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Photojournalism Editorial

By Dirck Halstead
"There once was a photo Genie and his name was John Durniak."

"When you rubbed his bottle, he burst forth, spouting ideas and ricocheting around the room with a joy usually reserved for lottery winners or three-year-olds who have just seen their first butterfly."

David Hume Kennerly


The spring of 1972 was a dark time for photojournalism.

At LIFE magazine, which had blazed the way in visual story telling since the 1930s, TIME-LIFE turned out the lights. In the years preceding that, we saw the death of both the SATURDAY EVENING POST and LOOK magazines.

The newsmagazines, TIME and NEWSWEEK were considered more news digests...they belonged to the world of the writer.

Without the thrust provided by the big picture weeklies, the entire engine of big league photojournalism was in danger of stalling.

Then, just as the shadows were closing in on the profession, a ray of light was that Genie that David spoke of, and his name was John Durniak.

John, who had been an unrestrainable voice in the pages of photography magazines- criticizing, prodding, and prickling the photojournalistic world, was hired by TIME's Managing Editor, Henry Grunwald, to breathe some visual life into the magazine.

My guess is that Grunwald had no idea what he was getting into.

From the moment he first barged into his new office on the 24th floor of the Time & Life building, Durniak had this loony idea that TIME was a picture magazine.

Within a few months John had started to put together what would become the finest team of photojournalists assembled for one publication since Harry Luce put together the charter staff of LIFE.

There was Eddie Adams, lured away from his $22,000 a year job and his throne as the king of AP, for a paltry $5,000 contract; Bill Pierce, who knew more about the techniques of photography (and almost everything else) than anybody in the business; David Rubinger, the dean of Israeli photojournalism; Shelly Katz, coming from the Lone Star State; David Hume Kennerly, fresh from winning the Pulitzer prize for his coverage in Vietnam; Arthur Grace, an upstart from UPI in Boston; Ralph Morse and Carl Mydans, legendary photographers rescued from the wreckage of LIFE; John Zimmerman, the hottest sports photographer in the country...and, oh yes, Dirck Halstead, who had just returned from covering the Nixon trip to China for UPI.

John had one clear and simple idea. He wanted the best photographers to do their best work.

This was neither a complicated nor sophisticated plan. Once he had his team put together, he identified the strengths of each, gave them a corner of the world to cover, then got out of their way.

John depended on the journalistic skills of the photographers to motivate them. He told us "When a story breaks, don't call me, just me from the story."

Every once in a while, however, when we began to figure out what it was we were doing, John would decide we were getting too comfortable. He'd throw us a wild ball, something we had never even thought about doing, and make us field it.

His energy was so overwhelming, and his attention span so short, that we learned to tell our story ideas in one sentence. John would launch photographers to the other side of the world in less than 60 seconds.

The downside of this freneticism was that often he would forget that he had sent a photographer to Cambodia or Turkistan.

Once John Zimmerman suggested a story to John on the conditioning of Olympic athletes that he wanted to start shooting the following year in Switzerland. Zimmerman had no sooner mentioned the place when Durniak, who was gulping a scotch at Ho-Ho's (the Time watering hole), ordered him to get on the next plane.

Zimmerman tried to protest that the story was a year away, but Durniak, yelled at him, "John, if you're not on a plane to Geneva tonight you are no journalist!" The next day, I was in his office when his secretary, Rita Quinn, announced that Zimmerman was on the phone from Geneva. Durniak grabbed the receiver and said, "John! What are you doing in Switzerland!"

We came to realize that although John LOVED photography, it was not so much the photographs themselves, or the photographers that produced the photographs that he loved--it was the IDEAS. 

Sometimes, after sending a photographer around the world on a project, he would loose interest in looking at the pictures, instead he would want to talk to the photographer about the NEXT assignment.

John had his fetishes. "I think all of us at one time or another had an assignment to find and photograph Howard Hughes," Bob Sherman who covered the Caribbean writes. "I can't remember how many trips to the Bahamas, Grand Cayman Island and finally to Mexico I made on the Howard Hughes quest for John. One time I even took a locksmith with me to make an impression of the special lock inside an elevator so that he could make a key, and we could get the elevator to go to that special floor that was locked out on the selection panel, all while the elevator was going up and down with the doors opening all the time and us not wanting to get caught."

Another time, he launched me to Paris based on a line that a hapless researcher had included in a story that "The blue jeans that women wear on the Champs Elysee are considered to be the tightest in the world."

Yet, on a story he really believed in, he would fight tooth and nail.

Once he assigned me to do a major piece on the U.S. Navy. After more than a week of extensive research, working with contacts at the Pentagon, and arranging a complicated shooting script that would take me all over the Pacific, the Managing Editor decided to cancel the story. John contacted me the night before I was supposed to leave on a Navy plane for Pearl Harbor. I was so upset that I quit (I was to do this more than once). The next day, John stalked into the cave of the editor and fought for that story, finally convincing him.

As Shelly Katz says, "John energized us, motivated us, not just in our picture taking, but in our lives." John would say, "If you don't come back with great pictures, it's because you're not an interesting person."

John took his message on the road, to schools and professional groups around the world. Photographer Rus Kendall writes: "When I was a journalism student at Boston University in 1982, I remember John Durniak stopping by to give us a lecture on photojournalism. Afterwards, the big man took about six of us out for pizza and beer at a local joint, and we listened to him tell stories for hours. He talked until they closed the place down. How invigorated and excited I felt for weeks after."

We all wondered how John managed to maintain his energy and enthusiasm day after day. The answer was his wife Rita, who nourished and sustained him, fueling his creative fire.

So, what is the legacy of this man?

Once TIME emerged as a force in photojournalism in 1972, it awakened NEWSWEEK, which quickly assembled its own stable of photographers to match John's team on the playing fields of history. The newly energized TIME and NEWSWEEK photographers piled up stacks of awards for their publications--prompting the funding of major in-depth visual reporting of the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Moving on to become Managing Editor of a new LOOK magazine, John created a shooting star across the galaxy of journalism. The New York Times came next, as he shook up "The Old Grey Lady," and helped to make it one of the finest photo newspapers in the world.

His youth and spirit, even after the ravages of advanced diabetes began to waste his body, was unquenchable. At his funeral service in Suffern, NY last week, his daughter Holly recalled the time when she was forming her rock band and they were practicing into the morning hours at her home. Around 3am one of the members of the band asked why her parents didn't seem to mind the racket at these outrageous hours...all of a sudden he was interrupted by "Mr. D" as they called him, bursting into the living room with a song lyric he had just written for them.

John Durniak honored the history of photography, nourished it when it needed help, and dreamed of the future. The last time we met, we talked about the Platypus, the convergence of still and video photojournalism. He could hardly speak, but suddenly the fire came back into his eyes, and a big smile broke over his face.

John, thank you.


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