Bill Pierce's
Nuts & Bolts 
"Reflections on Carl Mydans"

His pictures are so simple and unpretentious.  You almost feel you could have taken them if you had been at the same event.  And then you remember that, in many cases, there were other photographers at the same event, and nobody got the good images that Carl did. 

Just as you are never conscious of a good playwright, composer, novelist or film director when you are involved with their work, you are not conscious of the photographer, only the subject, when you look at Carl's pictures. 
This is pretty amazing when you remember that much of Carl's work appeared on the pages of a Life Magazine where many photographers never let you forget that although they were photojournalists, they were also great ("Don't just look at my photographs; look at me.") artists!  Today, much of that imagery seems dated, somewhat pretentious and overly pictorial. Carl's work holds up in the same way that the work of Bresson, Strand, Erwitt, Lang, McCullin, Salgado and his friend Eisie hold up.  The pretentious can call this non painterly, non pictorial school of photography "snapshots" or more tolerantly - documentary or news photography.  I prefer to think of it as "snapshots by geniuses" or more pedantically - surrealism. 

I am not so sure that Carl will be pleased by all this talk of art and genius.  I am sure he would prefer to be described as a hard worker.  Carl worked as a reporter, first in Boston and then in New York.  During his lunch hour he would take pictures. One of those pictures was of Eugene Daniels talking from a soapbox on Wall Street.  He took it to Time Magazine (after failing to sell it to AP and UPI).  Time not only bought it, they sent him out on assignments.  From there he moved onto the Farm Security Administration, photographing the rural poor, along with Dorthea Lang, Arthur Rothstein,  Walker Evans, Ben Shahn,  Russell Lee and others.  Not bad for a reporter. 

Then onto Life Magazine.  A lot of tough domestic stories and then the first war story, the Russian invasion of Finland.  Thirty days, impossible cold, no light and sharing trenches with the frozen dead.  Then on to Italy, France, China and the Philippines where he was captured by the Japanese. After two years he was released and returned to the United States.  (When he checked in with his draft board after a brief rest and recovery period, the clerk said, "Where have you been all this time?"  Carl explained he had been a prisoner of war for two years.  "I know," said the clerk, "but where have you been for the last two weeks?" )  Back to Italy and France as the war turned; then back to the Pacific until the Japanese surrender.  After the war, Carl did a variety of assignments including the Bikini H bomb test.  In 1947 he became the Time-Life Bureau chief in Tokyo.  Think about that awhile.  There is a book entitled Carl Mydans, 1941 - 1951.  I can only read the title because the book is in Japanese.  It was never sold here.  The Nikkor Club chose to publish it on their 30th anniversary. 

Carl is the only photographer I know who has shot in both Greenland and Antigua.  Also Korea, Vietnam, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Romania, Easter Island, etc..  After Life closed, he worked for Time Magazine. 

In 1944 Carl had photographed General MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines.  In 1986 Susan Meiselas was covering the overthrow of the Marcos government in the Philippines.  She was looking for a high vantage point from which to shoot a street demonstration.  She spotted a platform on a structure of poles and climbed it.  It was a somewhat difficult climb. She was surprised and pleased when a hand reached down from the platform and took her camera bag and then pulled her to the top.  It was Carl. Some of the other photographers covering the Philippines at the time were Jim Nachtwey, Steve McCurry, Tony Suau, Chris Morris, Robin Moyer and Roland Neveu.  Carl was claiming to be 78 at the time, but he often fibs about his age, thinking that people are more likely to hire a younger photographer. (By the way, he also got exclusive pictures of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos after they fled.) 

Is Carl a Platypus, Dirck's impossible-to-categorize journalist who handles all aspects of a story?  Carl is a Renaissance Platypus.  There is a beautiful set of screens that are featured in the gallery of oriental art at the Metropolitan Museum.  They used to belong to Carl and Shelley. 

His daybooks are a legend.  Old China Hands writing their memoirs call Carl to find out what they were doing.  His dairy, his captions and general information on his assignments, all his assignments, are neatly filed in storage case after storage case in his home. 

Not only is he a superb writer, but he has encouraged others to write. Gordon Parks makes no secret of the fact that  it was Carl's encouragement (i.e. constant nagging and bullying) that started him writing.  Today Gordon is thought of as an exceptional photographer - and novelist and screenwriter and director. 

And, as a true Platypus, he developed all his own FSA film in jerry-rigged hotel room darkrooms as he did during the war between the Finns and the Russians. 

Perhaps, most important, Carl has taught, both by word and deed.  Sometimes he has passed on useful information.  More often he has had the patience and kindness to show us what a photojournalist should be.  More than anyone I know of, he has understood the meaning of the infinity mark scribed into our lenses.  In 1959 Carl closed his book "More Than Meets the Eye" with "I can not tell you where our history is leading us, or through what suffering, or into what era of war or peace.  But, whatever it is, I know men of good heart will be passing there." 

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