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Obituaries

Carl Mydans, 97; Noted Life Magazine War Photographer

August 18, 2004|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Carl Mydans, the much-honored Life magazine war photographer who took one of the most celebrated pictures of World War II -- a resolute Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading onto Luzon Island in the Philippines -- has died. He was 97.

Mydans died of heart failure Monday at his home in Larchmont, N.Y., according to his son, Seth.

During his more than 60-year career at America's seminal photojournalism magazine, Mydans covered World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the Russian invasion of Finland and the Sino-Japanese conflict.

"Some people have asked me over the years, 'Why did you spend as much of your time covering war?' " Mydans wrote in Mark Edward Harris' "Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work" (1998).

"War is not my delight," Mydans said. "War was the event of my years."

During his long and productive career, Mydans also photographed some of the most notable people of his time: President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, poet Ezra Pound, authors Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi and actor Clark Gable.

During his pre-Life days working with the U.S. Farm Security Administration, he was part of an elite group of photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who documented the effect of the Depression on rural inhabitants.

It was Roy Stryker, head of the agency's Historical Section, who gave Mydans a valuable insight for taking photographs: that what happened to people during the Depression would be written on their faces. It was a lesson that would serve Mydans well as he covered war after war.

"No eye cast upon the hardships of those years could afterward decline into a tool for pretty picture-making," Time magazine's Richard Lacayo wrote of Mydans in 1985. "Mydans learned the moral dimension of photography."

A native of the Boston area whose father was an oboist, Mydans received a bachelor's degree from Boston University, where he had worked on the student newspaper. After graduation, while on the staff of American Banker magazine, he began to take photographs on the side. When one was published in Time magazine, he got a slot in the Farm Security Administration's Depression project.

By 1936, Mydans had joined the staff of the just-launched weekly Life magazine, for which he traveled widely, juggling a mix of assignments that included taking photos of beekeepers and range riders and striking steelworkers.

Mydans met his wife, Life researcher and writer Shelley Smith, at a magazine Christmas party in 1937. They were married the next year, beginning a personal and professional partnership that took them to war-torn places around the world. When World War II began in 1939, the Mydans were sent to Europe as a photographer-reporter team.

For a time, Shelley Mydans was in Sweden while Carl Mydans was on the Russian-Finnish front, where it was so cold he had to alternate cameras, keeping one under his sheepskin coat so that he would always have one warm enough to use.

He said of this time: "Pictures lay at every glance, but never have I suffered more in getting them." One of the notable photographs he shot then was of a frozen dead soldier.

By the time Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, the Mydans had been posted to cover the war in Asia. Their article "Defenders of the Philippines" -- which Shelley Mydans researched and wrote and Carl photographed -- arrived by dispatch in New York on Pearl Harbor day.

Within a month, the Mydans had been interned with about 3,500 American and Allied nationals by the advancing Japanese forces at Santo Tomas University in Manila. They endured malnutrition and other hardships that Shelley Mydans later described in her novel, "The Open City."

The next September, they and some other prisoners were transferred to Shanghai and released 15 months later in a prisoner exchange.

Back in the U.S., Carl Mydans resumed photographing for Life. One of his first assignments was a visual account of the Tule Lake relocation camp in Northern California, where Japanese Americans had been interned during the war. But he soon was dispatched to Europe -- first to Italy, traveling with the 5th Army in the Cassino fighting, and later to France -- and then sent back to the Pacific.

Mydans' famed picture of MacArthur was taken Jan. 9, 1945, when Mydans was the only still photographer selected to go with the general when MacArthur returned to Luzon in the shank of the war.

MacArthur had left the Philippines in defeat in March 1942 with his famous vow: "I shall return." In October 1944, American forces did return, finally overcoming the Japanese Navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and leaving the Japanese so weakened they could not resist further incursions.

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