Sunday, February 13, 2022

Its crazy:  i cant get past feb 10th without some reminder that this is the day, 51 years ago... (impossible to actually write that number and believe it could be me..) that I was fruitlessly trying to talk my way on to a Vietnamese Army helicopter, to get into Laos, at the outset of the Laos invasion (the attempt to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail).... aware that all the vets (Larry Burrows(LIFE), Henri Huet (AP) and Kent Potter (UPI) were already on the bird... as well as a Newsweek guy and i was the lone major publication (TIME Mag) photo guy NOT on that bird -- feeling like a tyro, a twit, an incompetent jerk... someone who just couldn't cut it.... who couldn't figure it out ... and i walked away completely angry with myself as the chopper's engine started to whine...and away it went...  to be shot down 20 minutes later, killing all of them.  I think something in my soul has driven me to try and make the most of my professional life since then having been spared that awful fate at the time, but so aware that those guys on the chopper were the savviest, smartest, most experienced....and that even they were not beyond the fickle moment which fate was capable of dealing at any time.  

I remember so well haggling in very strong terms with the Vietnamese Captain in charge of who got on that helo, and was on the edge of being insulting to him... when a reporter from TIME who i worked with, Jon Larsen, who had heard my unsuccessful pleas,  came up to me and whispered,  "you better get out of here for a while and cool down, or you ll NEVER get to Laos"

It was an hour later that I was walking by the underground Army HQ, when that same Captain came out, saw me, and said, in halting English, " I think maybe your friends shoot down, Laos."  He said it twice then walked back inside. At that point no one knew any more than that, and I ended up just walking away, till I saw Hal, the LIFE reporter, who worked with Larry, walking towards me.  I had seen him sitting next to Larry on the chopper as I'd walked away, earlier.   "Boy am I glad to see you," i said.  "They just told me they thought the helo was shot down, but here you are."   

He said, "I didn't go. They did a hover test, the pilot said it was too heavy and someone would have to get off.  Larry looked at me and said "LIFE is a picture magazine, you can come later."   

At that point I didn't think I could do any more, and wandered off to shoot pictures around the base camp, eventually making my way back to the Quang Tri HQ that evening.  I walked into the ongoing press briefing about 6pm, and Brian Barron, a blond toussel-haired earnest faced BBC reporter, turned to me and whispered "have you heard, Larrry Burrows was shot down in Laos...."   

How quickly, how piercingly quickly, fifty one years can blow by.  

We're just sayin'... David B

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

 While this has become known as the Holiday Season, for a Jewish kid who grew up in the very Mormon outpost of Salt Lake City, we pretty much knew it as  the Christmas Season, with Hannukah and a few other winter holidays accompanying.  Quite unlike most of my East Coast Jewish friends and family, we did have a Christmas Tree.  And though we learned all the Christmas carols in school during those cold and snowy Decembers (hey, it was Salt Lake! )  it remained far more of a civic enterprise than anything particularly religious.  We had stockings hung by the fireplace, and the one thing we kids could count on was getting a jar of Hawaiian macadamia nuts, with which mom would whip up some sensational banana-macadamia nut waffles for breakfast.  They were sublime.  At the age of 11 or 12, my big present was a little yellow box, in it, a Kodak Holiday Camera kit: the camera, looking very serious and beautifully designed in its dark brown plastic, and a flash attachment with a plastic shield, should there be a flashbulb explosion (I never saw that happen, but I'm pretty sure it has occurred a few times.) My little Holiday took 127 film, most of the time being Verichrome Pan black-and-white, with the occasional roll of Kodacolor.  But more than anything, that feeling of having your first camera is something you don't ever forget.  I used that little camera for several years, documenting the Burnett family at home, on trips, and especially pictures of Dagmar, our wonderful little dog.  When I finally joined the Olympus High Yearbook during Junior Year, at age  16, I saved up for an aged Exacta 35mm reflex camera, and eventually bought it used for $40 downtown.  I had been saving for a couple of months to score a Spiratone tele lens, and that Christmas I received a check from mom and dad for fifty bucks (that was a LOT of dough then) with a note that I should use it "for a Zoomar Lens!"   I'm not sure there ever really was a Zoomar lens, but that Spiratone glass might as well have been one.  A lot of light, a lot of images passed through that lens in its lifetime.  

Today, I went downstairs where that very same Brownie Holiday camera sits on a book shelf, where it has been keeping my 1964 Yashica-Mat company for the ten years I've been in Newburgh.  The Yashica-Mat still looks like you could attach a 65D Honeywell potato masher strobe and go cover the State House or a High School football game.  (The esteemed former Salt Lake Tribune photographer Ross Welsher once told me, back in the LBJ era, that "I'd rather have a new Yashica Mat every year, than a  new Rollei every 3 or 4....")  My Holiday sits just about perfectly balanced, on that book shelf, the strap as supple as it was 60 plus years ago.  I held it up to a window this afternoon, put my almost teary - eye next to the red winding window on the back, and fired the shutter.  Quite like the Holga, there was a tiny, very brief flash of red light, indicating that yes, the shutter still works.  Now and then, in a minor fanciful moment, I imagine packing a Domke bag of 127 film, and heading out on assignment with the Holiday.  Looking back at some of the snapshots from those early days, I realize that what we always tried to convince ourselves, that it is more about the vision than it is the equipment, still holds true.  When I go to bed, I'm happy to know that should I need it, my little Brownie Holiday is ready to go.    

Monday, June 07, 2021

And...There I Was....

 There are some of us who, over the course of their lives professional and personal, have reinvented themselves. sometimes with a conventional career (mother, teacher, public affairs counselor and entrepreneur), sometimes not so much (never mind) — it is not my intention to do a me,me,me blob. At first, when we moved south, I thought I would help with local politics  --  that was only somewhat successful. By the time I got connected to a campaign, it was too late for me to really do anything that would have any impact.  However, it was fun to hold signs, ride in a car caravan, and help with a mailings. In addition, the candidate turned out to be the daughter of a dear friend - that was the icing.

Anyway, how to spend whatever time I have left?  Being a fourth quarter queen,  nothing is for sure. Then the answer came as I was crossing the street, along with a large turtle and some tall birds who I always think of as wearing stilts.  The street we were all crossing was bust. This not California, and some of the drivers are of questionable driving skills.  So, I leapt out into the traffic and protected the wildlife that was migrating to a place where the water was more to their liking.   And there it was, my next career.

Traffic guard to tropical wildlife. While you're doing your job, you feel pretty great about doing a good deed.  It only takes a few minutes, you don’t have to work 9-5, and your schedule is most flexible.

What is supposed to happen is that I wake up and find inspiration in whatever strikes me as a possibility.  So I roll out of bed and voila! there’s a job description on my desk.  Well, that has never happened,  but what does happen is I roll, the fog lifts, and something strikes me as a possibility.   So I start making phone calls.  The process is often slow, but if you go for it, good things will happen.  For example, my first substantial job in the government was in the Carter administration. He (that would be President Carter) thought political appointees were multitalented and very capable.  When they needed escorts for the Kennedy Center awardees, they asked some senior staff to help out.  It happened that Fred Astaire was a recipient, and was always one of my heroes. Most of the other senior staff was not "senior" enough to know who he was. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to escort him, but he was so kind that yes, I felt like Ginger Rogers.  

Most things in my life happen unexpectedly.  When i lived in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts a friend of mine asked if I would work on the Udall  Presidential campaign. I had worked on the McGovern campaign, where other than S. Dakota,  Mass. was the only state he won. Yes, I do claim that as a personal victory.  I admitted to Jessica that I didn’t know anything about politics (I was a technician), and she said no one would notice, because it was the Udall campaign.  This was not true. Mo Udall was so decent and so human that all kinds of people loved him.  At first I worked only in Massechusetts. Then I travelled with him as personal staff.  Who knew that would take me on a path I never expected. In only a few short weeks I became the liaison to the original Saturday Night Live Cast, theater stars, and numbers of people who became life long friends.

That was a long time ago and now you’re starting to think  “she is so superficial”.  Yes, if that’s what you think, you have come close to the truth.  For me it was all about collecting famous people as friends.  The “Star Trek Next Generation” cast loved me during the Clinton Administration and invited me to the “wrap party”. Patrick Stewart and his brothers, (all of them look exactly alike) went to the White House as my guests.  The highlight was meeting the Dali Lama, and not washing my hands for a week.  

During the Gary Hart Campaign, along with Patricia Duff, I coordinated all celebrity volunteers.  Seth found Jack Nicholson’s phone number and called him….. don’t even ask.  

While at USA Networks and the SciFi channel. There were stars galore, and it was the first time I ever made money.  The Four Seasons had my profile because I was there so frequently for double breakfasts and lunches and there were always stars posing by the pool.   Thing is, I was so used to being surrounded by stars, that I was able to sit at the pool (which I turned into my office), and watch without being impressed.  If you are not impressed with celebrities, they trust you to do what’s in their best interests.  

The thing is, in politics and business, one opportunity often leads to another.  The list is so long I can’t even remember most of the opportunities. There was a time that I wanted to be a strategist for women’s issues and I went to China as the communications director, which included Hillary and other remarkable women.  These jobs permitted me to travel all over the world meeting with a plethora of fabulous women, each trying to change their world as best they could. 

Enough me me me.  Oh there's so much more.  The fact is my career choice never lasted more than four years.  Don’t tell, but the process of how to get things done was more interesting to me than all the glitter.  In that regard, it’s not as important to me as making an impact on so many issues and tasks.  Maybe there is more, but you’ll have to wait to see.  We're just sayin'... Iris

Friday, April 02, 2021

The Gefiltefish Chronicles and YOU



I wrote this right before sundown of Passover. It remained unpublished because we lost two people we cared for. The wonderful actress Jessica Walter was a long time friend. She was fun and funny, warm and loving. And we lost my wonderful, zany, talented cousin Marty who was always a constant source of entertainment. He called himself Jordan’s 'Manager,' because he always gave her excellent theater advice. Jordan called me yesterday to say she had a dream about Marty. It was so real and vivid that when she woke she was still thinking about it. She said they met at an airport. He told her he was going away but didn't disclose the destination. He was delighted to see her because he wanted to say Goodbye.  They had a big warm hug and she woke up. It was so real that she woke up smiling.  Maybe it was a dream, and who knows....

Passover has always been my favorite Holiday. It was the one holiday we spent with our whole family— grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and usually strangers who had no place to go. One Passover I invited a woman who I knew was a transsexual, mostly because she was over 6 feet, big hands and her voice was male. When she told me that her parents had thrown her out and she hadn’t had a Seder in years, I invited her to our big family Seder. If you’re not used to family festivities ours is not an easy place to start. There are often 100 people and enough food to feed an army. No one is a guest. You want to eat, you work. She loved every minute of it. Even when we mistakenly served the essence of soup, which was the water in which we boiled the matzah balls.  My grandpa said there’s always room for one more, and we all lived by that.

Anyway, when we were young we were told that Passover was the time to see family but we were kids and what we thought it was about silver dollars. The Uncles would arrive with bags of silver dollars (in the '50s they were much more available)  they would be met by cousins  Stevie and Chuck,  who would guard the Uncles  carrying our precious Passover gelt. It was the money you would get paid for finding the Afikomen so that the Seder could continue and finish. Once we had eaten dinner we would line up and every uncle would give us 10 silver dollars. Then we reached our grandmother who would take a per cent of whatever we were given, and give it to charity.  It was not easy for us,  to part with the loot, but over the years we learned how important “tsedukah” was to keep the community healthy. The story grandpa  told -- in broken English -- was about when it was right before Sabbath in the shtetls, the Rabbi would go house to house and collect money for the poor. If you could afford it, you would put money in the box,  and if you needed to care for your family, you would take the money you needed. No one ever knew who was giving and who was taking.  It was an important lesson that shaped my life.

As we grew up the Seders grew larger. When I was working for the Carter Administration and I couldn’t get home I would have a Seder with Washington friends, some Jewish, some Southern. One of these seders brought David Burnett into my life kicking and screaming.  We met the night of the peace signing at the White House. Our mutual friend, Arthur Grace fixed us up.  “He is funny and world wise and you will love him” Arthur said. I didn’t, and he didn’t.  It was a disaster and when I told Arthur never to do that again, he somehow convinced me to invite David to the Seder.  The detail of how I pursued this guy I didn't even like was painful, but he came bringing with him a case of wine, some Kosher, some drinkable.  The kosher wine tasted like cough syrup. The drinkable wine was excellent.  He came for an evening and stayed a week.

And so began a five year tortured relationship until we finally wed in 1984. The drama produced Jordan Kai Burnett in 1986.  After Jordan was born we went back to my family Seder. Passover was a healing time for me and eventually it was for us. Meeting the whole family could be frightening. But David had been in wars and international crises, so he did Ok.  Mostly he was fascinated by the way my mother and aunts worked to make having 50 to 100 people feel like an intimate matzoh-laden soirĂ©e.  He made a tape of one Seder but my uncle forbid him to shoot the actual Seder.  It is important to mention that even though I didn’t attend family Seders I participated in cooking the fish and preparing the cholesterol.  This is important because the Passover connection always remained in tact. 

In 2004 he asked my Aunt Peppy if he could spend time with them preparing the holiday foood. She agreed and told him he could also shoot the actual Seder.  He was with them for the shopping, the grinding, making the horse radish, putting the cholesterol together, preparing the black radish, the soup, the matzah balls, welcoming the guests and final goodbyes.  It took six weeks.  We decided we should make it a family movie so the children yet to be born would know how we did it in the “old days” - like they'd done it a century before in Brooklyn.  Fast forward to the product. Our eldest first cousin underwrote the edited edition and our dear, talented friend Dick Swanson, took a shot at the first edit. Kay Koplovitz, the CEO of USA Network  thought it was good. And my pal Barry Schumann was at pBS.  They all agreed it could be more than just a home movie.    You can see the film here:

The Seders are getting smaller sometimes we don’t have the service, but we are never alone on the holiday because we have  The Gefilte Fish Chronicles documentary to keep us in touch with all the people we love, here or on the other side.  And if you want to take a perfect present when you visit someone's home, get a DVD or Companion Cookbook (a companion to cholesterol!) at    

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Joe Duffey, Mentor & Friend, R I P

 When I learned that Joe Duffey had died, of course I wanted to know the details. Was there going to be a funeral or a memorial service. He didn’t want any of the death hoopla. Just savior the obits and the memories. 

It’s hard to write about someone you loved without the essay becoming about the writer. Which would be me on this occasion.  Joe Duffey was my colleague, my mentor, and mostly my friend for over 40 years.  After the Carter’s moved into the White House and the entire staff was looking for jobs, we discovered that there was a book which listed all the jobs available for political appointees called the Plum Book.  Jane Watkins, a dear friend with whom I lived in DC made it her business to find the perfect job for me.  And she did. It was at the State Department,  in the Bureau of Cultural Affairs.  The Director of the Bureau (I’m using State Department language) was a guy named Joe Duffey who was an original Carter supporter.  It was a great job and he had to fill a number of “slots” ( that means jobs) for political people.  It’s not important how I got to Duffey, but thanks to friends like Jane it was impossible for him to ignore the requests to interview me.  

The conversation was brief. He asked if I knew anything about the State department, the Foreign Service and Cultural Affairs.  “Sure” I said.  Which was a lie, because I knew nothing about any of those things. In fact, when he hired me I thought the Foreign Service was the American version of the Foreign Legion.  But Joe hated to say no to anyone.  And more importantly, the Bureau was going to become its own Agency and he was transitional until he took a job as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Eventually,  USIA was moved out of the State Department and became a stand alone agency. 

USIA was a wonderful place to work and even without Joe, it was good. But we stayed friends and I was already friends with his wife, Anne so it was easy. Joe stayed at the NEA until the Carter Administration was replaced by the Reagan people.  I stayed in DC but reinvented myself as the professor I loved to be at American University.  Not to long after I arrived, Joe took over as the President in charge of everything.  It was a joy to be working with him again. He was a terrific educator with a vision for what was needed at the University.  He was always  a visionary. When the Clinton people raised their heads and became the people in charge. The personnel system was a mess so Ickes and Eli asked me to help out.  The first step was to get rid of the Bush people. In order to do that, a few of us who had been in government before took over a few agencies. I got USIA, and The Endowment for the arts. I hired all the political appointments and waited for a director.  The Director was Joe Duffey.  It was a few months before he was confirmed, along with Penn Kemble as Deputy Director. Two Visionaries with diametrically opposed politics.  Joe asked me to stay because they needed someone to implement their visions— a technician of sorts. Penn was also relieved that he could remain a visionary and they could remain somewhat idea people.  

There were, of course, rules.  They were not allowed to hire people without checking with me because I knew the number of people we could hire.  There was a sign on my door that said "...after Penn or Dr D, says you can work at USIA, check with me."    Perhaps my favorite Joey D expression was, “I don't have to go everywhere that I have never been”. Joe thought the Foreign Service officers were always trying to get rid of him by scheduling him for foreign travel.  He came to all the senior political appointee meetings and he had no problem wearing the deally boppers we provided, as reminders of our travel.  He adored little Joe and was so proud of his dancing ability.  He loved his children and Anne’s children and they were always at the top of his list if they needed something.  My favorite memories were the games we played.  I would sing a Raffi song and he would wind up singing it for the whole day.

After we left USIA, and USIA foolishly became part of the State Department, Joe worked for a private higher-education company, once again providing the vision and respect all his former jobs had prepared him for.  

We met for lunch on occasion over the years. Always something I cherished and enjoyed.  There is no question that Joe has visions for wherever he has gone, and hopefully I will work for him again on the other side. Love you 

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 (   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.