Monday, February 08, 2021

Fifty Years On...

 I stumble a bit, me, the former Math major, when I try and do the 'math.'  Last fall was fifty years:  I arrived in Vietnam in October 1970 following a two year stint freelancing for TIME in DC and Miami bureaus.  Frankly, I never thought I would be the one writing about something 'fifty years ago...." but here we are.  I found the assignment work in Miami was rather thin after TIME closed the bureau and moved the reporter (the wonderfully irrascible Joe Kane) to that new bastion of Southern politics and energy, Atlanta.  Over the summer of ’70 I'd stayed for a few weeks in John Olson’s (https://www.life.com/photographer/john-olson/)   Chelsea apartment while he went back to Saigon to work on a LIFE story about a soldier's return to civilian life after a year in the bush.  When John came back to NY in July of that summer, he said that there was still a lot of freelance work in Vietnam, that it might be worth my pursuing - and in any case would be more interesting than languishing in Miami.    I was by that time quite ‘over’ Miami, and those long hot weeks of little work, and steamy hot sunbaked cars, so I bought a one-way ticket from Salt Lake City to Saigon (I left my car with my brother in DC, where it was stolen a month later and never found.)  My first time in Asia, I bought 4 Nikomats ($85 each) while passing through Tokyo, had my first authentic Chinese dumplings, in Hong Kong, and landed in Saigon in early October, with two hundred rolls of film, and a $500 'guarantee'  (a basic "sum" to be used to support a story, different from the other concept of 'day rate' where you were hired by the day)   from John Durniak at TIME, a gift really.  John could be a tough and demanding editor, but he could be terribly kind if he thought one little step would help you on your way. And though it eventually led to his undoing, he was a man who had more ideas in an hour than most editors, certainly photo editors, had in a lifetime.  (He blew through  his annual freelance budget at the NYTimes in one January week, when he assigned photographers to cover every one of the newly liberated Iran hostages in 1981,  the week they were freed. But boy, did that guy have ideas.)  


When I told John I was heading to Vietnam, he said to me… “do a story for me -  call it  Children of War…”    I paused, then bagan to ask, “John, what do you want me to do… ?”  and before I could finish the sentence, he said “No, no!  You tell ME the Story.  YOU’re the journalist, your pictures should show ME the story.”  Over the decades since, I have been immensely glad for that teaching moment.


John had sent a note to the Saigon bureau telling them that I was coming, and like most distant enclaves - especially in the pre-Instant communication era - they were rather defensive of their established team,  and in the beginning only begrudgingly welcoming to me.  They couldn’t understand why TIME would send someone all the way to Saigon to do a story on "children of war" which half a dozen of the regulars could easily have handled.  They didn’t understand that John’s assignment for me was to basically help me cover my airfare just to get there, and that I was coming on my own, not being sent. (I paid $512 for a one way, with stops in Tokyo and Hong Kong.)  John Saar, the LIFE correspondent, a loquacious and witty Brit with a very enterprizing side, ran into me on day One as I was trying to introduce myself at the Time office (Room 5 at the Continental Palace hotel) and mentioned that Larry Burrows was leaving the next day, probably just in his room across the square at the Caravelle, and why don’t I go say hi.  I was of course a bit reticent about just knocking sight  unseen on Larry’s door, but when it opened, there was a big broad smile, and within a few seconds he’d poured me a scotch. We sat for an hour, Larry half-reclining on his bed, surrounded by a half dozen giant, gaping Halliburtons, talking about LIFE, his stories, and what it was like working "in country."  I was quite amazed how, as we talked about past pictures of his that I remembered, that he spoke of them by the title that LIFE had given them in the layout. One in particular “The Degree of Disillusion” had a few pictures I remembered well, but I recall thinking that I was so inept as a journalist that I’d never given any of my TIME stories a real title.  Larry was sincere, unsparing of criticisms of the difficulty of his own work (he was there finishing a story about a young Vietnamese boy, a casualty of the war, who was returning to his village with newly done leg braces and crutches, things which worked all right in a hospital but were less useful in a small village with unpaved paths.   He was incredibly generous of his time to a newbie such as myself.  I have always tried to remember to carry that forward, when I meet someone just starting out with dreams perhaps greater than their talent.


Larry left the next day, and for a month, I settled into my sparse, abjectly colonial room in the Continental Palace Annex (so sparse that capitalizing the "A" in Annex is certainly overkill) , a charm-free building across TuDo street from the real deal.  It was a big spacious room, but with lights and and a fan dating to many previous regimes, and a small squadron of geckos who cavorted unhindered on the walls with all the precision of the Stanford Marching Band.  I left the US with maybe a thousand bucks. Maybe.  I was paying about four bucks a night to stay there, though I’d been given a recommendation to try the nearby Hotel Royale, run by the kindly Corsican, Monsieur Ottavi, who had played host to the likes of Horst Faas, Peter Arnett and dozens of others of the more adventurous ilk.   A room at the Royale was about three bucks a night, and each morning that first month that I woke, the chintzy skin flint in me ached with the knowledge that I had spent a perfectly useful dollar so frivolously .  I did move after a month, and lucky for me I did, for it was at the Royale that I met and became friends with the man who would inadvertently mentor me, the man for whom merely being in his presence would teach you more about how to be a photographer than any school could. 


He was Phillip Jones Griffiths, a Welsh photographer working through Magnum, who was in his 4th or 5th year of covering Vietnam, and who within a year or so would finally produce his incredible photographic book, “Vietnam Inc.”  Phillip was someone who enjoyed palavering, and he was pretty good about dealing with the company of tyros such as myself.  At a small Chinese cafe on TuDo we more than once joined any of a half dozen other aspirants, Phillip always ordering beef with ginger.   Sometime after I’d been in country for a month or so, and still trying to work out which orphanage to visit, and which hospital to survey, Phillip unloaded on me, in a way I’ll never forget.  “Being a photographer in Vietnam has nothing to do with doing some silly story for TIME or Newsweek.  It’s about getting into the life of the country." [there was a pause you could drive a truck through, here, for added emphasis on what was to follow:]   "You should fill your rucksack with fifty rolls of film, take a plane to Danang, and don’t come back to Saigon till you’ve shot it all.”   


It was probably the best advice I ever got.   I spent much of that winter (well… a South Vietnamese winter…)  working on the story, shooting for a few other publications -  USNews, and with Gloria Emerson for the New York Times.  But most of my time was spent on the road trying to run down pictures of the lives of South Vietnamese children whose lives had been in jeopardy because of the war.  In January of 1971, it began to look like something was brewing in I Corps (the northern most tier of South Vietnam).  Phillip was leaving for London, and it looked as though nothing, even a big invasion story, would keep him in Saigon.  But one afternoon he said “I think Larry’s back in town.   I saw a 707 coming in to Tan Son Nhut looking like this…” and he held his hand up at a 45 degree angle, intimating that Larry’s equipment (he was famous for always traveling with strobes, a 4x5, a medium format outfit, as well as 35mm) had once again pulled the tail-end of a jet much closer to the ground than the nose. Philip left for London, bequeathing me his AM/FM/Cassette player, as journalistic gravity began pulling the press corps to the north of the country.


I saw Larry a few times in Saigon before we all found ourselves near Quang Tri, much further north, awaiting for what would turn out to be the Lam Son 719 invasion of Laos, an attempt by the US and ARVN troops to try and cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, slowing the arrival of men and materiel heading from the North into the South.  The first night, near the Laotian border, there was a big encampment of ARVN troops, getting ready to bivouac for the night, and head into Laos the next day.  Just at dusk, with a background of the soft muffled sounds of people getting ready to settle in for the night, a horrific series of explosions ripped an area just a hundred yards or so, from me. An American Navy fighter had accidently dropped a late-hanging cluster bomb on this concentration of ARVN troops, the definition of 'friendly fire,' as it was leaving the area.  I huddled in fear from my first experience with aerial bombs, jumping into a cavernous shell hole with another newbie.  I looked up, into his frightened face, mirroring my own, I'm sure, and said "Is this your first?"   He nodded yes, and from that moment,  George Lewis of NBC and I were friends.  Looking up and across the clearing,  I saw a figure rise up and run towards the terrible cries of pain and anguish, not away from them.  It was Larry, shooting what turned out to be his last set of published pictures in the fading light.  I'd already thought, how can anyone shoot a picture, let alone color, in this almost non existent light.  But Larry was a master of his gear, and those pictures would end up in LIFE the following week.  I ended up spending the night in the same crater I'd met George, sharing it with a few ARVN soldiers, and was pissed the next morning that one of them had swiped my brand new, and virtually unused, Buck survival knife.  


The next day, as dozens of APC’s ran the up the Route 9 dirt road into Laos, many of us, trying unsuccessfully to catch a ride across the border, stood near a sign erected for the purpose of reminding all Americans that their presence on the ground in Laos was not only not required, it was banned.  We all signed our names on the warning sign, as if to make it more real. 


photo: Roger Mattingly/Stars & Stripes


The next day, the press corps  moved en masse in dusty trucks back to Khe Sanh, the former Marine base which had become a household word in the spring of 1968, where we hoped to find a chopper ride into Laos.   For the first time in several years, American helicopters wouldn’t just routinely let you ride with them (if they had space.)   The word had come down, no doubt from Kissinger and Nixon in the Oval Office, to keep the press at bay.  No one seemed to be going anywhere, and the following night I was camped in a press tent at Khe Sanh, when there was a sapper attack, North Vietnamese troops getting through the wire, tossing explosives, destroying helicopters, and causing some number of casualties before being killed themselves.   I ‘d gone back to Quang Tri to ship that film to Saigon, and the next morning managed a chopper ride back to Khe Sanh, arriving after nearly everyone else,  where I would start again trying to talk my way into Laos.  That's where the story was, and those were the pictures we somehow knew must exist.  


It was the era of that Nixonian phrase “Vietnamization” and as the ARVN were taking more charge of things, a different kind of order and approach was needed.  The ARVN had a lot of helicopters and guns, but the pilots weren’t always the most well trained or experienced. I wandered around the chopper pad, looking for the Press officer in charge, a very starched, very 'in charge,' Vietnamese Major.   Gathered there were several of the first wave, the people who were always the very first to land somewhere and make their pictures.  Larry was amongst them of course, as were Henri Huet, the Franco-VN photographer with AP, Kent Potter of UPI (sitting on the left with the boonie hat in the  "No US  Personnel" picture)  Keisaburo Shimamoto, a Japanese freelancer working for Newsweek, and Tu Vu, a young Vietnamese Army photographer.  

Also in the mix was LIFE stringer Hal Ellithorpe, a writer who often went with Larry to make sure to get all the names spelled right in the captions. (This was still the era of writers serving as, essentially, note takers for photographers.  Where the hell did THAT idea disappear to?)  


The Major in charge then started boarding the ARVN "Press" chopper with that small group, and I tried coaxing him into including me in the mix.  I did, after all, represent TIME Magazine.  He didn’t want to be bothered, least of all by me, and brusquely told me to come back later (in modern parlance I think he was telling me to Fuck Off, which is more or less what I was telling him as well.)  I remember that feeling of being the one guy who didn't get to go, the one guy whose editors would drill a new asshole for not being competitive, the one guy who didn't make a picture of the biggest story in months.  I was still trying to make a good impression after 4 months "in country," in a town filled with smart and capable war photographers.  After all, you could only get by so long with 'not quite artsy enough' pictures of rows of helicopters, loading up troops to head west.  


The turbines of the Press chopper started whining, and with it, my understanding of how screwed I was - the lone magazine guy standing by watching, instead of being on board.  Those aboard got strapped into the chopper just as TIME’s bureau chief Jon Larsen came up to me and said, wisely, that maybe I should just get the hell out of there for while, and cool down, “… otherwise you’ll never get to Laos.”    As I walked away I had a very clear view of that first wave of photographers, my envy no doubt getting the better of me, getting ready to make some important pictures of this very news-worthy invasion.  I remember all the noise - Huey helicopters could be very noisy, and several of them could be extremely noisy.  But for the moment as the choppers became gently shrouded in their own dust, I could only think of how I’d been skunked, that TIME was the only major mag not on that chopper, and that I was supposed to be THAT guy.  I was pretty down for a few minutes.


I wandered around the base camp for a while, trying to photograph groups of ARVN soldiers and Marines, and after an hour or so, ran into John Saar again, the LIFE reporter, who had just arrived from Quang Tri.   I told him that Hal and Larry had taken off in the helicopter and were probably in Laos by now, shooting pictures.   We made our way eventually back to the ARVN TOC, (the Operations Center ) where the 'press' Major worked.  A moment later that same Major came out through the door, stood hesitantly for a moment and then said “I think maybe your friends shoot down, Laos.”   And with no other explanation, he turned and walked back inside.  John and I were panicked to hear this but we weren’t allowed inside the TOC and stood waiting for a few  minutes to see if he would return.  Then  I looked up and saw Hal Ellithorpe, the LIFE stringer, walking towards us from maybe 50 yards away.  I breathed a sigh, and said to John, “ well, it can’t be Larry’s chopper, because Hal was on it, and there he is.”  


As Hal approached I waved at him, and said “Boy, am I glad to see you.  The Major just said he thought the photographer’s helicopter was shot down, but” — looking at him “obviously not.”


“No,” he said. “I wasn’t on the chopper.  We did a hover test, the pilot said it was too heavy, and Larry looked at me and said 'we’re a picture magazine, you can come later.'  I never left.”


At that moment I realized something awful, in the middle of a war, had happened. Several people I knew, on a helicopter that I had tried my damnedest to board, were now missing. We waited without much more information for an hour, then I walked off and tried to belay my angst by shooting some pictures.  Late in the afternoon I caught a ride back to Quang Tri, where the press center was, and shall remember for the rest of my life, the look on BBC’s Brian Barron’s face when I walked in at dusk, near the end of the briefing, and Brian turned to me and whispered, “ have you heard, Larry Burrows was shot down over Laos.”  In a world of so many chances, and in war where you never really knew what was coming next, that news just stopped me cold.   I’d been with them all the previous few days, and it seemed like an impossibility that they might have all so quickly perished. 


It was years before recovery crews were able to gain access to the area where the helicopter crashed. (AP reporter Richard Pyle and photographer Horst Faas wrote a powerful book about their many years long attempts to recover the bodies… “Lost Over Laos….”   well worth a read.)  Amidst the remains the only convincing bit of evidence was a piece of a Leica camera, traced back to one purchased by Larry years before, at a store in London, and a watch strap which was determined to have been Larry's.  Those few remains, gathered decades after the crash, were the basis for the memorial for fallen correspondents at the Newseum in Washington DC.  No doubt that missed ride has been something I have pondered my whole adult life, wondering what little favor fate threw me that day. I think I have tried to live up to the sense of mission which photoreporters undertake, to tell stories, and to do so with compassion, truth and always accompanied by a vague wonder of those talented photographers whose lives were cut short —    “what would THEY do here today?”     Each day you work as a photographer you face issues, some trivial, others more grave. And you never know what is going to be the moment of grand success or total failure.  But it is that desire to tell the story, to reach out with the language that needs no words, which keeps us going.


Fifty years on....  David Burnett           February, 2021


  


Thursday, February 04, 2021

They Dont Make it Easy

 Yesterday i confessed that i had been stupidly upset about not getting a cover vaccine.  It’s just frustrating not to be as active as is possible in order to achieve success. But we actually have been actively pursuing all the possibilities — it’s just without much success.  That’s not what I want to blob about today.  


It’s worth mentioning that i probably have the most wonderful friends ever put on this planet. It has been difficult for me to find joy in their successful inoculations. And that’s the “no fairs’ .  of course I am delighted that they will be able to see friends and travel without the silly concerns th
ose of us who have not been stuck in the arm with some kind of element that wards off the virus that has caused this pandemic. 

Maybe it’s just the idea that I feel limited in my choices.  When someone tells you that you can’t have all the freedoms that existed for you a year ago, it’s a problem.  There has never been a time when anyone told me I couldn’t do something, it presented a challenge.  Whether it was staying out late or playing where we were not allowed to play as a kid, or functioning without mask in our now everyday life, it always presented or presents a challenge.  The new reality is that you have to wear a mask for your safety and the health of those with whom you hang out.  

Anyway, thats not what I wanted to mention in this blob.  My friends have been so great a comforting me, supporting me and try to make things seem better.  They know it drives me crazy when someone says, have you tried this or that.  Of course, we have tried everything.  
But they want to make it better, which no one can do other than the Publix Covid line.  
We will get there, I just have to remember to breathe.

We’re just sayin’...Iris

Friday, January 01, 2021

Welcome to New Years....

 Allow me to digress …. like you have a choice.  When we lived in DC and then Virginia, our house was the center of entertaining, especially on holidays.  We were famous for our New Years, Passover, Thanksgiving, Hannukah and Super Bowl celebrations.  New Years always included caviar, blini and until we broke the machine, melted raclette and sweet gerkins.  One year David came back from Russia with a dog food bowl sized container filled with caviar.  In fact, since everyone always hung out in the kitchen, we realized the kitchen was too small and built a kitchen addition.   Passover we usually wore silly hats, and Hannukah was the time for songs, karaoke, latkes, and dancing.   David and I got engaged one New Years Eve and decided we needed to get married within three weeks or we would talk ourselves out of it. It might have been four weeks because we didn’t want any silly old wedding to interfere with our Super Bowl party.  Some of the best New Years Eve parties were with good friends and always included David taking pictures in the magic chair in his studio. We still have the chair, it is still magic and it is in his new studio.  For the last few years we have celebrated with family at Captain Jakes, a place which is owned by friends, and the food is excellent.  Always a good time.


A few years ago our friend Karen got married on New Years Eve, which was fabulous.  There were  two icings. One was on the cake and the other was that we could see the fireworks  across the Hudson River in New York City.  


After this terrible year we were looking for a happy celebration.  We made reservations at one of our favorite places, the Cafe Chardonnay.  But at about 5:00 David ran into a few neighbors, who we call our 'pod people' and the dinner decision was changed to a socially distanced drink at the pool.  We decided to get dressed up. I wore glitter in honor of my mother - David and Paula merely dazzled. It was just terrific.  This is a nice small community where people are covid careful and good fun.  After the pool drink we came home, drank some more, set the table in the formal dining room and had a steak and salad dinner.  It was a perfect evening.  It is unlikely we made it to midnight, but since there was no colorful antics in Times Square - other than a tipsy Anderson Cooper -  and Dick Clark is dead, it didn’t matter. Celebrations in New York have become so complicated a good time  is hard to find.


We are looking forward to our vaccines, in the near future, and we are looking forward to a little normalcy in the coming year.  That is not too much to ask, even for the people who are not so normal (yes, I consider myself a part of that group.)   We're just sayin'... Iris

Friday, December 25, 2020

A DMZ Christmas 50 Years Ago

 Back in the early 1960s, in the wake of Sputnik and such fanciful terms as "the Space Race," the "Missile Gap," and Pupnik (Sputnik 2 carried a little Russian terrier named Laika), and, in the words of one of the old geezers (gee, he must have been at least 50!) at Jack's Barber Shop on Highland Drive, "if they can put a dog in space, they surely can send a missile over here." When you're 12, and sitting on the wood board the barbers used to elevate children in the big (and mechanically quite amazing) 'barber's chair', words like that from the geezer seemed to carry a lot of weight. Like all the men in that room, he had unquestionably served 15 years before in World War II, and may have even been a witness to the sound, light, and destruction show known as Stalin's Organ. ( A multiple tubed rocket launcher which fired, depending on design, up to 4 dozen rockets all at once, a blizzard of terrifyingly howling explosions and noise). Post Sputnik, when the US briefly expressed regret that the Soviets hadn't waited until early 1958 to celebrate IGY (the International Geophysical Year, a period of joint exploration and research) but had just gone ahead and launched their first satellites without waiting, wanting to let the world in general, and the US in particular, know that their science was as good as our science. It led to a remarkably nimble jump in American education: all of a sudden the late 50s and early 60s were producing one advanced science or math program after the next. I was pretty good at math, not bad in science, and from '58 onwards thought I would be spending my life building rockets for the US space program. The new programs were innovative (I remember the 8th grade Math workbook, created by U/I Champaign Campus) and we students felt pretty juiced. I even knew what integrals and derivatives were, long before those words became popular in the rest of society. (And today, I know they exist, but remain incapable of even describing them.) I was in AP Math the whole of high school, and Mr Barton, the much beloved math teacher at Olympus High School, was our leader. He'd flown helicopters in Korea, and applied many of the little things he learned to math in general, and life in particular. He once described the subtle talent needed to fly a chopper. "You can't," he said, "actually MOVE a control on a helicopter." That would be too much. Over correction. You just have to THINK about it, and that will be about the right amount of pressure." Stuff like that, uttered in a flurry of theorems, has stayed with me for these 55+ years. Most of all, he implored us to slow down, and to "think clearly." For years, on the back of my Nikons, in the 70s, with the arrival of the Dymo label maker, I had the words "Think Clearly" sitting just below the viewfinder of my F and F2s. Our little home room Math class was full of geniuses: Don, Diana, Randy. We were only about a dozen in the class, but we knew we were lucky to be there. My senior year, I placed 11th in the State Math Contest. Not bad, you say, and I would have to agree. But in fact I was only 4th in my Home Room. Yea, it was that kind of crowd.

I probably would have gone on to build rockets ( which no one really did, but you might have the chance to design the buffer valve on a LOX tanking connector for a Saturn V F-1 rocket engine) but my sophomore year Calc professor mumbled as he tried to explain the dark secrets of advanced math, and I fled in a panic to Poli Sci, which became my major, and left me free to pursue photojournalism, my other great interest, which grew from working on the high school yearbook Junior and Senior years. I had a great break in the winter of my Senior year of high school. The little local weekly paper for whom I'd been shooting the odd assignment, and getting paid a whopping $3... or was it $5? was purchased by new owners. (Was it $3 or $5? ... either way, it was enough to keep me interested.) The 'break' part of that was that the two guys who bought the paper were my mom's cousins. And when they enquired about the source for pictures in the paper, the young woman who assigned me, and took delivery of the pictures, told them it was a neighborhood kid, Dave Burnett. What a frolic of serendipity. They needed someone to shoot pictures, and I needed someone to publish them. I worked all spring and into the summer of my Senior year (yes, 17 year olds DO think they know everything!) and it was a wonderful, engaging, exciting thing to see my pictures run each week. The one sucky job was the day-long traverse of the city to shoot pictures of houses for the real estate page. The ads apparently made a fair amount of dough, and offering to photograph the house for the display ad was a marketing plus. It was still an era of minimalism, and if I had 16 houses to shoot, I would start in North Salt Lake, and work my way south over the next few hours, with a book of maps in hand (news flash: there was no Google Maps in 1964!) For 16 to 18 houses, I could shoot two frames of each place and end up with one roll of film. It was a lot of driving, very little shooting, but I had the order right on my poop sheet, and the right houses' picture always seemed to accompany the correct write-up. The one time I freaked out was due to a darkroom error which could have gone horribly wrong. I spooled the film onto a Nikkor reel, dropped it in the tank, covered the tank and put the lights on, only to discover I had put it in the Fixer. Holy Shit, John Wayne, what do I do now? Lights out, cover off, pull reel... rinse in water, put in D-76. Incredibly, it actually worked, and I was saved from having to drive the 16 house circuit yet one more time. For any photographer of my era, if you didn't put the film directly in the fixer, with the lights out, at least once, well, hell , you're not really a photographer.
It was a fun time, and I only wish I had been a little better on captioning. Lack of precise information, which at the time didn't seem like such a big deal, is something which has followed me for decades. I still admire the wire service and daily paper photogs who knew that no picture of theirs would ever be seen if it didn't have a proper caption. Working, as I ended up doing for six decades, for magazines - weekly and monthlies, it never seemed THAT important. Pictures in magazines seem to fill a slightly different role, and the necessity of detail was not as demanding as the daily press was. For that I remain somewhat sorrowful, as the stories behind the pictures, those little picayune details, eventually offer greater illumination than the image alone can provide. The arrival of the online world of photography has provided a few very positive moments for me. About five years ago, I had a message to call a guy in Illinois, who had called the Contact office in New York, looking to speak with me. When I called him back, we spoke a long while, and he told me how, forty-odd years after his time as a grunt in Vietnam (1970-71) he would often start to think of his friends, especially those who didn't come back, and that around Christmas, those moments came with greater frequency. He had been stationed on the old ConThien base on the DMZ, and had won a lottery his Sgt. had held for two guys from that base - out of a couple hundred - to get flown south to Phu Bai, and attend a Bob Hope Xmas Show. He described how, a few nights earlier, being unable to sleep, he hopped on his computer late that evening, and typing in "Bob Hope Phu Bai 1970."
A cool picture popped up of a bunch of GIs in a large crowd, watching the show. The picture wasn't Bob Hope or Johnny Bench or Joie Heatherton. It was the soldiers. The audience. A very energized audience. And as he looked at the picture, and blew it up, he realized he was IN the picture. Our conversation went on quite a while, became very emotional as we spoke of those long ago days. I told him that I'd had to leave the Bob Hope show early to catch a chopper back to Alpha-4/Con Thien, the same base where he had been stationed. I got there in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve, wandered around a good bit, spent some time in the TOC (the Tactical Operations Center) before getting a bit of sleep. UPI had sent one of their guys, Barney Siebert, to do a feature on the DMZ at Christmas, and we all spent much of the evening trying to make sense of it all. I recall that they flew in turkey dinners for the troops, yet it was anything but a White Christmas. Early the next morning, the first chopper in brought a crusty old Naval officer who hopped off the bird, and within minutes was cutting up with some of the enlisted guys, the ones who looked like they might have been staying up on guard duty all night. The Admiral, whose craggy face and puckish smile I still remember, was named John McCain. He was CINCPAC (commander of the Pacific forces), and as he hoisted a breakfast beer, and joked around with those enlisted guys, his son, another John McCain was a prisoner in Hanoi, a few hundred miles to the North. In 2008, I shared this story, and picture with Senator McCain, and he was grateful to have this photograph on the wall of his office.

Admiral McCain (CINCPAC) Christmas 1970


The young soldier who found himself in my picture, Terry Knox, also gave me a gift, 45 years later. We spoke of all those things: being a grunt, Con Thien, the unlikelihood of being chosen to attend the show, his great surprise years later at realizing he was IN the photograph I'd shot. When I had a job in Illinois a couple of years ago, he drove down, and we had a coffee, a catch up, and a very big hug. Sometimes those hugs are really the grist of what we come to appreciate in this life.
I am constantly amazed at the reach which the internet has created, even for those of us who were really lousy caption writers. One of the assignments I did for the weekly paper - The Rocky Moutnain Review - in Salt Lake in the summer of 1966 was to spend a part of an afternoon at Ballet West, a company of talented dancers under the direction of William Christensen (even 54 years on, I remember his name without having to look it up!) During that afternoon session, a couple of rolls of Tri-x (in the era when there wasn't a story you couldn't DO with a couple of rolls of Tri-x!) I photographed a young dancer at rest, at the barre, on point, and looking like a cocked slingshot, ready to be fired at a passing mailbox. We never spoke (yea, that's a whole other essay) but I found her visually charming, adorable, and eminently photogenic. I got her name, we ran a picture - or maybe a couple, I don't remember, a week later, and I felt like I had actually come up with a cool picture just by being there, and looking around. Looking around is the key. My old pal Joe Cantrell, who had Cherokee blood in his background, had taken a name which I have always felt perfectly summed up our mission. In those moments, he would call himself "Walks Slowly, Looking." It is what we do, when things go right.
Suki Smith / Ballet West 1966
photograph ©2020 David Burnett/Contact

So my picture of young dancer Suki Smith ran "not quite as big as I would have liked" in the Rocky Mountain Review, and for 54 years that was pretty much that. Then a couple of months ago my brother in law, Larry Cofer, newly armed with an Ancestry account, tracing his own families' story as well as ours, took a minute to look for my dancer. It became a long and not uncomplicated process, but at one point I found what looked like a connection to her, and wrote a note on FB. (I always look for the first names that are the least common. That gives you a chance, at least.) And tonight I received this message:
"Oh my goodness, this is amazing! Suki is my mother & was still dancing up until a few years ago. Thank you so much for sharing this with me."
Photographers view the world slightly differently than most. We see, we stop and look, we notice, and above all, we try to take that wonderment of what we see, and preserve it, to give it a fuller, extra life, one which we hope can be shared. Pictures tell their own stories, and when they give you a chance to cross the chasm of time, in this case, 54 years, it's like a gift. Photography is.... Memory.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

No Longer Youngest

 You can’t get to my age and not think about what you want to accomplish in the years you have left on this planet.  When someone says he/she went to the other side, I find this description is so much more palatable than; Oh, he/she died, kicked the bucket, passed away, or was terminated by the Mandalorian.  What was really on my mind was,  “why am I thinking I need to accomplish anything”. As it happens being a fourth quarter queen has been quite satisfying.  But in the back of my mind I keep thinking about something Judith Viorst wrote in her book “When Did I Get to be 40 and Other Atrocities”  At some point when she is describing her life she mentions that she will never be the youngest to do anything anymore.She also says that real love is when your husband is late and you wonder whether he was having an affair or he got hit by a truck and you hope he got hit by a truck.  Needless to say, Judith Viorst is one of my favorite writers. 


 Moving on... or moving back to the accomplishments part of this blob. There comes a point when we no longer put our age on a resume.  In addition,  we try to avoid anything that makes us look ancient, which is quite difficult.   If a stranger looked at my resume they might think, geez how did she do all that?  Obviously, the answer is — wait for it,  she got old.


There are some things that I would still like to accomplish, like getting “Gefilte Fish the Musical” produced, but again Judith expresses my feeling better than I ever could:


I used to rail against my compromises.

I yearned for the wild music, the swift race.

But happiness arrived in new disguises:

Sun lighting a child's hair.  A friend's embrace.

Slow dancing in a safe and quiet place.

The pleasures of an ordinary life.


I'll have no trumpets, triumphs, trails of glory.

It seems the woman I've turned out to be

Is not the heroine of some grand story.

But I have learned to find the poetry

In what my hands can touch, my eyes can see.

The pleasures of an ordinary life.


We used to make fun of the people who went to Florida, or if you lived in the West, to Palm Springs or Palm Desert.  But now I get it — the cold and the snow are simply too much work.  What"s funny is that when my parents did their yearly migration to Hallandale Fl. we thought that they, and their friends were old.  In fact, you had to be older or you weren’t allowed past the Georgia border.  


So what does all this rambling mean.  Nothing really, except I only want to stay on this side for as long as I’m functional, healthy and able to enjoy each day.  And the fact that I will not ever be the youngest to achieve anything, isn’t too painful anymore.  We’re just sayin’ ...Iris

Monday, December 14, 2020

Those Holiday Movies

 So I promised to write every day. I Lied. It's just that there is so much bullshit to sift through its hard to get my balance.  Yesterday the TV miraculously went on and was tuned to MSNBC, my news channel of choice -  not really - its just that all the networks do happy news and its hard to be happy when another 3000 people died, and are dying everyday.  Anyway Ali Velshi was in Michigan watching trucks leave the lab with the Covid vaccines. As it happens he was interviewing an expert on immunizations who was talking about how it took seven years to develop the covid vaccine, not seven months.  Because the research was based on Ebola and Sars data. At some point while the Dr. was talking, Velshi said, “We need to take a break from this discussion to see the trucks leave the lab. Its an historic event.” 

Whats wrong with this picture?  It is seriously warped to call trucks leaving a lab, Historic. Its kind of like the “breaking news” label.  Everything is "breaking news."  My guess is the label is supposed to make people think that they are going to hear something unusual, important, even startling.  That is never going to happen because when everything is soooooo impactful, then nothing's impactful. This is why people cannot possibly take the news seriously.  Right now there are several kinds of “news.” Happy news, Entertainment news, and Biased news, depending on what you read and what you watch.  Probably the closest you will get to real news is PBS, but even that information can be editorial rather than facts.  For those of us in the receiving side,  all this bullshit information is simply noise.


Now let’s talk about real news.  As many of you may remember, Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies, are among my favorites.  The casting in the past has been pretty much plain vanilla. By that I mean Handsome straight white people. But in the past few months there has been a change.  The lead characters are sometimes Black or even Asian, and even interracial and .....hold your breath... sometimes they are gay.  Lifetime movies are a little more overt with their single sex couples. Also, not all the people are attractive. Sometimes they are downright unattractive or on the pudgy side.  What a relief. All those years that we aspired to be perfection zapped in a single holiday season. Here’s a fact:  The absence of people of color was noticeable. What was more noticeable was that most of the people of color (black asian,brown, red) looked like handsome white people with lots of make-up. It cannot be that I am the only person who was disturbed by this.  


Anyway, those movies should probably be boycotted but I simply cannot resist the totally mindless entertainment in this fantasy/other reality, with the same script repeated in every single one of these dramas, whether they are happy or sad.  They don’t touch my heart, but the good news is that they also don’t touch my mind.  Happiest holidays. We're just sayin...Iris

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

More Than the Speed of Sound

 As you start to become a person about whom it can be said that you are 'of a certain age,' the definition of "certain age" can take on a lot of different meanings.  We spend so much of our lives imagining that we might live to a ripe ol' age, and barring accidents and illness, we just might.  But in a world where the news is instantaneous, a mile wide and a half inch thick, the passing of notables is something which briefly grabs our attention, usually very briefly, and lets us reflect on their lives and contributions.  Sometimes the contributions are concrete - discovery of a star system, or creating of a vaccine against a raging disease. Other times it is a bit more metaphysical - just try governing a country with 400 cheeses.  I remember how in his late 70s my dad started to get tired of his friends passing away - golf buddies, friends from the jewelry business. He just didn't want to think about it after a while.  I have always thought it might have something to do with how we acknowledge that in our friends, we see ourselves, and start to feel our own vulnerability, and mortality.  This week with the passing of former French President Giscard d'Estaing, and General Chuck Yeager, we see two notables, their life's work now ended.  I spent a lot of time photographing VGE during his 7 years presidency, and it remains a memorable time for me, especially when I see the ridiculous moustache and hair I was sporting in the 70s.  (What was I thinking?)    In the 1990s, at the apex of my advertising career, I photographed Chuck for ROLEX.  (Yea, my dad worked for OMEGA for years, but hey, business is business!)  Most of the people I photographed for ROLEX (Cynthia Gregory, Placido Domingo, Picaboo Street among others) were top-notch, easy to work with, and considering that there was nothing to look at on the back of my camera except the tab from a film box, very patient.  (That's why we had light meters!  Try it sometime.)  


With Chuck, it was agreed that we would all meet at an airport in central Florida. "We" meaning Chuck Yeager, my art director, the guy who owned the P-51 (painted to resemble Chucks WW2 plane, the Glamorous Glennis) and the account rep. (The account rep is the person who handles the $3000 watch during the photo shoot, though in this case, I think Chuck brought his own.)  It was a crisp mid morning light that graced us, and as usual I had no assistant, no lights, no nothing. Just a chance.


We shot in front of the wing for a while (the ROLEX ad), then as he slowly tired of the moment, moved to the back othe plane where he could throw a glance up at Glennis' tailplane.  It was all over in 20 minutes or so, and afterwords, sitting in the car, I made damn sure every roll of shot film made it into a  caption envelope.  The stuff was treated like gold.  


We sometimes have this passing moments when you are in the company of greatness. It's never really been my way to ask for autographs, at least for myself.  But merely breathing the same air as VGE or Chuck Yeager, or any of the last ten Presidents, lets you share a moment to which you hope you can add a photograph, or two.  Those are the momentos, those are the autographs.  It's a gift to be a photographer, and one which we don't take for granted.  We're just sayin'...David


Wednesday, December 02, 2020

But For the Grace of God

There was some shopping to be done today so I volunteered to do it. I Got all my Covid paraphernalia organized. Mask,check, wipes check, gloves check. You know the drill and are probably just as sick of it as we are. The checkout line was not to long, there was only one woman in front of me on line. She had a moderate amount of stuff and then proceeded to go carefully though the items deciding how much she really needed them. It was a little tedious and I almost said something, but as I watched how painful it was for her to have to make the decision about what she could afford, I just kept quiet. How lucky we are not to have to decide between food, clothing and medication.


The last time we were in New York we were struck by the number of small businesses that had closed. And struck by the increase of people who were homeless and just seeking a little help. It is truly heartbreaking. It is also frustrating because no matter how much we can give, there is no way we can help everyone. We are somewhat comforted by the number of public service organizations that do provide meals and  places to stay. But it seems not to be enough. Before the pandemic there was an older woman on First Avenue who was the person to whom I gave a dollar or two every time I saw her. (It was very “there but for God go I”). Selective giving was a lesson I learned from my friend Phoebe when we were together in Calcutta. The poverty was overwhelming and I asked her how she was able to deal with so much pain. She told me that since she could not give to everyone because there were hundreds of people asking for help, she decided to pick out one person, usually a child, and give her a small amount of money every day. While we were traveling through India I joined her in this effort. It never occurred to me that I would have to do that in this country as well. In addition, where there was one woman on the corner, now there are five.


There is no safety net for people who are out of work, who are getting evicted, are homeless, sick or can’t feed their families. Witch McConnell and the rest of the republican senators, who have warm homes, lots to eat, and don’t have to worry about when their next paycheck will arrive, basically do not give a damn. They will use any excuse not to come up with a solution for all the people who are struggling. They know that this situation began with the pandemic and continues to be more complicated as time passes. What are they thinking? The answer is they are not thinking at all. Or at the very least they are totally without compassion.

The President, who thankfully will not be there for long, plays golf and tweets about how the election was stolen but then to his credit, the economy is great. Just look at the stock market he says, He and all the elected republicans should be ashamed of themselves. Maybe we should all be ashamed of ourselves for not taking care of our own and having to select one person everyday to help.  We’re just sayin.’...Iris

Sunday, November 29, 2020

And Thanksgiving To You and You and You

 It was a unique and special Thanksgiving.  At first the idea was to go to a closed restaurant and sit at small socially distant tables. It would have been lovely but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control that was vetoed and an alternate plan was activated.  No one was in charge, which meant everyone was in charge.  Salads were ordered, cooking started, desserts were in overwhelming supply. We had enough food to feed all the Pilgrims with their Native American friends. 

Lets start backwards from last course to first.  There was a lemon creme brûlée pie, a two layered carrot cake,  blueberry, apple, strawberry rhubarb pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and a dark chocolate mouse cake. We didn’t, bother with the Dairy Queen ice cream cake because that seemed like overkill.  The main courses included, turkey, a ham, and a brisket.  Side dishes were potatoes— sweet with marshmallows and mashed, string beans with those fabulous fake onions and mushroom soup, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy.  For first course there were two kinds of salad and an Italian antipasto, cheeses, meats, peppers and olives.  It sounds like a great deal of food for an small army of hungry guests. And so it was. only none of us ate together.  It was COVID sensitive. We all brought the food. Carmen made the turkey. Amy made her extraordinary sweet and mashed potato’s and the ham. Joannie was responsible for the appetizers and desserts and I made the string beans. There has never been a Thanksgiving when I did the least amount of work until yesterday. There was no stress or drama. We all arrived separately between 4:30 and 6:15, picked up whatever food we wanted, yelled hello to Billy our host who stayed upstairs, and took the gargantuan amount of whatever we desired to our own homes.  It was fantastic.  Dr. Fauci would have been proud.  

The alleged greenbean casserole before application of crispy onions
Dessert?  Possibly.... clockwise from upper left: choc cake, trio of pumpkin, apple, and strawberry-rhubarb, creme brulet tart!


The interesting thing was that somehow, with everyone doing something, me the least, it was a take home dinner with all the love invested in the food and all the concerns for health respected. For the last seven or so years we have celebrated all the holidays and special occasions at my cousin Billy’s. He is a great host. He spares no expense and seems to enjoy the festivities as much as the rest of us. But this was the first time I can remember that we delivered and took away the food.  Sure we missed the bonding but it was a round robin of sorts... even though the food was in one place, different people dropped and took home the goodies. 


We did take a moment to remember that on Thanksgiving we always took mom to the hospital. And for the years before she moved all the friends had dinner with their families and then gathered at my house for desserts. We also took a moment to remember the empty seats at the table for people who are gone now. We also celebrated all the family who participated in this ever memorable holiday. Hope your holiday was equally enchanting.  We’re just sayin’.....Iris

Friday, November 27, 2020

From the annals of "I wish I'd been a better photographer.." in the spring of 1970 I was living in Miami, not a lot of work coming my way, but still stringing with some regularity for TIME. I was living in tropical splendor in beautiful Miami Springs near the airport (I could bike over and see some very cool 1940s planes, most of which were being flown by outfits from Salvador/Guatemala/Panama, and serviced in Miami.) One day I got a call to join the local TIME stringer, Bob Delaney (who also was a big star in local news radio, and he always signed of with "....total information radio!...." which I thought was a pretty good attitude for a news guy.) Our assignment was to drive north a ways (one of those trips where you realize how big Florida is...) to Bartow where we would meet a guy who ran a little soda shop, and who claimed to be the oldest living American. I'd heard of Charlie Smith, but didn't really know that much about him. (Yes, this was in the days before Cable News, and 24 hour cycles. In fact it was only five years after the first Mustang!) Bob was determined to get to the bottom of this story, and share it with his "total information radio" audience, as well as the twenty or so million TIME readers. We'd heard there was this guy in Florida who claimed to have come from Liberia in the 1840s, and was the last surviving American slave. That he was 128 years old. That was something. So we drove and drove, eventually arriving in Bartow, a little backwater town, and it didn't take a lot of asking around (yes, this was before Google Maps) to find the little shop where Charlie Smith sold Pepsi. What I'll never forget is the opening of the interview. Bob said " Charlie, they tell me you're a hundred and twenty eight years old, is that right?" After a short pause Charlie answered with great determination. "No, no..." he started, and at which point I thought, 'this story is SO not happening....it sounds like a wild goose chase.." But then Charlie continued, "No, I'm a hundred twenty seven."

Charlie Smith, Bartow FL aged 127

Charlie Smith, Aged 127 1969

It was one of the coolest conversations I've ever been a party to, if only as witness. They talked for a while, Bob got a couple of "total information radio" worthy quotes, including Charlie talking about seeing Abe Lincoln as a young guy. And it was then my turn. Charlie's son came by, and if I remember right, he was in his 80s. But I kind of blew it. I didn't really think, I just reacted to what was, rather than try and make something a bit more incisive. Years later Carl Fischer made a portrait (I believe it was him) for Esquire, and when I saw that, I realized I was just a little too much "along for the ride." In the end, I got a few pictures, and while it could be said I was under equipped (I tried shooting something inside the shop, lit by one little dangling light bulb - not very successful) it was more a lack of inspiration than equipment. That tends to be the real issue when things don't work out. You just don't give it the 110% that it deserves. Since then, I realize that when you re doing portraits like this, one thing to remember is - keep moving. Change angles, distances, lighting. Keep it all in flux, and when you see something good, work the hell out of it.
I wish I'd done better with Charlie Smith, but if I live to 128, at least that gives me a good chunk of time to practice what I learned that hot day in Bartow.
photograph shot 1969 ©2020 David Burnett/Contact

We're just sayin'... David

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The "Thanks" in Thanksgiving

 Yesterday my brother Jeff and I were talking about my Aunt Irene’s estate. As the executrix or administratrix, we have had to deal with lots of things about the graves. You never think about the plants on the grave or having the headstone (Aunt Peppy always called it a tombstone) carved.  When Mom died we found an engraver who was fast, and made it uncomplicated. One, two, three and it was done.  Not so with Aunties' grave.  She died a year ago and the grave remains uncarved. When Lovey and Suzie went to say Kaddish (the prayer said when someone dies over every relatives grave) they found that the dirt in front of it was still piled up. Disgraceful.  The yearly travel to all the distant graves has been a thing that all the aunts did,  but now it's only the two cousins.  And we are all grateful that someone still does it. 

One of the things I always loved about my family is that they were able to find humor in everything, especially death. When mom died and she was on Bainbridge Island, off Seattle. The funeral parlor had to take a ferry to pick her up.  This made it necessary to sit with her body until they arrived.  What do you do when you’re sitting with the body that is no longer your mother?  You talk about all the hilarious things she and her sisters did as we were growing up.  Like the time Stevie and I took a $50 bill out of Aunt Sophie’s purse to buy camping equipment. We thought she wouldn’t notice.  This was $50 in 1952. We were six and always in trouble. It was as if we were sharing the stories with mom, and we knew she was enjoying them with us.


Anyway, at some point in the history of the family, my dad had to have his leg amputated.  The doctor who did the surgery was an idiot, and told us that it didn’t matter because he didn’t ambulate anywhere. We explained to the insensitive fool that he might not walk but he balanced on both of his legs.  We knew he needed the surgery but we hated the doctors indifference.


We never thought too much about it until we had a discussion about burials.  We had asked mom to think of a site that was not in the middle of nowhere Long Island. She agreed and immediately did exactly what we asked her not to do.  In the Jewish religion, the whole body needs to be buried together, and she had buried my dad’s leg in the cemetery about which we objected.  This meant that they would both spend eternity on Long Island.  When we asked her why she decided to do that, she said that we would never visit them anyway.  This was not true. We do schlepp all the way out there whenever we can. Usually on the way to the airport. 


You may ask why am I writing this on a festive holiday.  Well, if you worried about the pandemic, and are inordinately careful,  it’s not that festive. People are forming pods, which means that you get to see the people in your pod, but no one else unless you are going food shopping.  Some people are calling this period of time the “new normal,” but I’m not, because there is nothing normal about it.  The question is, will things ever be the same again?  Will we be able to walk down the street without a mask?   Will we be able to hug the people we love?  Will offices, restaurants and small businesses even survive?  No one has any idea.  We know that things will certainly not ever be the same, but I’m not ready to call anything, until theaters open, normal.  We're just sayin'.... Iris

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Peter, and Olivier, and lil' ole me

It was my intention to write Christmas memories, but that will have to wait. Today David told me that one of our dear friends died.  Peter Howe was a photojournalist who I met separate from David, and was he cute, yes!  There were two photographers who I met and bonded with even before i knew David.  They are both gone now. What a loss for everyone who knew them..  Olivier was a French photographer who died in the early 80’s. He was in El Salvador and he stood up instead of staying under cover.  He told me that he wanted to do what he thought David would do, but of course David would never have done that.  He was shot and brought back to Hialeah Hospital where he was supposed to be alright. Until he wasn’t.  I visited him every day and was sure he would heal. He didn’t.  A few days after I arrived in Florida and was staying with my mom, she came into the living room and said, “I’m so sorry about your friend. The one who was in the hospital.   He passed away.”  That didn’t make any sense because everyone expected him to get better. 

 

Peter Howe was born in England. He was a former New York Times Magazine and Life magazine Picture Editor, and the author of two books on photography, "Shooting Under Fire" and "Paparazzi." He was also the author of the Waggit’s Tale series, about an abandoned dog and his pack who live in Central Park. 


These two characters were nonstop  fun. Two quick stories to give you an idea:


The three of us went to the Republican Convention in 1980, in Detroit. They were shooting, and I was invited because I was the Director of Security for that year's Democratic Convention in New York.  We hung out the whole time, and entertained each other because the Republican Convention was, you guessed it,  pretty dull.  At one point we went to a reception for Delegates.  The two of them were quite adorable, and the older female delegates couldn’t resist knowing who they were, where they were from. It is unclear how it started, but at one point one delegate asked Olivier a question. Peter jumped in and told her that Olivier's  English wasn’t very good, so we started to do "simultaneous translation."  First the woman asked Olivier a question in English, and Peter (who IS English but also a man of the world) turned to Olivier and repeated the question in English English. Olivier then turned to me and answered the question in English but with a heavy French accent.  I then turned to the woman and answered the question in English. This went on for at least a half hour with other female delegates participating.  Needless to say, we spent the next three days laughing until our stomachs hurt. 


Second story.   Peter called me one evening because he was shooting in Denville, NJ and I was staying with my mom at our old homestead in Boonton, NJ, only twenty minutes away.  The event was a heavy metal rock concert.  Peter explained to me that we needed to wear ear plugs because the venue was small and the concert was going to be really loud.  We put in our plugs and I waited in the rear for him to finish.  As he walked up on the stage I saw he was bending down.  His earplugs fell out and he stepped on them, making it impossible for him do do anything but shoot while his ears bled.  After the concert we went out for a drink, but we were yelling, instead of talking, and the bartender finally asked us to leave. 


1980 Rep. Convention / Detroit

Olivier Rebbot helps Peter Howe up to a photo position, and further merriment

photograph ©2020 David Turnley




These stories do not in anyway due justice to the essence of the these two amazing talented, sensitive, men. For whatever reason photojournalists seem to be exceedingly attractive.  They don’t have to be handsome because they are mysterious.  But these two guys were sexy and cuddly, if thats possible.  The three of us were playful friends.  Always ready to do anything for a laugh, it did not matter the event. Sometimes they were shooting and I was on the other side of the ropes making sure that they would have the picture they wanted to take.  We were pals.  Even though I may not have seen them for months at a time, we always picked up where we left off. 


It has never been easy for me to say goodbye, so I won’t. I will just love them forever wherever they may be.  We're just sayin'... Iris