Carl Mydans is a photographer's photographer and a human's human. He is the person you want to work with, live next door to, or just sit down with and listen to his stories.
The last time I ran into Carl he was sitting quietly in a room at the 1997 Eddie Adams Workshop writing down notes for his presentation.
"What pictures are you going to show?" I asked. "Well, David," he answered in that rich Boston accent, "I'm only going to present three photographs, and none of them are mine." "This should be good," I thought skeptically. It wasn't. It was great!
Carl told the group that he'd recently gone back through his files, and had made some discoveries. The first was a roll of film given to him by an American sergeant in the Philippines. He was told that it contained pictures of the first Japanese attack on a U.S. base. He sent back the undeveloped film to LIFE in New York.
It wasn't until more than fifty years later that Carl looked at the roll. The best frame, taken by a buddy of two GI's, showed them sitting next to a foxhole. They were wearing helmets, and looking into the camera. It was one of those moments before the storm where it's hot, boredom reigns, and life is uneventful. Somehow, however, the frame had been double-exposed. The second frame of the double exposure showed the actual attack on the airfield. The two men eerily emerged from thick black smoke pouring from an aircraft hanger which burned in the background during the Japanese assault. Enemy aircraft were even visible in the shot. Although accidental, that photo proved to be one of the most haunting images of war I have ever seen, made even more so by the fact that Carl had no idea of what befell the two men pictured.
The second photo was from film taken in Shanghai by a Japanese soldier. It showed a big colonial-style building with dozens of people milling about in the foreground. Carl told us that the building had been converted into a prisoner of war camp, and was where he and his wife Shelley had been held captive for months until their release in 1943. As Carl looked through the negatives for the first time in 1997 something caught his eye. There was Shelley in the picture!
The third and last photo shown was taken in China in early 1941. Carl and Shelley, a LIFE reporter, were working out of Chungking covering the Sino-Japanese war, and had ventured into a rural area never visited by foreigners. They ran into a peasant who was fascinated by their presence. Through an interpreter he asked them where they came from, what they were doing there, and most important, "what is that device hanging around your neck?" "It's called a camera," Carl answered. "What does it do?" asked the farmer. Carl held the Leica out to him and pointed to the eyepiece, "if you look through this little window, and then push this button, you will take a picture." "A picture?" he said quizzically. Carl explained as best he could what a picture was, then held the 35mm out for him to try. The peasant excitedly took it, and peered through the viewfinder. "How do I know when to take a picture," he asked. "When you see something you like," Carl told him. The man scanned the countryside with the camera, and finally settled on something he liked. He triggered the shutter. That photo of Carl and Shelley Mydans is one of the most touching photographs I have ever seen. It shows two people in love, and on the adventure of their lives.
Carl, in telling us why he selected that photo said, "We represented Americans in a faraway place. This is how they saw us."
And that is how I will always remember Carl and Shelly Mydans. Two
Americans out there in the wilderness, sending back pictures of people
and places that most of us only dream about.
- David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, is NEWSWEEK's roving photographer.
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