I stumble a bit, me, the former Math major, when I try and do the ‘math.’ Last fall was fifty years: I arrived in Vietnam in October 1970 following a two year stint freelancing for TIME in DC and Miami bureaus. Frankly, I never …
Back in the early 1960s, in the wake of Sputnik and such fanciful terms as “the Space Race,” the “Missile Gap,” and Pupnik (Sputnik 2 carried a little Russian terrier named Laika), and, in the words of one of the old geezers (gee, he must have be…
As you know the White House Advance Team (WHAT?) has been searching for event opportunities in and around Vienna for the last six days. We have only four days left before the President arrives and not all the decisions have been made. Here are several things which I think show potential in terms of their visual and political appeal — but are not without problems. As always I need your help to resolve those problems. I am confident that you, as my mother would say, can make it, “all better.”
61 years ago. I can’t believe it. Who, amongst people I know, has any memory of something in 1958? Well I guess if you’re from the high school class of ’64, there are a lot of things which you remember. This weekend was one which is so full of a myriad…
In the note I got, there was a phone number in Illinois, asking me to please call back. Because it’s kind of a pain to get prints made, and takes a lot of hands-on time from someone in the office, we generally don’t get into selling prints other than in the art market, which is, at least, monetarily worthwhile. So it becomes a kind of low priority. I called the number and reached Terry Knox, and got the story of how he found the picture. He first asked to verify that I was really the guy who shot the picture at Phu Bai… and when I said yes, he started crying, and weeping openly.. it was very moving. It’s been so infrequent that I run across someone who was actually where and when I was in a place that it really hit me, too. It felt like the telephone equivalent of reaching our hands out and holding on to each other.
“Especially at Christmas time,” he explained, “I start to think of my friends who didnt make it back. The other night, it got to me again, and I got up in the middle of the night, and went to my computer. I typed “bob hope show phu bai” into google… and was taken to a page with your picture. I started to look at the picture, and realized I was IN it. I got chosen to go by the first Sergeant who did a lottery, and one other guy and I were the only two people from our base to go. I didn’t know anyone else in that crowd.” Spec 4 Terry Knox and I had a long conversation, and I promised to send him a print (I actually sent him 3 16×20” prints) and we hung up, each of us quite happy to have tried to close a tiny circle in our lives. Four months later, while I was on assignment in southern Illinois, Terry drove down and we finally met. Like the rest of us, he looks very little like the 23 year old version of himself in the picture, but the smile on his face, as we met, and hugged, was probably as broad as my own. In so many of the situations I have covered in my fifty years of taking pictures, I am the anonymous photographer, photographing anonymous subjects, and those rare times that we close those circles, it seems that a tiny bit of order has been added to the world.
- Terry and DB 2015
photograph ©2018 David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Fans of this page (both of you!) will recall how this reporter’s view of recent history is colored, overall, by a disbelief that He ( if I were President, here I would just write my name as if I were some 6 o’clock local anchor in the up and coming St. George, Utah TV market) could have actually been present at events of the last half century, especially the earliest ones. They all seem like just a few months, maybe a year ago. Life does have a nasty habit of starting out when you’re in your teens and twenties at a rate you can absorb, then, like a really bad ride at a travelling carnival, it begins to speed up just when you thought you were attuned to the velocity of life in front of you. Thus, if you are someone who actually remembers the first year you had a television, and your parents watched Adlai Stevenson give his first acceptance speech live to the nation, those numbers, the ones you can’t believe are YOUR life, just thrash you around like a protective terrier would a small rodent, illicitly caught in the grain elevator. (Yes, that is what terriers were apparently originally bred for.)
And so it was, that cleaning out a large scale IKEA bookshelf over the weekend produced a number of surprises. Not shocking, really, just little measures of a life which had mostly been dedicated to capturing what was happening in our world. For years, with my aspiration to be a Time-Life photographer filled at a relatively early age (I was 20 when I got my first internship at Time … too young at the time to even have a couple of martinis at Duke Zieberts with the D.C. crowd after an LBJ welcoming ceremony) I spent the better part of five decades chasing events in many parts of the world (not all: never made it to Antarctica, and there are huge gaps in my Asia and Africa coverage…) and for the most part, following the ritual of finding a plane headed to New York or Paris, with my film on it. We have become so spoiled in the last 15 years, with instant everything, that the toxic nature of this short-term, instant gratification (how gratified, really?) is not going to be truly understood by the citizenry for years to come. Shooting film meant your job never ended until, to quote my long time buddy Jean-Pierre Laffont, “I see the plane with my film flying over head …” to whichever editorial stop it might be, usually NYC or Paris, the two main axes of photojournalism for the last fifty years. In those days, if you were on a political campaign, you’d packet up your film in a heavy envelope and leave it at the front desk for a messenger to fetch, and head directly to the bar, where you might actually run into someone working for the campaign who could give you a heads up about tomorrow’s work schedule. With today’s obligation to edit and process on the fly, it’s rare after a long day shooting that you aren’t cooped up in your hotel room, trying to edit and tone pictures which will fly out on the wifi system that night. It’s certainly quicker than film, but it’s a helluva lot less fun. And all the obligations which accompany those deadlines mean you never really have time to just ponder.
Pondering was one of my favorite elements of photojournalism. Essentially, we are always trying to understand the logistics battle of how we get our camera in the exact spot necessary, and at the right moment, that all we have to do is compose, and shoot. But those answers never come easy, and you have to really think about what your options are, and what you have to do to make that magic moment happen. Much of it, true, is something you see on the fly, but so many times, thinking ahead about what is happening, or going to happen, makes a huge difference in your work. Anticipation is a gift. You just need that time to ponder. It pays off in the end.
The accompanying picture (Washington DC, summer 1973) is by that same French friend, Jean-Pierre Laffont. JP has been living in New York since the late 1960s. We met at the first Nixon Inauguration. I forget the exact moment, but I was a young freelancer, having just been out of college, and in DC a couple of months, and JP was the GAMMA photographer in New York, covering the USA for that then new, and ground-breaking agency. GAMMA was really the first news agency to operate on the theory that there are enough places to sell and license the work, if only we have the confidence in our photographers, and let them operate “on spec” following their own judgement. It really solidified the idea that photojournalists were journalists as much as photographers, relying on their inate skills as artists, con men, bullshitters, and business mavens, to get to where the pictures were happening, and send film of said events back to the base, in this case, Paris. After a nasty split amongst the partners, a number of the GAMMA staff left to form a new agency, SYGMA, and it was with SYGMA that JP spent the next forty something years based in New York, covering the world. (He has published two wonderful books of photographs: Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990 and New York City Up and Down (https://preview.tinyurl.com/y742hxw5) I more or less took up the GAMMA slot for the next couple of years, before leaving to start Contact Press Images (www.contactpressimages.com) in New York. One of the first big stories I covered for GAMMA in 1973 was the Watergate Hearings and the beginning of the unravelling of the Nixon administration. Every day had a wild new twist as witnesses came to the hill, sitting in front of folksy old Senator Sam Ervin (ever the ‘country lawyer’), the country, and the world. One of the most explosive days of testimony came when John Dean, who had been the one to tell Nixon there was “ a cancer growing on the Presidency…” came with wife Maureeen (soon to be known by all as “Mo’ Dean.”) I was one of the photographers trying to make some kind of picture of Dean that day, and I was surrounded by some of the best. Looking back now, I see so many of the Washington world who have since died, but whose presence made me, a young guy fairly new at this game, try and do better than just merely showing up. When you look a t the talent in that room, and realize how widely viewed their pictures would be over that year, it gives you pause. There are a few I don’t recognize, but many I do: Daryl Heikes (UPI), Tim Murphy, Joe Silverman (Wash Star) (standing behind me), ME (GAMMA), Committee Counsel Sam Dash in the dark suit in the distance, Gjon Mili (LIFE – tall in the grey suit, the man who did things with early strobes we all marvelled at, even years later), Stanley Tretick (confidante to Presidents from Kennedy to Carter), Harvey Georges (amazing that we can identify someone by their hair – AP), and Wally McNamee (lower right, Newsweek.) I think WashPost photographer Jim Atherton, (the guy who could, and often did, walk into a hearing room where you’d been sitting on your knees for two hours, look around for about a minute, make a half dozen snaps, and walk out of the room, having handed you your very own lunch, an hour before the lunch break) might even be in this picture. I know he was in the room. In my dreary picture of Dean with hand raised for swearing in, Atherton had, alone, snuck behind him and popped up for just long enough to get the anxiious faces of the Senators. Such was the talent in that room, in this picture from 45 years ago. Forty five years, and none of us alive today can imagine it was really that long ago. Like so many things it feels so fresh, so recent, so real. We have our pictures to remember our lives, and photography, above all, is about memory. Thanks, JP. And yes, I’ll get a haircut.
They are not necessarily your best friend.You may not see them
for a day, a month, or a year.But you know they are always around.Wally McNamee was one of those people.Always good humored and always positive despite the seriousness of the situation. & nbsp;
A few months ago mutual friends invited us to visit with Wally one last time. & nbsp;
He was ill and his son had moved him from the Carolina coast to the & nbsp;
DC area to take care of hm. & nbsp;
Wally wanted to say goodbye to his photo friends and some of the people he wanted to see. & nbsp;
To fade your own mortality is a brave thing to do . & nbsp;
It didn & rsquo;
t matter, you could still see that smile even though it was partially covered by the plastic. & nbsp;
When you write about someone you loved you can only describe what they meant to you.So forgive me
for the & ldquo;
me & rdquo;
but he was able to recognize when someone, be it a photographer, staff, or VIP, & nbsp;
was being an asshole. & nbsp;
And he always found a subtle way to
let them know that their behavior was unacceptable.Sometimes it was a little more forceful than words & mdash;
like the time a Russian photo thug was pushing us around, and Wqlly clocked him on top of his head with a fairly big camera. & nbsp;
The camera was not hurt. & nbsp;
And my favorite Wally story was when we were in France or China(they all start to look alike), and a 4 foot tall and 4 foot round pretend white haired female writer / photographer, couldn & rsquo;
t get past foreign security.No one ever knew how she got them, but she had permanent White House credentials.And she was always a pain in the butt.For example, when David & hellip;.never mind. & nbsp;
Anyway, she was trying to get through foreign security.They looked at her and even with White House credentials, they wouldn & rsquo;
let her through. & nbsp;
She saw Wally and begged him to help. & nbsp;
He thought about it
for a minute, pulled out a dollar bill which has George Washington & rsquo;
s picture of course, pointed to that picture, pointed to the woman, and the guard
let her through. & nbsp;
for me to mention one and not the other.This blob will include what I wrote about Nikki MacNamee & nbsp;
who was Wally & rsquo;
s wife and in a women & rsquo;
s group we started when, as newly arrived & nbsp;
young women in DC, we needed friends.Nikki died a few years ago and was missed by all who knew her. & nbsp;
Wally died a few days ago, it is hard to believe he and his wife Nikki are both gone. & nbsp;
loving, gracious, independent friends, and always up
for some kind of adventure.When you are married to a photojournalist, you have to be pretty flexible. & nbsp;
The best part
for all of us was that she and her husband adored one another. & nbsp;
It was wonderful to watch them together and to be a part of their lives.Rest in Peace my friends, we are comforted by the fact you are together again.
Like a few of my colleagues (David K, are you listening?) this year marks a rather major milestone for me as a photographer. I came into photojournalism the same way a lot of my friends did: I signed up for the High School Yearbook, clueless about what the photo staff did, but became completely entranced when I saw that first 8×10 sheet of Medalist come to life in the Dektol of Mr. Blackham’s darkroom. That was junior year of High School, and I got the bug. I began shooting almost everything, and within a few months was trying to sell pictures at the local weekly paper (which my cousins bought the next year, and kept me on in what became my first and only “Staff” position.) Basketball games were a good chance to try and shoot the first half, then drive quickly downtown and hope that the Salt Lake Tribune might a) care about that game and b) not having their own photog there, actually buy one of yours for $5 (and give you your exposed film back), give you a fresh roll of film, and then to top it off, put your name next to it in the paper. Hailing the next day’s paper to see what it looked like was one of those exciting moments which I came celebrate both the pain and joy of in the magazine years.
I went off to college in 1964 armed with my supposed smarts in advanced math, with the idea of building Moon rockets for NASA. But my math skills seemed to have given way to my photographic eye, and even though there were no photo classes at Colorado College, I shot on my own, sold weekend prints to the drag strips I would frequent (when you sold 20 pictures at a buck each, you realized that twenty bucks was a pretty good haul for a weekend in the early 60’s and a chance to have your ear drums blown out by a AA/S Automatic Hemi. Talk about fun!
the Grateful Dead June 1967 – New York
Spring break of Junior Year, this was 1967, I bought a cheap (as they were then) United Air Lines ticket to New York, and spent a week trying to find a summer gig in the city. In those days there were tons of classified ads in the Times Help Wanted for Studio Assistant,etc., and while I did see a couple of them, that wasn’t my main aim. My aunt had a good friend from Kansas City who had come for dinner the Sunday before I left, and as it happened she had an old pal, Ruth Lester, whose job it was to look at portfolios off the street for LIFE magazine. A quick call was made, and I was invited to come see Ruth, showing off my pictures (which were, frankly, pretty lame….) in an attempt to get some kind of summer gig. Most of the magazines that did hire college kids limited their applicants to PhotoJ majors – usually from Missouri. But I met a few contacts – friends of friends, who would call a photographer and ask if they would see me. (Steve Horn at Horn/Griner. Katherine Abbe, are two I recall.) I so remember the kindness that was paid to me, and have honestly tried over the years to return the favor to young photographers who want to talk about the business.
Ruth was very welcoming, though I remember being so damn up tight on the 29th floor of the Time Life building, where LIFE Edit offices were. Looking around you could see names on office walls who you had only ever seen on a page in the magazine. She had, she said, nothing, but offered to call the Time B/W Editor (in the late 60s, the magazine could only use color with a couple of week’s advance, and so most pictures were in black & white, and that is what they spent most of their time working on.) The Editor, Barker T Hartshorn was a jaunty New Englander, who I recall (Arnold I’m sure will correct me) wearing a lot of bowties. In his charge was a large room of office cubbies, staffed by the women researchers (in those days, “Women” were the “Researchers”… it was one of those last (?) bastions of male chauvinism) including Alice Rose George, Michele Stephenson [who became Photo editor twenty years later], and the unforgettable Evelyn Merrin. “Bo” Hartshorn, as he was known, was very welcoming, and for reasons I have never truly understood, apparently saw in me someone who could eventually be of worth to both him and to the Magazine. I briefly met Charlie Jackson, who was the overall editor in charge of pictures, and working with him, a youngish editor named Arnold Drapkin, who was still a kid. I left the building that day with no idea of what had transpired, other than I knew I’d been in the TIme-Life building, and that was pretty damn cool. It was another three weeks later that I received the letter from Charlie Jackson offering me a 3 day per week internship at $85 per week. How could I beat that?! Couldn’t. I can still remember the feeling of anticipation as I walked in from school the day the letter arrived. My mom had placed it on my bed, the blue tinted envelope with the TIME logo sitting almost helplessly on the brown corduroy bedspread. I don’t know if I ever opened a letter with such excitement.
I spent the summer in New York (for a month), Washington DC under the tutelage of Wally Bennett, the TIME staffer ( 6 weeks) and back in NY for a couple of weeks at the end of the summer. I still had another year of college to go, but I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for a magazine. Space, page size, and of course the attention that came with something which reached 25 milliion readers every week.
My first few days that summer were a bit dodgy. There was really nothing set up for me when I arrived in New York on the morning the 6-Day war started, so they just cleared one of the extra desks and that became my space. There were still a number of NYC daily newspapers, and each day as they made the rounds, the papers would pile up on my desk. I wondered, as I sat there in my coat & tie, my huge “everything I own in it” camera bag next to me, when I would have a chance to do something. Sometime late in my second week, as I was about ready to give up in despair, Michele Stephensen, whose cubbie was just around the corner from my desk, gave a yell…”David!” I sprung to life, grabbed my bag and asked her what was up. “There is a new President of J Walter Thompson… Dan Seymour… he’s leaving town in half an hour, so get over there and see if you can make a portrait…” I hauled ass out of the building, found a cab on 6th avenue, and sat nervously as the cab went almost no where in the slow sluggish traffic. I hopped out, grabbing my WorldsLargestCameraBagWithEverythingIOWNinIT and ran the last half dozen blocks. I was shown upstairs to Seymour’s office , panting like a race horse, and as he talked on the phone, shot about 30 frames on my one roll. He hung up the fone, I shot the rest of the roll, him looking at me with the expression of someone who feels his wallet has just been lifted, and that picture was what ran in TIME “The Weekly Newsmagazine” the next week. I had to make a real decision. Michele (whose mom, as it turned out, had gone to high school with my mom in Salt Lake) asked me that most important of questions: “Do you want the credit line to be Dave or David?” It took a few seconds to react, but I decided that it was, safe for Facebook, the last time I would be known as Dave. That next week became very collegial as many of the magazine’s regulars – David Gahr, Peter Polymenakis, and Burt Berinsky, among others, all said something nice about having my “first picture” published.
Every week there was an adventure of some kind. Photographing private aircraft for a story on General Aviation,Vietnamese business women touring the states, etc. And one day, I had another of those over the cubbie-wall screams for my name — this time it was Linda George. She had another of those “get down there NOW!” jobs. There was a band playing a free concert in Tomkins Square Park in the East Village (decades before it was remotely gentrified) and please get down there and make some pictures. I was not exactly the greatest of rock & roll trivia experts, but young people who I’ve met over years still can’t believe I’d never heard of The Grateful Dead. I arrived as they were playing in a small bandstand, and with several hundred devoted listeners having taken lunch off to hear them play. I hopped on stage, and to me Pigpen was THE guy to photograph. He looked as if he’d been there a half dozen lives already, and made for a good picture. At one point a young boy, probably lost from his pals (or mom?) broke out into tears on stage in the middle of a song. I’m sure he ended up making it home ok, but it made for one of those pictures that you remember. Not because it’s a great picture, just because it’s a kind of weird moment. Who is that guy? He would now be in his mid or late 50s, and somewhere, I’m sure, has a very distinct memory of freaking out at the Dead concert.
Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything, and I have to admit that had it been anything other than photography, I probably would have moved on. I’m still kind of sorry I didn’t drive dragsters or work on the Saturn V Apollo rocket program. I studied Poli Sci in college, but have never run for anything other than one semester as Kappa Sig Grand Master. You never really know where life will take you, but as long as you are able to be open to the things which present themselves you can make a life which won’t be full of regret. I keep thinking that from the Class of ’46 —- Donald Trump born June ’46, George W Bush born July ’46, Bill Clinton August ’46, that I, born in September ’46 should have really been the next President. It would have made for a helluva lot less “Fake News,” progress might actually have been made on a number of social challenges, and boy, would the pictures that the White House photographers make be damn good, or what!? I don’t really feel that bad about missing out on being POTUS, and I feel lucky and honored that I have seen as a witness with a camera so much of what has gone on in our time – in a hundred countries – over the last fifty years. What better wish can a photographer have hoped for, other than, of course, ‘don’t fuck up.’ We’re just sayin’… David
When former Ambassador Joe Wilson ended up on the White House ‘shitlist’ for having dared speak publicly about his report on the lack of uranium shipments to Iraq, he and