April 19, 2011, 5:00 am
By DONALD R. WINSLOW
For a long time after Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for “Saigon Execution,” he wouldn’t speak of it. He turned away questions about the picture, grumbling some dismissive rebuff like, “Everything’s already been said about it.” Or: “There’s nothing new. I don’t want to talk about it now.” I experienced this firsthand in the 1970s as a college student. At an Indiana University seminar, I asked him about “Saigon Execution.” Before an auditorium packed with photojournalism students, Eddie cut me off at the knees, then pointed to the next raised hand.
I was stunned. After the slide show we’d just watched, we were collectively in awe. Eddie seemed like some kind of photojournalism God. I had no idea I’d stumbled onto such a sore point. It didn’t make sense. Who wouldn’t want to talk about one of history’s most iconic war pictures and winning the Pulitzer Prize? Why on earth would someone shun such an honor?
Eddie and I were later to become friends. But even in 2004, when he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 71, I still didn’t have the full story.
Indeed, the reason for his seemingly inexplicable feelings remained a mystery until just recently. His widow, Alyssa Adams, donated his archive to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin on the fifth anniversary of Eddie’s death. The archive includes more than 50 years’ worth of material from a journalist who covered 13 wars, six American presidents and nearly every major film star. With his family’s permission, Alison M. Beck of the Briscoe Center allowed me an advance peek into the archive as the staff categorized 200 linear feet of slides, negatives, prints, audio and video materials, diaries, notes and tear sheets. Everything captured my interest, but Eddie’s journals were the gems.
It turns out that he did, in fact, very much want to win a Pulitzer Prize. Desperately. Almost obsessively. But what I didn’t know until I sat in the basement of the Briscoe Center reading his 1963 and 1964 journals — scrawled in little red leather notebooks — was that Eddie wanted to win a Pulitzer long before he’d ever encountered a Vietcong prisoner named Nguyen Van Lem or Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police.
There, in his own handwriting, Eddie acknowledged how deeply he wanted to win a Pulitzer for his photograph of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, holding the folded flag that had been handed to her at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in November 1963. Eddie was angry when he didn’t win a Pulitzer and then furious when he found out that an administrator at The Associated Press had submitted other A.P. pictures to the Pulitzer jury instead. His photo hadn’t even been entered.
The photo that did win the Pulitzer Prize that year was by Bob Jackson of The Dallas Times-Herald. It showed Jack Ruby lunging out of a crowd to shoot and kill the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, during a perp walk. It was what’s known as a “reflex” picture; taken when there isn’t time to think, when some movement or sound screams to the brain, “Push the shutter now!”
So Eddie watched the Pulitzer for coverage of the Kennedy assassination go to a reflex picture rather than one so intentionally poignant, one that captured a national moment of mourning, a timeless and heartbreaking milestone in America’s history.
But that doesn’t seem enough to keep him angry about the Pulitzers for so many years. After all, Eddie often felt slighted, overlooked; in the shadow of others who seemed to get the spotlight for lesser accomplishments. Especially in his early career, he suffered from what friends called “insufficient adoration.”
I scanned his journals, thought back on our conversations and recalled the many times I’d listened to him speak to student photojournalists and professionals in classrooms or in bars or on street corners waiting for news to happen. I cobbled together the bits and pieces of insight he’d share sparingly with one friend or another over time. That’s when it dawned on me. As I held both photos side by side, I realized what he’d been hinting at and saying indirectly.
Eddie thought he’d won the Pulitzer for the wrong picture.
There’s something you have to take into account about Eddie. Before he was a photographer, he was a Marine. And some Marine principles took root in his heart: honesty, fairness and the importance of holding and protecting a higher moral ground. Bear this in mind as you contemplate the two photographs.
Eddie made the picture of Mrs. Kennedy on purpose. It was intentional. Methodical. It spoke to the deep photographic talent of Edward T. Adams. A perceived moment was approaching, it came, and he captured it. Magnificently. This is a shining example of the best of the best of his photography.
Now consider “Saigon Execution.” Eddie himself said it was a reflex picture. That day in Saigon in 1968, Eddie saw the general reaching for his pistol as he walked up to the prisoner’s side. When the general raised his hand, Eddie raised his 35-millimeter camera to his face. In a pure reflex he released the shutter. He wasn’t certain of what he’d photographed until the film was developed and an A.P. editor, Horst Faas, picked out that negative.
And that, for Eddie, was that. In the following days there’s barely any mention in his journal of “Saigon Execution.” What’s clear is that in 1968, this ex-Marine saw the shooting as something that simply happened in war. It was just another day in Vietnam. No big deal. A prisoner had been shot. As time passed, Eddie came guiltily to believe that the general had gotten a bum rap for the execution and that he — as the photographer — had played a significant role in “ruining a man’s life.” To a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar Marine from New Kensington, Pa., this wouldn’t have fit the definition of higher moral ground.
Years later, while laying out the pages one day for News Photographer, the monthly magazine of the National Press Photographers Association, I received a surprise phone call from Eddie. He said he knew I’d have to write his obituary sooner or later and he told me what he didn’t want the first sentence to say. He also grumbled that he’d made a similar phone call to The New York Times but that he knew, when the time came, “they probably won’t be able to help themselves.” (The Times’s obituary.)