The Digital Journalist
Remembering Eddie Adams
October 2004

by Sandy Colton

When a young Eddie Adams showed up at the AP in New York, he was the junior photographer tossed in with a bunch of old pros, street-wise photographers. Many had started with the AP back in the '30s, using hooded 5x7 Graflex cameras, gradually downsizing over the years to the 4x5 Speed Graphic, followed by 120mm Rolleis or Yashikamats, and now trying to get used to the 35mm Nikon S. All were well-seasoned and good at their craft. The assignment editor, too, was another old hand and photographer! As the junior photographer, Eddie got all of the bottom-of-the-barrel assignments and very little sympathy from his older compatriots.

Some new "toys" arrived in the photographers' equipment locker: a Nikon 8mm fish-eye lens and a set of Dynalite studio strobe lights. "Who wants to take little round pictures?" the older photographers asked, referring to the small circular image the lens produced. As for the studio strobes, there just wasn't time for such things on their types of assignment!

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams, left, is seen with James Colton, a Sports Illustrated photo editor and son of retired Associated Press Director of Photography William (Sandy) Colton at Adams' Bathhouse Workshop in New York, July 17, 2003.

AP Photo/Harry Koundakjian
Eddie asked for and received permission to take the lens and lights home with him to see what he could do with them. Halloween was coming up. As with all special days, the AP liked to have illustrating holiday pictures for its morning and evening members. Eddie walked in the night before Halloween with outstanding pictures for both the AM and PM members, utilizing those "toys" he had taken home, and a little imagination!

The 8mm fish-eye lens has tremendous depth of field at small apertures. The studio strobes not only allowed great lighting for a picture, but were bright enough to allow using a small aperture on the fish-eye so that anything from about an inch away from the lens to infinity would be in focus. Eddie's children, dressed for Halloween, bunched together and reached upwards to within inches of the lens as Eddie stood on a ladder looking down to take the photo. The image was in focus and well lit but the children were terribly distorted by the extremely wide-angle lens, looking like a bunch of banshees coming out of the earth. The AMs got that photo, cropped to fill an 8x10!

For the second shot, Eddie carved a pumpkin with eyes, nose and mouth and cut a hole in the back of the pumpkin large enough to insert the fish-eye lens and a hole in the top to allow the flashlight to penetrate inside. In the foreground of his photo was a burning candle; beyond it were the eyes, nose and mouth through which you could see the leering Adams children, still in costume, peering inside. The PMs had their photo, also cropped from that little round picture to fill an 8x10, and Eddie Adams had a lot more respect!

Eddie loved to throw parties at his Bogota, N.Y., home. In his basement recreation room, the gathered crowds rarely noticed a bunch of what looked like small blocks of wood and picture frames stacked like cordwood in one corner. On closer examination, they were the many awards he had won for his photographs. Eddie wasn't being disrespectful. He just didn't like to show them off by hanging them up! Then there was the ceiling over the stairs leading up from the room. It was covered with written comments from visitors. It's the same at his studio now, where all the famous people he has photographed have signed a ceiling, and on a wall at the Eddie Adams Workshop.

Speaking of the Workshop, many people do not know why this workshop, which is free for 100 young photojournalists, came to be. Many of the country's greatest photographers, editors and publishers have volunteered their time gratis as speakers and instructors. Many major corporations have donated personnel and materials. Why? Eddie said he wanted to "pay back" for his success and help those on the way up. Incidentally, I believe at least three Pulitzer Prize winners are among the graduates of the workshop!

Speaking of awards, while with the AP, Eddie won so many awards at the New York Press Photographers' annual contest that many of the other New York press photographers wanted him barred from entering any more!

While he was with the AP, we sent him to Canada to photograph the visit of Queen Elizabeth. Her schedule called for her to place a wreath before a monument. Eddie scouted out the site the day before, saw that all of the photographers would be shooting from a fixed position from the side. He wanted a different shot so with no one around he taped a camera to a stake directly in front of the monument facing the queen, then buried a remote cord off to the side where all the photographers would be grouped.

The next day all of the photographers were herded into their position at the side for the wreath laying. The Secret Service saw the remote camera, looked it over and let it go. The photographers saw the camera too and wondered to whom it belonged. Eddie shrugged and suggested that it was probably the Secret Service. When the queen arrived to lay the wreath and while all the photographers were busy photographing her, Eddie reached down, picked up the hidden remote cord and got the only frontal photos of the queen that day, much to the chagrin of the other photographers there.

It was Eddie's foresight and innovativeness in situations such as these that earned him a reputation among his peers. Opposition photographers were often told not to lose sight of him on an assignment for fear he would scoop them again somehow!

© Sandy Colton