Monday, October 12, 2009

Publishing 'Vietnam'

The career of Eddie Adams spanned decades and genres, from the arrival of the Beatles in America to the private fishing spot of Fidel Castro, but he remained best-known for his history-making work in Vietnam. His shocking photograph of an execution on the streets of Saigon helped shift U.S. opinions on the war and awarded Adams the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. But he had been in the country for years, with a larger body of work to document his time there.

This year saw the release of “Eddie Adams: Vietnam,” edited by Alyssa Adams and Hal Buell, his longtime editor at the Associated Press. The book was published by Umbrage Editions, founded by Nan Richardson, who appeared Sunday afternoon at Barnstorm. Alyssa and Buell (later joined by Claudia DiMartino) discussed the making of the book:

Didn’t Eddie have mixed feelings about collecting his pictures into a book?

Hal Buell: I don’t recall him ever being pleased with any book he was ever involved with. I always thought that with “Speak Truth to Power,” his portraits really gave a dimension to the story it certainly would not have had without them. But he didn’t see it that way. He got into a squabble over the cover or title. With Eddie, he would get pissed off about this, and it would spread out like ink on a blotter. But the pictures were really wonderful. You go out and make 100 portraits and every one is different? That’s really something.

Did Eddie talk about doing books?

Alyssa Adams: He talked to a couple of publishers and tried to put a book together, and every time they would get so far, and he would just rip it up. And that would be the end of it.

HB: I used to give him a hard time. He’d say, “I’ve got the first paragraph …” and then he’d dictate this 25 words. And I’d say, What about the other 60,000? What are we going to do about those? (laughs)

It seems that since he didn’t do many books in his lifetime, and unless you were really in the know, you might know his work from only a handful of pictures.

HB: I don’t know if that’s really true. When I met Eddie for the first time in 1963, he had come to the AP from the Philadelphia Bulletin, and I had come back from Asia. We just connected and did a lot of good things. But at that point, Eddie was a very well-known photographer. He already had a wall full of awards that he used to make fun of and hang in his bathroom.

He did not promote his own work per se, but he did promote his ideas of photography and what photography meant. He sometimes used his own pictures in that, but Eddie was always dissatisfied with his work. That was one of his driving forces. Sometimes that inhibited him because he didn’t think he was good enough, it should be better, or ‘Did I miss this?’ -- all the anxieties that photographers feel.

How did the Vietnam book come together?

AA: The idea was to put a retrospective book together. Honestly, I hadn’t seen a lot of Eddie’s pictures, because he had his favorites and those were the ones that I saw. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I saw more –- there’s still pictures I’ve never seen. It just became obvious that Vietnam was the thing to focus on first.

Not only did we find his pictures, we found his diaries. Hal had once interviewed him about the picture, so you really hear Eddie’s voice a lot in this because there were other pieces we had to put together.

HB: The idea was: This is how photographers covered Vietnam, as shown by Eddie Adams. I did a lot of research into the newspaper files. Eddie wrote a lot of stories -– or he called in stories that others wrote. Eddie was not a bad writer. That provided us with a lot of information. There was a lot in the journals, but the journals kind of ended at his first tour in Vietnam, and they were a little cryptic. But there was a flavor in the journals that was very important, and very Eddie.

His most famous picture won the Pulitzer, but was there a general quality to his work that the execution picture does not capture?

Claudia DiMartino: I absolutely love his portrait of Mother Teresa holding a baby. That is the antithesis of the Saigon execution picture, and it shows Eddie’s range. He can lock into that sense of intimacy and emotion that you don’t get in a picture of a guy shot on the street. And his photo essay on the boat people, that’s a tremendously touching story and one that showed great courage on his part to cover.

HB: The Saigon execution picture is not like Eddie’s pictures. It was his signature picture because of its fame, but Eddie was especially effective when he could put a picture together.

Was there a picture you especially liked that you’d never seen before?

AA: Yeah, there’s one of a man with a wife on his back as they’re fleeing. I had never seen that picture. I don’t think anybody ever saw it before.

Are other books planned?

AA: Not as of yet, but I just donated the archives to the University of Texas. I’m hoping we can spend a couple of years and do that retrospective book. I also think it would be fun to do a book just of his AP images.

HB: I don’t want to sound conceded, but I guess I will: I think Eddie did his best work at AP.

Steve Appleford

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