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May 21, 2020

Photographers’ Brave Final Shots of the 1980 Mount St. Helens Eruption

Last pictures from Robert Landsburg as the eruption of Mt St Helens beared down on him. Knowing he would die, he put his camera in his backpack and then laid himself on top of the pack in an attempt to protect its contents. His body was found 17 days later and the film was able to be developed.

A scan of the January 1981 issue of National Geographic.

When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, photographer Robert Landsburg (1931–1980) was there, within a few miles from the summit, shooting away. Landsburg had spent several weeks prior to the eruption documenting the volcano, putting himself on the precipice of danger.

On May 18, Landsburg’s luck ran dry. Seeing the immanent explosion in the not-so-distant distance, Landsburg decided he could not escape the eruption in time to save his own life. And so, he used his body to save his film.

Landsburg continued to photograph the eruption until the last possible moment, leaving himself enough time to wind up his film into its case, place his camera in its bag, place that bag into his backpack, and lay his body on top of the bag as the final protective layer against the shower of magma and ash.

Landsburg’s body was found 17 days later, buried in ash with his film in tact. The photographs were published in the January 1981 issue of National Geographic.

(Photo by Robert Landsburg)

(Photo by Robert Landsburg)

(Photo by Robert Landsburg)

(Photo by Robert Landsburg)

Two photographers died that day. The other was photojournalist Reid Blackburn who was working for a local newspaper as well as National Geographic magazine and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Blackburn was assigned to stay on the mountain until May 17, the day before it erupted, but as fate would have it, he decided to spend a few more days. Blackburn was camped near Coldwater Creek, 8 miles away from the mountain’s north flank. This region was totally obliterated by landslide and pyroclastic flow.

Blackburn’s body was discovered the following day, inside his car that was buried in ash up to the windows. Blackburn was still seated at the wheels and the car was facing away from the mountain as if he had been trying to flee before he was overcome by the superheated cloud of ash and burning pumice. Every window of the car except the windshield was blown out. The fabric lining the roof of the car had come undone and was hanging weighted down by ash.

Blackburn’s camera was too damaged to salvage any images he had shot, but decades later an undeveloped role of film he shot of the mountain before the eruption was recovered by a photo assistant for The Columbian, the newspaper where he worked.

(Photo by Reid Blackburn, via The Columbian)

(Photo by Reid Blackburn, via The Columbian)

This is the contact sheet of a roll of film shot by Reid Blackburn in 1980.

Reid Blackburn’s camera recovered from the Mount St. Helens blast zone in 1980. The film in it was too damaged to yield images, but an unprocessed roll of film shot by Blackburn before the eruption was recently found in a box at The Columbian.

(via Amusing Planet)


  1. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. But it is a clear one.
    Like the guy who runs this site, the photographers in this story fall on the unfortunate side of the line.
    Seriously..."role of film"?

  2. Cut people some slack... Maybe if you were more forgiving of human nature you would discover that the intent of people and their actions in the face of danger explain the reason they do the things they do... Of course, you are safe behind your keyboard and probably have never done anything risky in your life, hiding in Mom's basement from reality.




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