The Digital Journalist
On "Easy Ed" Adams
October 2004

by Hal Buell

Nothing speaks for a photographer with greater eloquence than the pictures he or she makes because great photographs are created not through a camera but in the photographer's heart and soul. The remarkable pictures made by Eddie Adams reflect the heart and soul of a remarkable man - they speak to his insight, his desire to be meaningful, his desire to change the world for the better.

Those qualities were evident in Eddie when we first met in the early 1960s at critical turning points in our careers. He had recently joined AP after several years as a U.S. Marine and as a newspaper photographer; I had returned from a tour of several years in Asia for AP to head up a special effort to bring new pictures to the wire to match efforts at special reporting.

The talents that Eddie brought to the table were ample. Too many photographers were - and are - mired in the technology of cameras and lenses and the endless aspects of the photo process. Eddie mastered those details, but his focus remained always on the story and the picture. Once he knew what he wanted to say he would, like an artist with a palette of paint, a brush and a canvas, create the picture or pictures that told the story simply and directly.

Nothing would distract his determination from the photographic narrative. Or from the proper editing of his film. He would go to the mat over whatever he saw in the editing that detracted from the story. He was toughest on himself and was often harshly critical of opportunities missed or not realized to the high standards he set for himself. At one point he had gone across the street from AP to the NBC studios to make a picture of Jimmy Durante, an entertainer whose trademark was his huge nose. After the shoot we looked at the prints still in the wash tubs and saw that the tip of Durante's nose was slightly out of focus. Eddie needed no comment. He picked up his lights (uncommon for a wire photographer to use studio lights outside the office) and went back to NBC. Durante saw him coming and said, "You screwed up, huh, kid?" Eddie nodded, Durante plunked himself down and sat for another portrait - a remarkable photo that stands today as fresh as it was so many years ago.

In recognition of his demands on himself - and others - I began calling him Easy Ed. It was a term of affection between us that lasted decades.

Eddie was especially suited to AP. He had no political or social agenda. He was dedicated to telling the story truthfully and straight-forwardly. No picture was barred, but there was no spin either, no special selection that got in the way of what was real. His mind was open to any idea for a multi-picture story or a single oddity that would make for a good image. It was always the image that counted.

Adams, however, was not without a sense of humor. One afternoon we were looking for something to go with a story on a disease that was decimating the chicken-raising business. But we couldn't find anything that worked.

"Eddie," I said, "how about you go uptown to a live chicken store and make a good headshot of a chicken?" I thought for sure we were headed for an argument. Eddie looked at me like I had lost my mind, but then took off. He returned a couple of hours later with a remarkably lit, even startling, mug shot of a chicken. During the shoot the chickens became excited, the feathers flew and the chicken s_____ squirted, but there was the photo. We shook our heads, laughed, put out the picture and ended up with a stack of tearsheets a foot deep.

Not-invented-here was not in Eddie's makeup. He had plenty of ideas of his own, but he could recognize a good idea offered by others. He could pick up on a story and see the images. He could take an idea offered by an editor and expand upon it, taking it to a level not previously envisioned. That ability opened countless opportunities for him that others too often missed.

No recollection of Eddie's work is complete without reference to his pictures from Vietnam. Eddie would cover other wars and revolutions - and there were many other pictures from Vietnam - but the sensational Pulitzer Prize- winning photo of a Vietcong summarily executed on a Saigon street is what comes to mind when discussing his work. It became - often to his annoyance - his signature picture.

The story of the photo has been told and retold and is available elsewhere. Not always included, however, is how the picture has haunted Eddie for decades afterward.

"Two men died that day," Eddie says, "the Vietcong and Col. Loan who shot him. Pictures do not always tell the full story," Adams says, "and this is one case where that is true."

Not many know that Loan was highly respected by his men and by the Vietnamese, Adams says. He was an educated man dedicated to the survival of his nation. Earlier on the day he shot the VC his aide, his aide's wife and his aide's children were executed by the Vietcong in the fury of the Tet offensive.

Adams came to know Loan in the weeks after the picture was made, but Loan held no grudge. He commented only that his wife said he should have confiscated Eddie's film. Loan was promoted later but in the end had to flee Vietnam and take up residence in the U.S.

Like many other photographers who have been awarded Pulitzers for violent or harsh pictures, Eddie wishes that his Pulitzer was for his other pictures, even pictures from Vietnam. He was especially connected to his pictures of Vietnamese boat people and how the pictures influenced the U.S. to help Vietnamese refugees settle in the U.S.

Adams went on to cover other wars, but the memories of Vietnam remain. At his farm an hour's drive from New York City, there is a memorial to five of Adams' friends who died covering the war. Each year, at the Eddie Adams Workshop, the 100 young photographers who attend witness a memorial service to the five who perished in the war. Surrounding the marker is a stand of specially planted pines. Except for the wind that whispers through their branches, they are mute sentinels and memorials to the many other photographers who fell in Vietnam.

The Workshop is important to Eddie; it is part of his humanity to give something back to his profession. I recall early discussions with him about the workshop - how the farm, then a kind of run-down barn and house, could be transformed into a place for young photographers to meet for a few days with senior photo people. It was an ambitious dream, which his persistence turned to reality. Adams called on his wide circle of friends for assistance and with help from the industry gradually pulled the concept together. The workshop will celebrate its 18th year in 2004 and stands as a classic labor of love from Adams to those who follow in the exacting profession of picture journalism.

Eddie moved from AP to other challenges - Time, Parade and general free-lancing for publications around the world. Still, however, his outlook remains true and sharply focused on the picture that tells the story.

© Hal Buell