Dirck Halstead: War zone photographer who ventured into danger

Dirck Halstead, a photojournalist who chronicled the first and final stages of the Vietnam war and whose presidential images included the departure of Richard Nixon from the White House and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, has died aged 85.

Halstead, who began his career in his teens, spent most of his career with the United Press International wire service and later at Time magazine, where he had almost 50 cover photos – reportedly more than any other photographer.

“It was a calling from when he was a teenager,” Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, where Halstead’s archives are stored, said. “He wasn’t a photographer. He was a journalist with a camera.”

In 1965, Halstead captured the first US troops arriving in Vietnam, as Marines waded ashore near Danang. In 1972, after moving to TimeHalstead was back in Vietnam and drove to a battlefront near An Loc, in what was then South Vietnam, with reporter Leon Daniel and photographer David Hume Kennerly, both of UPI.

As they stepped out of their car, Kennerly recalled, a bullet hit the pavement near Daniel’s foot. The journalists ran for cover.

“All of a sudden, the world erupted,” said Kennerly, who won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1972 and later served as chief White House photographer. “We were surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers. It was just a melee. Dirck and I got pinned down.”

About a dozen South Vietnamese soldiers were killed within 100 yards of Kennerly, Daniels and Halstead, as they were trapped by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire.

“That was when Dirck looked at me,” Kennerly recalled, “and said, ‘I can’t wait to have a drink at the Melody Bar tonight.’”

The fighting went on for hours before the North Vietnamese troops were driven away by US air power.

Three years later, Halstead was back in Vietnam to photograph the US withdrawal from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). I have captured the desperate attempts of Vietnamese citizens to climb aboard packed US helicopters and to flee the country by boat. Halstead left on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon in April 1975.

“I looked down and watched the city that had been so much a part of my life slip over the horizon,” he wrote in a 2006 memoir, moments in time. “How can it be that in a place of war, I find the happiest times I have ever known? How could I possibly explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it how much more alive I feel returning to Saigon at the end of the day, and living and enduring in a place where I’m not even sure I will survive?”

Later, from the deck of a Navy ship, Halstead photographed helicopters being pushed into the sea to make room for more refugees. For his work during the fall of Saigon, he received the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club. The award, for “exceptional courage and enterprise” by a news photographer working abroad, is named for the renowned photojournalist who was killed in Vietnam in 1954.

Early in his tenure as a White House photographer for TimeHalstead accompanied Nixon on his breakthrough trip to China in 1972. Nine years later, Halstead was at the Washington Hilton when Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr (Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and DC police officer Thomas Delahanty were also wounded.)

Through his lens, Halstead captured the victims on the pavement as Secret Service agents drew their guns and hustled Reagan into a limousine to be driven to George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery and recovered.

Halstead, who photographed every president from John Kennedy to George W Bush, often said that the easiest presidents to work with were Reagan and Gerald Ford. But, strictly as a photographic subject, his favorite was Nixon.

“He was totally crazy. You could see every emotion,” Halstead said in a 2010 oral history interview with Binghamton University in New York. “His face of him was a living contradiction. His eyes would be delivering one message, and his mouth would be delivering another. There was moisture above his mouth, these little eyes would be darting around the room. He was nuts, in a word.”

In 1996, Halstead took one of his most famous photographs, only he didn’t know it at the time. Almost two years later, when it was revealed that Clinton had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, Halstead thought she looked familiar.

He hired a researcher to look through thousands of color transparencies before coming across a shot of Clinton, with his back to the camera, embracing a smiling Lewinsky, wearing red lipstick, during a fundraiser at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. The photo ran on the cover of Time.

“I knew I had photographed that face with Clinton,” Halstead told slate in 1998. “We remember things in terms of the photographs we shoot. Your mind creates folders. It was an extraordinarily lucky moment.”

Dirck Storm Halstead was born 24 December 1936, in New York. His father of him was an inventor who made major advances in television and stereophonic sound. His mother was an advertising executive.

Halstead’s parents gave him a camera when he was 13, and he was soon photographing for local newspapers. After graduating from high school in 1954, he took a train to Washington to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings. He was at the session where Army counsel Joseph Welch confronted the red-baiting Joseph McCarthy, saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

Shortly afterward, Halstead went to the funeral of Capa, his photographic hero, only to be turned away by Capa’s photo editor, John G Morris. When Halstead broke into tears. Morris relented, saying, “You are a photographer; he would have wanted you here.”

Through that connection, Halstead approached Life magazine, known for its lavish photography, with a proposal to cover a group of US college students building a school in Guatemala.

“They reviewed my suggestion,” Halstead later wrote, “and asked me if film and $1,000 would be enough to get me started.” He was used to making $10 a picture.

He went to Guatemala, prepared to cover more than just a school being built. While there, he photographed fighting associated with a CIA-backed coup that topped the country’s president. His pictures of him were published in Lifeand the magazine later ran a short feature on its young international photographer.

Halstead attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania before leaving to join the Dallas Times Heraldthen moved to UPI and eventually opened a photography bureau in Saigon in 1965.

He also covered conflicts in the Middle East and did still photography on the sets of several films, including apocalypse now, Goodfellas and Conan the Barbarian. Halstead led workshops to help photographers broaden their video skills and in 1997 launched The Digital Journalistwhich he envisioned as an online counterpart to the old Life magazine. The Digital Journalist ceased publication in 2010.

Among other honours, Halstead received the lifetime achievement award from the White House News Photographers Association in 2002. His photo archives, totaling about 500,000 images, were acquired by the Briscoe Center in 1995. Halstead lived in Austin from about 2001 to 2016, teaching journalism and helping steer the collections of other photojournalists to the centre. I have later moved to Panama.

His marriages to Patricia Gilmer, Elizabeth “Betsy” Zakroff and Virginia Naumann ended in divorce. Survivors include his sister from him.

Halstead was considered a generous mentor to younger photographers and an engaging raconteur.

“One of the best-kept secrets in journalism is that photographers can be terrific storytellers,” he wrote in his memoir. “However, you rarely hear them regaling guests at a cocktail party or dinner … But late at night, in a dark bar in a place like Bangkok, Paris, Calcutta, or New York, among their own kind and usually encouraged by a few drinks , the stories start to flow – and they are wonderful.”

Dirck Halstead, photographer, born 24 December 1936, died 25 March 2022

© The Washington Post


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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