In the early 1970s, I found myself quietly sitting in our local library sifting through back issues of Life magazine. I was looking for some way to make sense of the tumult of those times — Kent State, Vietnam and the civil rights movement. In the graininess of those Life pictures, I found myself drawn to images that could bring reason to a world that seemed out of control and chaotic.
At the time, I could have never imagined the profound influence some of these images would have on me in later years. In particular, I had discovered the work of Larry Burrows.
In a 1965 essay, with a brave crew in a deadly fight, Burrows turned his camera on a helicopter gun crew chief; to humanize the costs of a war that, at the time, was still being peddled to the American public as righteous and justified.
Staring at the cover showing Chris Farley, the crew chief, screaming for help, while two other soldiers lay dying, moved me to recognize the true impact of the still image. More than the images of Smith or Capa, Burrows’ work touched something deep inside me — the ability to record an enormous range of human emotion without compromise.
Time and again, Burrows’ pictures distilled the war into a series of complex montages that captured the essence of what I believed visual reportage should be — something free from politics or aesthetic contrivance.
Burrows’ essay came three years before Eddie Adams captured the famous execution of a suspected Viet Cong prisoner, and more than five years before Nick Ut’s picture of a naked girl fleeing the napalm bombing of her village or the release of Philip Jones Griffith’s remarkable book, Vietnam Inc.
Burrows died along with three other photographers and seven South Vietnamese soldiers over Laos in 1971 when their helicopter was shot down. For some admirers, Burrows’ death marked a turning point in combat photography.
Fast-forward 37 years. This week, Burrows’ legacy will be once again remembered as a time capsule containing some of the scant remains of the photographers and soldiers, discovered on a remote Laotian mountainside 27 years later. Burrows and his colleagues will be enshrined at the
Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism in Washington, D.C.
In remembering Larry Burrows, Horst Faas observed:
Larry Burrows was the most versatile press photographer I knew and he approached each of his subjects and stories with the same curiosity and intensity, eager to learn and understand all about what he tried to express and show in his images.
History has a curious way of coming back to us when we least expect it. Human beings long for closure on the past, especially when it is traumatic. But putting the past behind us is impractical. It is impractical because the sacrifices others have made to future generations cannot be underestimated or forgotten.