This past Thursday marked the passing of Horst Faas. Probably as much as about anyone since Capa, he was someone whose mere mention of a name -- either first OR last, was enough to conjure up that big personality and , yes, talent, that he was. In an age when blogger-photographers rule the silicon airways, all the tricks of the modern trade --- from blazingly groovy cameras to the concept of “we’ll fix it in post…” have created a new breed of semi-famous person. It’s no longer based simply on a smart, clever, wily, talented concept of what the news is and how to capture it in a single frame – it’s all about the buzz. Some of the biggest names in the current photoblog world, while talented, would, I suspect have some issues if they were limited to shooting Tri-x on a Nikon F (model F, not an F2, F3, or F4) with f/3.5 lenses, and no focus confirmation in the finder beyond whether or not it looked sharp.
Horst had a 40+ year career with the A.P. – that giant lifeblood of news – at a time when the A.P. was the biggest carrier of news around the world. If you lived anywhere but London, Tokyo, Paris or New York, it’s pretty sure that anything you saw from some place distant was through their wires. He worked in the Congo, and settled early on in Vietnam at a time when there were but a handful of American advisers and troops. In the first few years of his tenure there, he quickly figured out that to get to where the pictures were meant you had to get somewhere early, and be ready when the shit hit the fan. Of course you never really knew when, or exactly where that would be, but intelligent reading of what was happening meant that experience counted – and he certainly used his own experience to great advantage. His pictures, I was reminded this weekend, were not just your standard “I was there…” wire service kind of work. He was a damn good photographer, and his pictures often reached deeply into a situation and came out with something far more meaningful. He had a eye, and understood that above all, you had to use your feet and your wits to get your camera to the right place, so that when you pushed the button, you were able to capture that telling moment.
Perhaps as interesting as his own photography was the way he tended to the A.P. stringer corps. In Saigon during the 60s you could get accreditation if you had letters from two different publications who agreed that over time they would PROBABLY buy some of your work. But for many freelancers, like myself, there was no guarantee you’d be able to pay your apartment rent or buy a meal at Cheap Charlie’s Chinese restaurant if you couldn’t sell a few images. I was lucky to have an intro at TIME (for whom I’d worked considerably in the states) but for a lot of young stringers, the fact that Horst would buy a few pictures that he might not really need, which would permit that person to be able to keep working, meant that over time he had a very loyal group of shooters. When, eventually, they DID get something of value, the first place they brought those pictures was back to Horst at the A.P. He understood the value of building that network of photographers. The ongoing competition with U.P.I. – the other major wire service – created an additional motivation to find the best work, the quickest, and get it out on the wire. There was no time for lollygagging: The old A.P. phrase “a deadline every minute” was certainly true in the sense that someplace, somewhere, a newspaper editor was looking for the best, most up-to-date images, and that was the appetite Horst tried to feed.
He seemed to me to be one of those larger than life figures that belied his own physical self. I always imagine him as a towering figure, with a bellowing, resonant voice, though when in fact I would run into him, we nearly stood the same height. It was something about his overall presence which made me feel that I was in the midst of some kind of larger than life character.
In the end, though, I think one of the most meaningful things he did was to work on the Requiem project:
a collection of photographs from the Vietnam war, done by photographers who were killed during that time, from both the South and the North. There are some very telling stories about what it took to get the Northern authorities to release pictures for the project – they were initially reticent. Yet when you look through this book, one of the most amazing compilations of photographs of war that has ever been printed, you see how important it was to include both sides. Almost as if the brotherhood of photography had eventually managed to trump the politics of war.
In what must be seen as a great and tragic irony, he fell ill in 2005 in Hanoi, just after the reunion of foreign correspondents in Saigon on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the end of the war. In a country where he had cheated death many times, a bad reaction to a virus razed havoc with his body, rendering him more or less paralyzed from the chest down. But even though he was confined to a wheelchair for these past 7 years, his undaunted spirit never seemed to waiver. I last saw him at the opening of the memorial to fallen correspondents at the Newseum in 2008. There, on a large glass wall, emblazoned with the names of those killed covering conflict, he offered the last physical remains – a small box with bits and pieces of camera gear, mainly --found in Laos at the crash site of the helicopter which took four well known, great photographers to their death in 1971. The chopper had been heading into Laos to cover the Lam Son campaign (meant to seize control of the Ho Chi Minh trail) and was shot down just over the border. On that bird were A.P.’s Henri Huet, LIFE’s Larry Burrows, UPI photographer Kent Potter, Newsweek stringer Keisaburo Shimamoto, as well as a Vietnamese army photographer. Horst, along with A.P. writer Richard Pyle, had spent the better part of two decades trying to get to the abandoned crash site, and eventually did so, only after years of maneuvering in government channels. (see Richard’s book “Lost Over Laos
At the Newseum dedication, we tried taking a group shot of all the correspondents who showed up, a bigger group than any easily accessible area would hold, and even there Horst took charge, trying to arrange the group to sit still long enough for a picture. In the end, I suppose he would have liked to been thought of as a photojournalist. One who tells stories with pictures (whether his own, or at times by the wily ways of his editorship.) But have a look at his work again. (click here for a small selection
on the NYTimes site) You see pictures which are, frankly, pretty damn good. My favorite image of him in the ones which have come out this week is the one on the NYTimes Lensblog – there he is with a Zeiss Contarex SLR – a fumblingly slow to operate camera which was NEVER used by professionals (the Nikons were simply better for quick operation) but whose amazing optics would have probably found a soft spot in his heart. Horst pretty much dedicated his life energy to photography, and I’m pleased to have had a chance to know him. We’re just sayin’… David
Yours truly sitting just behind Horst, along with a gaggle of journos....