Back in 1936, when Henry Luce bought LIFE magazine, and shaped it into America’s window on the world, one might have thought he had some sort of crystal ball. I mean, the magazine has had its share of ups and downs, once being shuttered for six years, then rebounding as a monthly from ’78 to 2000, then borne again for a brief period as a newspaper supplement. In between, it’s been special issues, yearly recaps, and now, quite successfully, a book publisher. I mean, the name fits. The estimable Mr. Luce was on to something. Ya just can’t kill it. Despite the gaps, and changes, various editors (with wildly disparate skills) and shifting business fortunes, it keeps putting out good stories, using ink on paper, and creating a real thing–a good book you can take home and put on the shelf. LIFE prevails. LIFE goes on.
I started shooting for LIFE in 1984, and became its last staff shooter in the mid 90’s. Photographically, it’s always been home for me. As a young shooter, meeting some of the truly preeminent, venerable members of its legendary staff–Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Alfred Eisentaedt, John Loengard, Gjon Mili–was formative and heart stopping, all at once. Sitting and listening to them–what they saw, what they shot–was like listening to the richest, most vibrant history book one could ever encounter. I learned so much. Not enough, but it was a start.
Over the last few years, the LIFE banner has been flown by Bob Sullivan, a truly wonderful editor and friend. He is about the closest thing to a Renaissance man I know. He has written books about sports, jazz, World War II, the Beatles, and the Popes. So, when he called and asked if I could go on the road for the new LIFE book, The Vietnam Wars, and catch up with folks whose lives were powerfully intersected by that turbulent time, I was onboard immediately. I shot the final chapter of the book, looking at representatives of those two Vietnams–the vets who fought, and the protesters who challenged the government.
I was able to work for a day with members of 1st Platoon, who fought and survived a deadly battle, called the Battle of Finger Lake. There is a powerful bond amongst these men still, and all of them, to this day, give enormous credit to Lt. Wilson, their platoon leader, for his steady leadership. As platoon member James Keene said, “He cared about his people. There’s no doubt his actions gave us a fighting chance to get out of there alive.”
It was a pleasure to go on the road with writer Daniel Levy, who wrote sympathetic, moving, and historically riveting accounts of both the vets and the protesters. It was LIFE, back in the day, that really pioneered the use of the powerful tandem of a writer and a photographer, working together, as the essential field team of the journalistic process. Put a good writer and a good photographer in the field, observing and reporting back, and you get a good story.
The above spreads were shot in LA, and then I bounced to Washington DC to shoot groups of vets at the Vietnam Memorial. Because of the horizontal nature of the wall, I experimented with B&W film, panorama style. The rest of the take was shot on a Nikon D800E, or a D4.
One of the best outcomes of doing the story was contacting Julian Bond, a very significant figure at that time, and a leader who has always raised his voice on behalf of non-violence, voting rights, and fairness in governing. I admired him greatly, for many years, and, via this story, I was able to photograph him. I was genuinely in awe of the man.
The section closed with a photo of a group of vets, all standing at attention, saluting. This is the tipping point for a photog on a job. I had done individual portraits of the various gentleman who had come down to the wall. See below.
But, I had one group shot left, and the guys were milling about, chatting, and pretty much needing to go. This is where you need an ally, who can assist you in pulling together an idea that, if you suggested it, as the outsider/photographer, might be reluctantly embraced. But, if you identify a go to guy amongst your subjects, they can help you.
Well, who better than a former Green Beret? I approached him and asked, “If I arranged all the guys, do you think you could get them to attention and salute?” His reply was emphatically affirmative:-)
This was all shot in four days in the field. My favorite pic remains the shadow on the wall. It was already bad light when I met Mr. Jordan. He mentioned his tradition was to come down to the wall at least once a year, and salute the name of his best friend, Gerald E. Niewenhous Jr. I saw the shadow and the name, and I shot it.
Very proud to have done this story, and in a small way, still be part of LIFE. More tk….