In the past month, two of the greatest have left us. First, it was
Henri Cartier-Bresson, who more than any photographer defined "the
decisive moment," then in August, Carl Mydans, who was without
doubt one of the greatest of the original Life photographers.
interesting that both photographers received huge obits on the pages
of The New York Times. The sheer scope of these obituaries was generally
reserved for great writers, poets, designers and heads of state.
John F. Kennedy campaigns with his wife in Boston, 1958.
Carl Mydans was often overlooked when compared with some of his more
colorful colleagues, such as Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White
and Gordon Parks. Some critics called his work ordinary. But for those
who knew better, Carl was without doubt the best photojournalist of
What made his work so special was that Carl was first and always a
journalist. He viewed his job as being a witness to history. To Carl,
the written word was as important as the photography. In a closet
in his Larchmont N.Y., home, which he shared with his wife Shelley
until she died several years ago, were thousands of reporter's notebooks.
He made a lifetime habit of sitting down at the end of every day and
meticulously recording what he saw and heard. These notebooks are
a huge legacy to historians.
November 22, 1963, on a train to Stamford, Connecticut.
the consummate journalist. Time-Life recognized this when they made
him b ureau
chief in Tokyo following World War II. He is the only photographer in
that company's history to be accorded this recognition.
A decade ago, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, turned
over its walls to a major retrospective of Carl's work. When the full
extent of his remarkable career could be seen in one place, the result
Like his colleague and friend, Alfred Eisenstaedt, into his '90s,
Carl remained engaged in the world. He still had the curiosity of
a child. Even though he could barely hear, he made the trek to his
office on the 28th floor of the Time-Life building until the mid-'90s.
In 1945, General George McArthur sent a plane to pick up Carl, who
was then busy covering the defeat of Nazi Germany, to return him to
the Pacific theatre so that Carl could accompany him on his return
to the Philippines. The general knew that Carl had remained behind
with the defenders of Corregidor when they were overrun by the Japanese,
and the Japanese had imprisoned him and his wife for over two years.
in one of Carl's most memorable photos, of McArthur wading ashore.
Phillipines (January 9,1945): General Douglas McArthur
wades ashore as Allied Forces land for the first time
in the Phillipines, as they push towards Tokyo and victory
Over four decades later, Time magazine sent Carl back to the Philippines
to cover the elections that resulted in Corazon Aquino defeating President
Carl's son, Seth Mydans, remembers:
I recall is that my father wangled his way onto Ferdinand Marcos's
small plane up to Ilocos Norte on voting day. Everyone else had had
to make the long drive and had taken their places around the ballot
box at dawn, everyone with their elbows firmly in their neighbors'
ribs. My father (he may have been secretly grinning) walked in with
the Marcos crowd and simply took his place in front of everybody,
causing the usual cries of complaint. But I'm told everyone was very
polite to the old war-horse. That image is coupled in my mind with
a wonderful photo of Carl, in his funny sunhat, clambering up onto
a wooden scaffold in the middle of Luneta Park during a Corazon Aquino
rally, with all the other photographers reaching out to hold a hand,
an arm, an elbow, a foot and help him up.
As for the Marcoses, we all know about their vivid imaginations.
When I first met Imelda at a press conference in Malacanang in 1981,
she announced in front of everybody, "Yes, my husband rescued
your father from prison camp." I then had my first audience
with Marcos, who promptly told me, "Yes, your father is the
only photographer who ever got a picture of me during the war wearing
my helmet." (These, of course, are the people who said they
grew wealthy by "investing wisely," among other things.)
I'd like to mention also that Shelley hadn't lost her touch either.
She volunteered to visit a polling place for The New York Times
and produced one of the most vivid accounts of the day when a bunch
of goons rushed the place and hammered with their pistol butts to
get the nuns and schoolteachers to loosen their grips on the ballot
One other quite extraordinary moment: During the January-February
1986 campaign, my competition may have wondered how I was getting
so much access to Marcos. More than once, my father asked me to
"carry his camera bags" when he was invited in to shoot
a portrait. On one of these occasions he autographed a copy of his
new book, "Carl Mydans, Photojournalist," just as he did
for other major figures (major like Doy Laurel): "With respect,
at this historic moment." Two weeks after Edsa , I flew to
Hawaii to interview Marcos in exile. He had not yet moved to Makiki
Heights but was in a sad, barren seaside villa. The jewels and pesos
and other goodies he had grabbed as he fled were already in some
vault somewhere. But my father's book, autographed "at this
historic moment," was out on a coffee table for me to see.
One could say it was one of his valuable treasures, but I think
that even as he fled his palace, Marcos still thought Time magazine
and The New York Times could help him get back there again. After
all, the cover photograph shows MacArthur's return.
Robin Moyer, who was then the Time contract photographer in Southeast
and Shelley arrived in Manila in early January, checked into the Manila
Hotel and immediately set about work. His special assignment was to
cover the Marcos campaign.
Despite the fact he was 79 years old at the time, his boundless
energy and enthusiasm inspired our shooters like James Nachtwey,
Peter Charlesworth and Susan Meiselas. The Filipino photographers
Carl as one of their own, reserving the best vantage places for
him in the photo melees.
Even Imelda Marcos got into the act, proclaiming Carl an old-time
friend of the family. "We've known Carl for years. He is world-famous
and much taller than his son."
Carl's response was simple. "I met Imelda for the first time
last week and Seth is much taller than I am."
Carl's tireless work in the sweltering heat of Manila produced some
outstanding images, including one of the several covers during the
campaign and a singularly stunning image that showed not only his
skill as a photographer, but his sense of history.
At the final rally of the Marcos campaign, having worked his way
through a crowd estimated at over a million people, past several
layers of photographers and around the security teams surrounding
Marcos and his wife, Carl mounted the stage and made what may be
the best image of our months of coverage. Reminiscent of the famous
"Dewey Defeats Truman" photo, Carl snapped a picture of
Marcos smugly holding up a banner headline proclaiming "MARCOS
Photographer Peter Charlesworth picked up the story:
the press jostled for positions at a press conference to be given
by President Marcos, I believe it was Robin Moyer who somehow instilled
some discipline into the rabble of cameramen and photographers, setting
them into tiered, orderly ranks. Carl was waiting, kneeling quietly
in the front row.
Marcos arrived out of a side door and sat in front of a desk, whereupon
Carl leapt up, leaned over the desk and started to make close-up
portraits of the ailing dictator. Had this been anyone else, the
verbal abuse from the massed press, whose views had been blocked,
would have been deafening. A camera to the back of the head would
have been more likely.
Nothing. There was a stunned silence as Marcos's security guards
wondered what to do. Such was the awe in which Carl was held by
the Filipino press corps - indeed, by all those present - that nobody
moved. After a while, there were a few murmurs from those in the
front row, "Er, … excuse me, Mr. Mydans, ..." as Carl
continued to snap away, "er, … Mr. Mydans …"
At which point Carl turned around and cast a glance back at the
gob-smacked photographers. With a mischievous grin he muttered,
"Oh, I am so sorry," as if he had completely forgotten
that anyone else was there, then shuffled back to his position in
the front row.
In his last years, his friends continually visited Carl. These visits
were a source of great joy.
We shall all miss him. We will not see his kind again.
and Publisher of the Digital Journalist