The Adams Family
The arrival of the school buses carrying the first batch of students coincided with the departure of the bulldozers finishing the landscaping around the barn - but only just. It was a close-run thing. I was there that afternoon in 1988 when the eager young photojournalists descended on Eddie's farm in upstate New York for the first weekend of the Eddie Adams Workshop. In fact, I was standing next to Eddie as we watched the frantic final preparations. He was displaying the demeanor that he would continue to exhibit throughout the time that I was associated with the workshop - that of a bemused visitor. It was almost as if he had nothing to do with it, that the whole enterprise didn't carry his name, wasn't his idea, didn't take place on his property, that he hadn't gotten the funding, organized the faculty, or decided the format. But it was his, and it was one of the most important things that he did in a life that included a number of important things.
My most vivid memories of the workshop are of physical, mental and emotional deprivation. You never got enough sleep; you ate the oddest food at the oddest times; you were cold; you were wet; you were frequently cold and wet; blissfully unconcerned with the glories of fall in the Catskill Mountains that surrounded them, your students preferred to spend the weekend in a correctional facility or working on rural poverty; mud was your constant companion. And yet I enjoyed almost every minute of the time I spent there. Eddie's idea was deceptively simple: Take one hundred students, divide them into teams identified by different colors and send them out during the day to photograph a particular subject under the guidance of a photographer, an editor and an assistant. On their return, expose them to presentations and discussions by some of the greatest exponents of photojournalism, be they photographers, picture editors, magazine editors, agency heads, or representatives of the leading manufacturers of photographic products. Do this for 20 hours a day for four days and something will penetrate and stick with them throughout their careers.
Eddie achieved this ambitious program by shamelessly exploiting a lifetime of friendships and contacts. And what friends and contacts he had. Where else could a student listen to Gordon Parks, Joe Rosenthal, Alfred Eisenstaedt or Carl Mydans recount their experiences? Where else could they have their work edited by the picture editors of Time, Newsweek, Life, Fortune, The New York Times Magazine or Parade magazine? You could listen to Walter Anderson, the editor of Parade, speak extemporaneously for 40 minutes, followed by Ray Cave, the editor of Time, who read thoughtfully from carefully-prepared notes that he assured the audience had been vetted by the Time Inc. lawyers. Under what other circumstances could you, as a young, inexperienced photographer, get the attention of Vinnie Alabiso from the AP, or Eliane Laffont from Sygma? And what emotions these young people felt as the assembled company stood in silence in front of the dignified and simple stone memorial to Eddie's friends who died in Vietnam, knowing that they were about to carry the same torch to light different dark places in the imperfect world in which we live.
Underlying all of this, of course, was "the picture" - the one that Eddie rarely talked about and never displayed. Eddie is one of an incredibly small group of photographers who have taken images that have become truly iconic. Shot while working for the AP, his photograph of South Vietnamese General Loan executing a Viet Cong suspect on the streets of Saigon not only won him the Pulitzer Prize, but assured him of a timeless place in the history of photography for as long as it is written and remembered.
It also caused him considerable discomfort for two reasons. The first is that he felt it was very unfair to Loan, whose action Eddie understood even if he didn't condone it. Embraced by the world as a representation of South Vietnamese barbarity it was, in fact, the impulsive reaction of an anguished man confronting someone who had just murdered a friend of his, a South Vietnamese army colonel, as well as the colonel's wife and six children. It virtually ruined Loan's life, someone who Eddie considered to be a hero. The other reason that he was uncomfortable with this stunning image was that in many people's minds it meant Eddie's career stopped in 1968. It was like being given a lifetime achievement award at the age of 35. In fact some of Eddie's best photojournalism was taken after this picture, some of which can be seen in a brief BBC tribute at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/3672428.stm.
But "the picture" was the currency he spent to make the workshop such a success. It gave him the prestige to open doors and purses and make things happen. It also certainly helped Eddie in the other significant part of his career, a 20-year association with Anderson and Parade that produced endless covers and portraits, mostly of celebrities. Would Clint Eastwood have been as cooperative, and become a friend, if Eddie hadn't been "the guy who took the Vietnam street execution" photo? Maybe, but it helped a lot. I know that if I had been the assigning picture editor, I would have made sure the PR knew who the photographer was that I was sending. I think that this was the conflict that Eddie lived with all his life, namely that what the world perceived to be his greatest moment was to him his greatest burden, and yet also his greatest resource.
I attended the workshop for 10 years, and then for some reason that I shall now probably never know, I was put on Eddie's famous "shit list." This was a group of people who had in some way mysteriously offended him or become irrelevant to his life, and indeed the group who made up the SL was in its own way as prestigious as the ones who didn't. Even the disfavored had quality, and to be one of them was certainly nothing to be ashamed of. However, it did put me out of contact with him for the last few years of his life, and as so often happens under these circumstances, it meant that there were things I would have liked to have said to him that I didn't.
One thing I should have told him was to own that image and be proud of it. It's one of the most important photographs ever taken, and we as photographers ultimately have no control over how the world sees or interprets our work. Accusations of fraud do not diminish the importance of Capa's falling Spanish militiaman, and the stories that persist to this day that Joe Rosenthal set up the Iwo Jima flag-raising shot don't devalue it either. I know that if my father had taken a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph I would be proud to say, "I'm the son of the man who photographed the street execution in Saigon that helped change the way America thought about the war in Vietnam."
Eddie's legacy really comes to us in two parts, the work obviously being one. But I think that maybe the greater part is his workshop and the more than 1,500 photographers who are equally proud to be its alumni. In that four-day photo boot camp, they got the most solid grounding in honest journalism that, hopefully, they will pass on to their succeeding generations. What we teach is often as, and sometimes more, important than what we do, and through Eddie's vision and tenacity hundreds of young men and women were shown by the very best role models around that photojournalism is important, exciting, honorable and demanding. If a photograph taken in 1968 can produce a brother- and sisterhood of photographers, editors, or whatever other role they fulfill, who are dedicated to upholding the principles they learned in a cold barn in Jeffersonville, N.Y., then for that reason alone it was worth taking.
To those who still question the future of photojournalism, the answer is that as long as there are people like Eddie Adams around who understand the importance of passing on a lifetime's experience, it will never die. And if you believe in the importance of the extended Adams family, go to http://www.eddieadamsworkshop.com/ and make a contribution so that it may continue to increase in size and stature.
© Peter Howe
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