Remembering Larry Burrows
February 2003

by Horst Faas

When "Larry Burrows Vietnam" (Published by Johnathan Cape, Random House Group, London, 2002, Introduction by David Halberstam) was published, Larry would have been seventy-six years old; an age at which other photographers who helped shape photojournalism in the 20th century would see a retrospective of their lives' work published.

The Chronology and Selected Bibliography show that Larry Burrows travelled the world on hundreds of assignments for LIFE Magazine. They varied from the "Inscrutable War" of 1962 in the Indian-Chinese Himalayan frontier area, violence in the Congo and other trouble spots in Europe, Africa, the Mid-East and Asia in the first decades after WW II to catching the elusive birds of paradise or the Komodo dragon in the jungles of Indonesian islands with his Nikons and Leicas.

Larry Burrows was the most versatile press photographer I knew and he approached each of his subjects and stories with the same curiosity and intensity, eager to learn and understand all about what he tried to express and show in his images.

However, this beautifully edited and produced book (designed by the British genius Mark Holborn and printed by Tipocolor in Florence, Italy) is only about Vietnam, the war which - as David Halberstam explains in his introduction - was "the great assignment Larry Burrows always wanted" and the war which was very essentially his own.

Reading the chronology of Larry's assignments since 1945, I can't help speculating where he would have reported from and what he would have photographed had he lived - a meaningless undertaking, of course. He said again and again that he wanted to see the Vietnam war through to what he always hoped to be a peaceful end rather than victory and defeat. Had he lived, he would have certainly been among the last to stay and be expelled by the north Vietnamese victors, and, like many of us "long timers" of the Vietnam war, he would have passed through a period of mental anguish, depression and gloom that came with the loss of so many friends and a country and people he had fallen in love with. Sometimes he talked about living in Spain and covering the world from there.

Had he lived, I would have expected to see him at the reunion of former Vietnam correspondents in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in April 2000, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the end of the war. He was there as an 'absent friend' who had enriched the professional lives of almost everybody who could be in HCMC for the anniversary. If there would have been a vote for the most respected and loved newsperson in Vietnam, Larry would have almost certainly come out tops, closely followed by Henri Huet of The Associated Press, who died with him in the helicopter crash on February 10, 1971, and Dang Van Phuoc, the greatest of Vietnamese combat photographers , himself admired by Larry for many years. Phuoc now lives near Los Angeles.

Had he lived, Larry would have seen that much of his work is displayed prominently on the walls of the "War Remnants Museum" in Saigon. I could see him in my mind, smiling that typical private and polite Larry-Burrows-smile, watching crowds of young Vietnamese studying his photographs close-up, commenting, "Well, nice of these chaps to look at my photographs. I hope they grow old to have a better life."

His photographs, many published again in this book, are now permanently displayed in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi as part of the "Requiem" exhibit, honoring photographers from both sides of the war who died during the wars in Indochina.

The stark reality that Larry Burrows had to die in a flaming helicopter struck me hard, when strips of long-corroded film, lens parts and a Leica camera, damaged with the force of a hammer blow, were scraped from a jungle hillside in Laos in March 1998. My AP colleague Richard Pyle and I watched Laotian workers and an American recovery team searching the crash site, twenty-seven years later. Exploring the history of the Leica later by means of its serial number we were directed back to 1960, London, LIFE Magazine. It was most likely a Leica body purchased to replace equipment Larry had lost while covering the turmoil in the Congo in July 1960, following he Congo's Independence Day.

I do not remember meeting Larry in the Congo, my first foreign assignment for the AP, but we often talked later about covering the civil wars there and how much easier it really was to work in Vietnam.

I learned only much later that our professional careers followed some similar patterns. Larry Burrows started out as a darkroom assistant at Keystone Photographic Agency in Red Lion Court in London's Fleet Street during WWI I, before he moved to LIFE Magazine, 1944. Somebody should do a book one day about all the photographers who started out with Keystone and the founding Garai brothers, who did so much in establishing the photo agency business: I worked first in Red Lion Court in 1953 and jumped ship to begin my lifetime job at AP in 1956.

Early photos show Larry fingering a Speed Graphic camera, then a Rolleiflex. Then of course, Leicas and Nikons. I have similar photos in my scrapbooks.

Larry and I crossed paths first in Saigon, summer 1962, both sent to Vietnam by our respective photo editors in New York "to find out what's going on out there".

Larry winged in regularly from Hong Kong, taking a double-bed room, either at the Caravelle or the Continental Hotel - the second bed to lay out his cameras and lenses for a daily cleaning and maintenance ritual (I was very impressed).

I shared a wonderful colonial villa with David Halberstam, rented from a German embassy official, complete with servants and gardener. It was great place for dinner parties, large enough to invite a whole US Special Forces A-team (of twelve). Larry, always in a freshly laundered shirt and tie, was often our guest. Only after publication of Larry's 1964 LIFE spread "Alert in Vietnam, US Special Forces" did I realize that contacts made by Larry during one of our dinners led to his prolonged stay with the Special Forces in the Central Highlands and this early photo essay about our special friends.

Larry became a friend and regular visitor to the AP office and we exchanged without hesitation story ideas, tips about upcoming military operations, contacts. I knew that in these days Larry would make his daily rounds to learn from everybody what was going on: Visiting other agencies, to chat with Dave Halberstam and Neil Sheehan (who worked together at the UPI office), the TV correspondents' suites at the Caravelle, the Givral Café and the English journalists residing at the old-worldly Hotel Royal. Larry was absolutely discreet, so discreet that nobody really knew what he was up to until another blockbuster appeared in LIFE, sending us all scrambling to produce "matchers".

It was not possible to work side by side with Larry - and I don't recall having been near him on one of the major military operations. Usually Larry disappeared as mysteriously from Saigon as he returned, leaving everybody guessing what he was up to. Even the more chatty "chaps" from Time Magazine and the occasional visiting LIFE correspondent or photographer could not be helpful to trace Larry as they didn't know themselves.

Of course, there were other events when Larry had to mingle with a crowd - McNamara visits, political unrest and other spot stories attracting the journalistic crowd. At such occasions Larry stood tall and firm and could even been pushy, not giving an inch that would have detracted from just the frame he had in mind.

Larry Burrows' first big Vietnam story (with 14 pages, a fold-out cover and inside foldout pictures, much in glorious color ), "The Vicious Fighting in Vietnam" from January 1963 established him as the master of the Vietnam reportage. In one big sweep the important aspects and the confusion of the war in Vietnam was masterly told. The world of U.S. advisors and local tipsters was small in these days and while we knew that Larry was in the Delta with the Vietnamese Rangers, or the Air Force in Bien Hoa, it all did not make much sense to us since he obviously did not rush to the airport to ship film after his returns to Saigon.

He conceived and shot the massive essay over almost six months - and when the January '63 edition hit Saigon we all learned a bit more about our common story.

For many years I asked photographers to read Graham Green's "Quiet American" and Bernhard Fall's "Street Without Joy" on the plane ride to Saigon. Then, in the office, I showed them a 1954 photo book "La Guerre Morte" with superb photography from the French Indochina War - and Larry Burrow's "The Vicious Fighting". Just to get an idea what levels we need to achieve to make a point at all.

As David Halberstam explains well in the Introduction, Burrows' style of operating differed much from ours, the news agency photographers. Larry "had the luxury of time and space… if you did not find the war, the war would find you." Larry had a way of intellectually immersing himself fully into a story, exploring and trying to understand every angle and listen endlessly, without sidling up to his subjects (A Ride with Yankee Papa 13 was the result of one of these efforts).

With some envy we agency photographers helicoptered in and out of any action (or non-action) as quickly and as often as possible, to produce the daily Vietnam war radiophoto quota for daily newspapers.

While Larry was possessive of his stories he also knew what was good for LIFE Magazine: When Henri Huet was once trapped with an embattled U.S. First Cavalry unit in the Central Highlands Larry heard about it and waited in the AP office for Henri's return. "Knowing Henri, he will come back with something useful."

Larry watched the AP editor make his selection from Henri's film and then pointed at a picture saying:" This is going to be the LIFE cover". It was, along with many pages illustrating the story of the compassionate medic Bill Cole taking care of wounded although being wounded himself in the head and the battle he and Henri had lived through.

After AP had made their selection, the film was sent off to LIFE in New York. Larry went to the airport himself to see the package off.

What also made me feel envy were the many other stories Larry Burrows was assigned to between his Vietnam visits. Even Vietnam could become stale. But AP, always keen for the hard news from the war, were rarely susceptible to feature suggestions.

In 1962 it was the war between India and China in the beautiful and dramatic landscape of the Himalayas.

In 1964 the Olympic Games and a story on Hirohito.

In 1965 the Birds of Paradise in Indonesia.

Over 1968 and 1969 a historical piece on the East India Company, which had colonized India 200 years earlier.

In 1970, when Cambodia, became briefly accessible, he photographed the temples of Angkor, with an exclusive showing the main temple at full moon.

I remember sharing a tent with him at the temples of Borobodur, a temple on the island of Java, waiting for the full moon to rise.

In December 1970 Larry provided the most graphic coverage of the cyclone in the Ganges Delta in then East - Pakistan, costing ten thousands of lives.

I saw Larry Burrows last in Calcutta, late January 1971. I had been sent there to illustrate AP stories on the poverty in Calcutta and Mother Theresa`. Larry was working on an (unfinished) project about Calcutta. The days we met he spent time in the museums to copy old paintings from the history of the city. He told me how long it took him to learn to photograph a painting, with a proper reproduction of the colors, without any glares and evenly lit. He told me how he once photographed the art of Europe for a LIFE series with Dimitri Kessel. Vietnam was far away, but as always in the back of our minds - until we both got telexes to make it to Saigon as quickly as possible. An invasion of Laos was imminent. Larry smiled: he had a visa in his passport. I had to stop over in Singapore to get my visa. Larry stopped over at the AP office and heard that Henri Huet was up front and then headed north himself. I made it to the AP's Saigon office a few days later on February 10, the day Larry and Henri and the others died.

I lived and never covered the invasion of Laos.

© Horst Faas

Horst Faas is the Associated Press Photo Editor for Europe, Africa and the Middle-East, based in London. He covered the Vietnam war between 1962 - 1973 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for “daring and courageous combat photography ” and in 1972, jointly with Michel Laurent, for pictures of an execution of prisoners in Bangladesh. He also won the Robert Capa Award of the Overseas Press Club and numerous other awards in connection with his work in Indochina.

Born in Berlin, 1933 he began in photography in 1951, employed by Keystone Photo Agency. He joined The Associated Press in Bonn,1956 and has been with the agency ever since. As a photographer Horst Faas covered events throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, including wars in the Congo (1960-62), Algeria (1962), Indochina and other South East Asian countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (1970), Israel (1973), Rhodesia and Angola.
He also covered all Olympic Games since 1970.

In 1976 he moved to London as AP’s senior photo editor.

He is co-editor and author of the book ‘Requiem - by the photographers who died in Vietnam and Indochina’ published in autumn 1997 by Random House Inc., New York, Cape Ltd, London and Shuei-Sha, Tokyo.

He is also co-author of the book "Lost over Laos" (By Richard Pyle and Horst Faas), which will be published in March 2003 by DaCapo Publishing (Perseus Group) House.


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