Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Mentor, A Friend

How different must it have been to be born in Rhuddlan than Salt Lake City. A decade ahead of me, in that small North Wales village, Philip Jones-Griffiths was born. He was one of the first people I knew with a double last name. We were only ten years apart, but as you can sometimes find in life, ten years is more than enough to make you realize that you have much to learn from an elder who lived those years. Philip was trained as a pharmacist, and I suppose if he had continued to bring his passion and humor to pharmacology, we would all be getting Rx’s filled that would have something to do with one or another discovery of his. But his real love was photography, and he joined Magnum at the age of thirty, and became very quickly, quite well known. I had read in a British photo magazine about him; he was described as “ a loquacious Welshman,” and when I arrived in Vietnam in 1970, he was one of the first persons I met. Happily for me, he remained loquacious even after we became friends. He was one of those folks who turn into your mentor without being asked. I suppose he found my Utah sense of humor not all that far removed from his own, and we got along well from the first time we had beef and ginger at that lousy Tu Do street Chinese cafe.

Most impressive, looking back 35 years, was his absolute selfless sense of assistance and encouragement, offered freely but never with any real pressure. He kind of embarrassed you into doing the right thing. Having arrived in Vietnam with 200 rolls of film, and a rather opened assignment from TIME to do a piece on “Children of War”, I’d been stumbling, utterly, in trying to figure out how to make pictures that would make sense. I kept trying to figure out just how that ‘story’ would fit into the other ‘stories’ I was trying to do. And one afternoon, over a Coke at the Royale Hotel lobby cafe, Philip let me have it: “The real world isn’t about this or that story for TIME, or for LIFE. It’s about being out there. What you need to do is put 50 rolls of film in your rucksack, fly to Danang, and don’t come back to Saigon until you have shot every roll.” It was a kind of watershed moment for me: that extra push I needed to start thinking out of my own box, and while it seems so obvious now, at the time, it was just the kind of nudge I needed to get off my ass, and head into what would become the real work of photography.

Philip having just finished a Coke at the Royale bar
Philip had lived in Room 47 at the Royale, the Penthouse, up three or four floors from the noisy street. Airy and with plenty of windows, it normally would have been the prize room in the hotel, but the thought of being the first place an incoming VC rocket might land gave me pause. (I lived in an airless, lightless room on the 2nd floor of the hotel for two months.) Yet, when I realized that Philip, with all he had been through, wanted to live there, I decided, “So do I,” and when he finally exited Saigon in January of ’71, he bequeathed to me not only that room, but his cassette/radio player (for twenty bucks) which brought me all the sounds of the time. Hoping I might actually run a roll of film, I also got two tall 8-reel Nikor developing tanks marked D (for developer) and F (for fixer) with which he’d processed all his Vietnam films that would later appear in his book Vietnam Inc. I still have those tanks in the basement, the crayon’ed letters still visible. They seem almost quaint in this digital age, but when you know that all those amazing photographs passed through them, it gives pause.

Vietnam Inc. was his attack against what he thought the Americans had done so badly in Vietnam. He always spoke with force and anger, and his pictures, never attempts to be objective or uninvolved, told the story the way he wanted to tell it. With passion, pain, and force. Many journos I knew thought Philip was a little too far gone in his point of view, but for me, I never tired, even when I didn’t agree with him, of seeing his engagement in what he felt was a story worth telling. Yet there was another side of him which might been even more captivating than his earnestness as a journalist. A funny side, sometimes darkly humorous, but always funny. He introduced me to the BBC World Service radio shows – Just a Minute, the Archers (“a story of simple country folk...” which he did complete with down country imitation of Dan Archer), and maybe the most lasting, Private Eye. Private Eye, the satirical English magazine which poked fun and holes through virtually anyone in power or the public eye, was a master dodge though the English libel laws, and skewered folks who, for the most part, richly deserved it. In those early 70s years, there was a cartoon in the back done by a young Australian cartoonist, Barry Humphries, a side-splittingly hilarious take on a young Aussie gone to find fame and fortune in Pomland (England) and his misadventures: That was the birth of Barry “Bazza” McKenzie, and the character who seems to have outlived the others in that story, Dame Edna Everidge. It was as if I had my own private British Council Cultural Affairs section in Philip to help me understand all the vagaries of language and nomenclature. (Yes, “Rita Chevrolet” WAS Private Eye’s name for the Queen!) I valued his company greatly, and always enjoyed hearing the great stories he knew, had lived through, and was a master of retelling. Who else do you know that could get such joy out of describing that the only proper source for lighting a self-designed slide-duplicating machine was “the landing light from a 707 jet.”

I share the sadness that I feel about so many folks of my earlier years, who, for reasons of geography, I seldom see much anymore. In Vietnam, in particular, there was a rather wonderful mix in the 4th Estate crowd, and the richness of their presence seems to diminish every week. Yesterday, after a long and protracted battle with a stupid disease which tried, but failed, to crush his spirit, Philip passed away with his two daughters by his side. In the last few years he had mastered digital photography the same way his pharmacological background had made him a first rate dark room man. He knew every trick about how to scan negatives to get the best results, and how to print them once you had done that. Right up till the end he was in a rush, getting those pictures organized so that even after he wasn’t here to personally look after things, they would make sense to everyone else. I’m glad those pictures, that embodiment of his plucky spirit are with us, but I do believe I will miss the man himself. We’re just sayin... David


m_harding said... you and his family,sorry for your loss.


David you need to get all of these guys together for a fireside chat for a PBS doc. "WAR STORIES - WORDS BEHIND THE PICTURES". Too much wisdom is being lost, too quickly.

You gotta do got to.

Tom Leininger said...

Your remembrances of your friend and mentor add to the picture being painted in my head of someone I never met, yet wished I had. Thank you.

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