day he will make a book with them. I think many people would love to see them.

  4. Great to read Lees story in his own words, about his Nikon F and his time in Vietnam. I agree there is probably a market for a photography book on this subject.

  5. Interestingly enough, a lot of C3 users never realized that their cameras could take interchangeable lenses!

Leave a Reply