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Eddie Adams, 71; Pulitzer-Winning Photojournalist

September 20, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Adams, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner in the streets of Saigon became an enduring symbol of the brutality of the Vietnam War, died Sunday in his Manhattan home. He was 71.

Adams died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease, his assistant, Jessica Stuart, told Associated Press. He was diagnosed in May with a virulent form of the incurable neurological disorder and quickly lost his speech and became increasingly incapacitated.

As a photojournalist, he recorded 13 wars from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War, and earned some 500 awards including the 1978 Robert Capa Award, three George Polk Memorial Awards, three Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Awards and National Press Photographer Assn. Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1975.

But none of his remarkable photographs of battle, international politics, fashion or show business evoked the emotions of the picture of the summary execution that won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize and the 1969 World Press Photo award. Yet the picture that earned so much praise seemed to bring Adams little joy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Adams obituary -- The obituary of photographer Eddie Adams in Monday's California section misspelled the name of the Philadelphia Inquirer as the Philadelphia Enquirer.

An Associated Press special correspondent, Adams was assigned to Vietnam when the Communists launched the Tet offensive in 1968. On Feb. 1, the second day of the massive military operation, Adams hitched a ride with an NBC crew and rode toward the sound of gunfire in Cholon, Saigon's embattled Chinese quarter.

Finding no action, they were about to leave when Adams saw police walking out of a building with a bound prisoner.

"All of a sudden, out of nowhere, comes General [Nguyen Ngoc] Loan, the national police chief," he once related. "I thought he was going to threaten the prisoner. So as quick as he brought his pistol up, I took a picture. But it turned out he shot him."

The photo was published on newspaper front pages around the world and increased opposition to the war, illustrating for many the brutal nature of the conflict. It also turned the world against Loan.

"In taking that picture," Adams later told Parade magazine, "I had destroyed [Loan's] life. For General Loan had become a man condemned both in his country and in America because he had killed an enemy in war. People do this all the time in war, but rarely is a photographer there to record the act."

Adams accepted Loan's explanation that the man he shot was a Viet Cong captain who had murdered several civilians.

Years later, when Loan, who lost a leg during the war, was running a pizza parlor in suburban Washington, D.C., Adams visited him.

"He told me, 'You were doing your job, and I was doing mine,' " Adams told Parade.

Despite efforts to deport him, Loan lived out his life in Virginia, dying of cancer in 1998. "Photographs, you know, they're half-truths," Adams said a day after Loan's death.

Often asked if he had it to do over, the photographer said: "If it happened again, I'd probably take the picture again -- it's my job."

But asked to discuss the circumstances of the famous photo, Adams would say, as he told the National Press Photographers Assn. in 1994, "I'm not going to talk about it. It's just a thing we don't talk about. We don't use it in my shows. We don't use it anywhere."

Adams was far prouder of other Vietnam photos -- a series he shot of 48 refugees in a 30-foot boat that made it to Thailand only to be towed back to sea by Thai marines. Presented to Congress, the photos and story helped persuade President Carter to admit 179,000 boat people to the United States.

"I'd rather have won the Pulitzer for something like that," Adams once told the Washington Post. "It did some good, and nobody got hurt."

Born Edward Thomas Adams in New Kensington, Pa., on June 12, 1933, Adams was a Marine Corps combat photographer in the Korean War and then settled into a decade of photojournalism with the New Kensington Daily Dispatch, the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He worked for Associated Press from 1962 to 1972, spent the following four years with Time magazine, and then returned to Associated Press from 1976 to 1980. He spent his remaining years as a freelance photographer for Life, Parade and other publications, working from his studio and home in Manhattan's East Greenwich Village.

In addition to capturing scenes of war and breaking news, Adams was known for his moving portraits, often in black and white, of such world figures as presidents Nixon and George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, China's Deng Xiaoping, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev, India's Indira Gandhi and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran.

In 2001, several of his portraits toured in a show titled "Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World," which also featured writing by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo.

Despite Adams' illness, he worked until his death. What he called his "last assignment," a video profile, was featured on entertainer Jerry Lewis' annual Labor Day telethon to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., which benefits research and treatment for Lou Gehrig's and other diseases.

Adams is survived by his wife of 15 years, Alyssa; a son, August, 14; three children from a previous marriage, Susan Ann Sinclair and Edward Adams II of Atlanta and Amy Marie Adams of New Jersey; his 100-year-old mother, Adelaide; and four sisters.

A memorial service is pending.

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