FALL '08 "Remembering Eddie Adams"
-by Thomas E. Franklin
To a generation of Americans shaped by the Vietnam War, Eddie Adams was the photographer who captured the brutality of that conflict in one unforgettable image. It was death on film like it was never seen before, dreamy and surreal, of the execution of a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon Street. It's a hazy gray photograph, technically it's not perfect -not quite sharp, not entirely clear. But its message was clear, and its impact was immeasurable. It brought the viciousness of an increasingly unpopular war to the front door with the morning paper, and helped fuel an anti-war movement that divided the country. The world took note. But to a younger generation of photographers who followed in his path, Eddie Adams was much more. He was a leader. A force. A visionary. He left us a legacy for which we owe a great deal. Eddie Adams died recently, losing a battle with ALS. He was 71.
It remains to this day one of the most powerful images ever taken, clearly one of the all-time iconic photographic images. That fraction of a second has haunted us for 36 years. It became one of the war's most shocking images, and it became the symbol of the brutality of that war. Adams carried the burden of that photograph, and its horrific message of violence. I once heard him say that two lives were ruined by that image. Not just the prisoner, but the executioner's life as well. Adams wanted people to know this fact, that the image was in some ways misleading, it didn't tell the whole story. Photos can do that sometimes. The general with the gun was a hero, responsible for saving thousands of lives, and although what he did wasn't right, it was war. Adams was never comfortable with the fact he made money from that photo and was celebrated for it, while two men's lives were destroyed. That sentiment resonated with me. Here was not just a great photographer, but a concerned one. He taught me that what we do is serious, and the power of a photograph cannot be underestimated. I made special note of this.
For over 50 years Adams was in the thick of it, making memorable images of presidents, world leaders, and newsmakers. The fact that Eddie Adams was a great photographer is without question, and his contribution to photojournalism is considerable. Not just for one image, but for a lifetime of work. He once told me he was most proud of his photos of the Vietnamese Boat People, who were seeking refuge in neighboring countries. He felt they did much good by bringing awareness to the plight of the refugees, resulting in the United States admitting more than 200,000 of the boat people. Ironically, these images did not win the Pulitzer Prize like the execution photo. But it was a quiet black and white portrait of Louis Armstrong, alone with his trumpet, that Adams said was his favorite image. A quiet, simple photograph, by a man known for conflict.
But Eddie Adams' legacy is so much more than that of a photographer. Everyone who ever met the man remembered the encounter. A man of mystery, dark clothes, and few words. To me, he was the prototypical photojournalist, someone who has seen so much and photographed it all. He had an undeniable quality that made a lasting impression on people. Not so much by what he said, because he was often quiet, but what he stood for, which was a fierce commitment to photography. But when the setting was right, he would regale us with stories of his encounters with the world leaders who stood before his camera -the Pope, President Clinton, or Mother Teresa. I remember a story he told about getting hassled one time by security at one of the war memorials down in D.C while trying to make a picture. So he did what only he, Eddie Adams, could do. He called the President on the phone direct and got permission. Nothing like having the commander-in-chief on the speed dial.
If ones life worth is measured by the lives it touched, then Eddie was the richest man I ever met. Adams' lasting legacy is the Eddie Adams Workshop, a yearly gathering for young photographers held at his farm near Jeffersonville, NY. Founded in 1988, so many of today's top photographers have come through the workshop. Its an amazing coming together of legendary photographers and photo editors from just about every major agency, newspaper, and magazine in the world, for an exchange of photo ideas. The workshop has been such a huge success simply because Eddie willed it. He had a vision, and only he could get all the very best photographers to lend their time so generously. Only he could get industry leaders to participate, and corporations to help fund it. All for one single purpose, the betterment of other photographers. For this, we owe him so much.
After 9/11 Eddie asked me to be a guest speaker at the workshop, to show some of my photographs and to talk about my experiences. It was an entree into a circle that included true photography legends -David Kennerly, Nick Ut, Joe Rosenthal, and others. I have enjoyed my association with the workshop. Eddie just had a way of bringing people into the fold, offering support generously, and advice to those smart enough to listen. I got to know Eddie Adams just a little through my friendship with Al Paglione, a retired Record photographer who considered Eddie one of his best friends. I'll always cherish the time I spent with these two great men. They were of a different generation, many years my senior, but despite the age gap I loved to listen to these two aging photo sages bicker like an old married couple and rattle off ideas quick as flash as I again took note. Lots of them.
Eddie Adams offered a great deal to world and photojournalism. I for one, am better off because of it and I say thank you. Peace.