Photography on an Aircraft Carrier

Photographers were critical to the success of the U.S. Navy’s missions. Step into the photo lab to explore the science and art of creating images on board the aircraft carrier Intrepid from 1943 to 1974.

Testing a Camera (1956/1958)Intrepid Museum

In the photo lab

About 15–20 people worked in Intrepid’s photo lab. They sometimes worked 16 hours a day. 

Each person had an assigned job: taking pictures, developing film, producing prints or taking job orders. They rotated through these tasks over the course of a cruise.

Cameras and Gear (1966/1968)Intrepid Museum

Cameras and gear

Intrepid’s photographers—called photographer’s mates—used film cameras. They primarily worked with black and white film.

This photographer’s mate holds a K-25 aerial camera and a Speed Graphic, two common cameras used on the ship.

Measuring Chemicals in the Photo Lab (1957/1960)Intrepid Museum

Developing film

Intrepid’s photo lab was a wet lab.  Photographer's mates used chemical baths to develop film and prints. 

Filming Landings on the Flight Deck (1957/1961)Intrepid Museum

Flight operations

Aviation was among the most important subjects for the photo lab. Photographer’s mates filmed all aircraft launchings and landings. A photographer’s mate was always stationed on the flight deck during flight operations.

Documenting Accidents

Sometimes, a photographer’s mate on the flight deck captured accidents in real time.

In this series from the late 1950s, an auxiliary fuel tank falls from the belly of an AD Skyraider that just landed on the ship. The tank bursts into flames, and flight deck personnel race to extract the pilot. The crew quickly puts out the fire. The pilot survives the incident.

Douglas AD-6 Skyraider Landing on USS Intrepid, 1957/1961, From the collection of: Intrepid Museum
Fire on the Flight Deck, 1957/1961, From the collection of: Intrepid Museum
Firefighting on the Flight Deck, 1957/1961, From the collection of: Intrepid Museum
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Aerial Surveillance Image of Truk Atoll (1944-02-16)Intrepid Museum

Aerial reconnaissance

Intelligence—collecting and gathering information—drove the advancement of photography in the Navy. 

Aerial camera technology included handheld cameras as well as cameras mounted in the body of an airplane. Intrepid’s photographer’s mates developed these images in the photo lab.

Railroads in North Vietnam (1967)Intrepid Museum

Analyzing the photographs

After the photographer’s mates developed aerial reconnaissance images, the staff in the air intelligence office analyzed them. The air intelligence office marked photographs to show important features, like these rail bridges in North Vietnam. 

Underside of a Tupolev Tu-95 (1972)Intrepid Museum

The Cold War

During the Cold War, the U.S. military used photography to understand and monitor the strength of the Soviet military. Intelligence personnel pored over photographs of Soviet ships and aircraft, assessing their capabilities.

Crew at work

The ship’s photographers worked throughout the entire ship, snapping pictures of the crew’s day-to-day activities.

Engine Room, 1967, From the collection of: Intrepid Museum
Underway Replenishment on the Hangar Deck, 1957/1961, From the collection of: Intrepid Museum
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Sailors Visiting the Parthenon (1959/1961)Intrepid Museum

Ports of call

The opportunity to photograph the ship’s visits to foreign ports was a highlight for many photographer’s mates. They followed their shipmates as they toured local landmarks. 

Look closely to spot sailors in white uniforms exploring the Parthenon in Greece.

Photography on aircraft carriers today

Photography remains critical to the U.S. Navy, but the process has changed since Intrepid left the fleet in 1974.

The U.S. Navy began transitioning to digital photography in the 1990s. In 2006, the Navy retired the photographer’s mate rating and created a new rating: mass communication specialist (MC). MCs share stories about the U.S. Navy through writing, photography, videography and graphic design.

F-4 Phantom on the Catapult (1967)Intrepid Museum

Learning from photographs

The work of Intrepid’s photographers shapes our impressions of life on the ship. Crew members saved official photographs, ship’s newspapers and cruise books as souvenirs of their service. 

Today, the Intrepid Museum preserves and shares these images.

Explore the collections

To explore the Intrepid Museum's rich collection of photographs, artifacts, archives and oral histories, visit

Credits: Story

The photo lab exhibition is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

President, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum: Susan Marenoff-Zausner

Curator: Jessica Williams

Collections: Jennifer Milani and Danielle Swanson

The Intrepid Museum wishes to thank the former crew members of Intrepid for sharing their collections and stories with us.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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