By The Photographers Who Died
In Vietnam and Indochina
Review by Marianne Fulton
This is a large book containing the photographs--sometimes the last photographs--of photojournalists who "became part of what lay before them," as David Halberstam writes in his eloquent introduction. He starts his essay by correctly pointing out that the "title says that this is a requiem for a war, but as much as anything else, this striking book is a form of homage paid by those of us who made it back from Vietnam to the memory of those who did not."
The book, edited by Horst Faas and Tim Page is published by Random House and contains an emotionally overwhelming 198 photographs, plus essays, and an index of the photographers, often with their portraits. An important ingredient is the inclusion of ALL 135 photographers who died or went missing. That is, it includes for the first time, images from the North Vietnamese campaign made by the many from that side who died. The gathering of this diverse archival material is an astonishing achievement for which the designation, "editor," falls far short.
Beginning with the 1950's photographs of Everette Dixie Reese and a historical overview of Indochina's many thousand year history by Tad Bartimus, the calm beauty of the landscape and people in Reese's work is overlaid with tales of foreign invasion and the return to harmony. Ms. Bartimus's prose is a contrasting vision of the land: from the great local guerrilla saviors as well as the mention of a future that holds Pol Pot -- this juxtaposition to the pictured peaceful rice fields is truly chilling.
A description of one early photograph will have to serve. Reese's "Hanoi, Vietnam, 1954," shows two figures walking on a sunny day. They face away from the camera and are anonymous to the viewer. The right figure is that of a young man, perhaps a student. The sun blares off his white hat and the newspaper from which he seems to be reading. An older man, possibly his teacher, walks behind with his hand on the boy's shoulder, caressing his neck. A large dark umbrella shades the man from the sunlight. They walk along the clean and carefully paved sidewalk, along a wall. Perhaps the older man needs the support of the younger. Whatever the specific story, there is no mistaking the affection of the one for the other as they share in the boy's paper. In this quiet moment separated from the war zone, as in all his pictures, Reese's work used at the beginning of the volume, before he was killed, is a revelation of concentrated seeing.
For those who watched the war in snippets on television and in the picture press, some images will be familiar. What the book succeeds in building is the context for these memorable photographs. Seeing the work of Larry Burrows again is a sad joy. Seeing a whole photo essay as it was presented in LIFE magazine is essential to understanding how information was disseminated and how the press gradually took note of the terror of the war. Seeing Burrows next to Henri Huet (AP) and Kyoichi Sawada (UPI), the viewer starts to grasp the greatness and courage of those on the front line with the troops.
Choosing and sequencing a book can feel like a murderous enterprise. As one who has organized images after a long project, I cannot imagine with what emotions the editors fought to see the picture and its place in the build-up of the war as it is pictured in this book, especially when those pictures not chosen are by good photographers and dead friends. One highlighted story is, of course, the incredible, "One Ride with Yankee Papa 13."
Incredible because in the midst of a battle, with death a very real potential for the photographer, Larry Burrows, pieces together in twenty-two pictures a metaphor for what seems to be America's (and formerly France's) experience of the war. Burrows even mounts a camera on the outside of the copter machine gun mount focused back to the helicopter and his subject.
The photo essay begins with an outdoor briefing for the marines with some sense of the seventeen helicopters and many soldiers that will be involved in the operation. Lance Cpl. James C. Farley is singled out--he is the one soldier with whom the viewer will come to empathize--and he appears gamely ready to take on the day. Through him, the reader (LIFE, April 16, 1965) must come to grips with what only ONE ride on a single day might be like. The pressure and strain builds as a helicopter is downed and the rescued lieutenant dies in front of Farley. But the reader experiences all this through the young man whom Burrows has chosen, one is not lost in the multitudes: for like the war, this is a very personal "ride" and no one--not even the living photographers--will come out unscathed. The last image states simply, "Farley gives way." In it Farley leans against some metal trunks, shields his face, and cries.
This reminded me of something Horst Faas said to me while I was working on Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America over ten years ago. "I think the best war photos I have taken have always been made when a battle was actually taking place--when people were confused and scared and courageous and stupid and showed all these things. When you look at people at the moment of truth, everything is quite human...."
Requiem is carefully paced to show how the war looked from both sides. The Ho Chi Minh trail is often a muddy knee-deep stream. A photograph by Luong Nghia Dung puts the viewer inside a truck camouflaged with bamboo matting in a convoy negotiating the mud and water of the trail south. Neither side shows a war of storybook heroics.
The book becomes grimmer as it moves through the 1960s and on to Kyoichi Sawada's photograph, "Bu Dop, Vietnam, 1967," some combination of volcanic eruption and atomic bomb seem to have overtaken what we are told was a village: "North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces have staged battles, dropped bombs, and set fires, devastating the small town on the Cambodian border." As the book reaches Cambodia the story, if possible, gets darker.
No statistics have been run on the book; I cannot tell you if it is perfectly even-handed; I do know that everyone suffered and many died in one way or another. South Vietnamese soldiers with knives at women's throats and other scenes of torture spread enough sorrow to last a lifetime--if one still has a conscious life to worry about.
Horst Faas and Tim Page have researched and fought for this volume. Both have also tried to keep the focus on the photographers it represents and their photographic legacy. But I want to share two sources on the same story to illustrate what it was like to be working, in Faas' case, as photographer and Saigon photo editor for AP during the war.
A true story from two sources: In "The Photographers," by Tad Bartimus, she reports that Oliver "Ollie" Noonan wrote home from Saigon, "If you hear that I'm coming back soon, forget it. I like this place. It's really great for a newspaperman."
In an interview on NPR recently this November, Horst Faas related in a flat accented voice one of his responsibilities as picture editor in Saigon [he also spent about 50% of his time in the field and won a Pulitzer for his portfolio in 1965] . He said, and I paraphrase, "For the photo editor himself, who was possibly the one who sent the killed colleague out on the assignment, there was a lot of work to do. The body had to be brought home and the family had to be informed and talked to. We attended funerals in the beginning. We tried to bury the mourning under activity."
Faas elaborated: "It was my responsibility to explain what happened...to go out to the place where the person was killed and see for myself what happened.... When Ollie Noonan was killed in a helicopter crash I spent 3 or 4 days walking with the troops under continuous fire until we reached the helicopter. I found the camera which had been thrown clear and the film inside was still intact--but there was almost nothing left of Ollie Noonan....[He stays while the scene is "sorted out" and the body retrieved.]
The Vietnam war was the accessible war, perhaps the last. It may have caused a government backlash regarding access (hence Grenada). Some of the greatest photojournalists of the century were lost there. One thing is for sure--it changed photojournalism forever.
In Requiem, the photographers are with us once more and their beautiful, terrible, revealing, unknown work stands in mute testimony to their greatness. It is an excellent photographic book, and there are not so many. The reproductions and design are very good. The writers are THE writers of the time. No nonsense intrudes.
For those of us alive today who experienced
it first-hand, or as dinner time fare, or as college/street protest, this
book sits very close to the heart.
Marianne Fulton is the Chief Curator of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York. She has curated over 75 exhibitions at the Eastman House, many of which highlighted the work of individual photojournalists. In 1988 she published EYES OF TIME: PHOTOJOURNALISM IN AMERICA for which she received the Leica Medal of Excellence as Person of the Year, 1989. She is currently organizing three exhibitions for Photokina '98.
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