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BY NORMAN BORDEN | In the pantheon of outstanding war photographers, Larry Burrows easily ranks as one of its bravest. A native Londoner, he dropped out of school at age 16 and got a job in the darkroom of LIFE Magazine’s London bureau. After becoming a staff photographer for LIFE (covering conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, among other assignments), Burrows went to Vietnam in 1962 — and the rest is literally history. For the next nine years, until his death when the helicopter he was in with three fellow photojournalists was shot down over Laos in 1971, Burrows produced a series of searing, memorable long-form photo essays. His work brought home the humanity and inhumanity of the Vietnam War and, for that matter, all wars, as no other photographer ever did.
By pioneering the use of color film in war photography, his pictures had more impact and mood. He stayed with GIs on the front lines during firefights, hitched rides on helicopters going into combat, and could spend days trying to capture a single image as part of a photo essay. Rather than depending on a chance incident, he was willing to wait until the right moment. This wasn’t typical wartime photojournalism — but it brought him enormous respect from his peers and many honors, including two Robert Capa Gold Medal awards from the Overseas Press Club. Just last year, many of his photographs were used in Ken Burns’ documentary, “Vietnam.”
The new exhibition at Laurence Miller Gallery, “Larry Burrows Revisited,” is the gallery’s fifth solo show of his work since 1985, and includes more than 50 color and black and white images that bookend his career.
Among them are iconic Vietnam pictures such as “Reaching Out,” and nine images from his best-known series, “One Ride With Yankee Papa 13,” that LIFE published as a 14-page spread in 1965.
Work from the 1950s includes news coverage and candid portraits of Brigitte Bardot, Louis Armstrong, C.P. Snow, and T.S. Eliot, along with a memorable image of Winston Churchill from a different point of view.
In an interview at the gallery, Russell Burrows, the photographer’s son and Director of The Larry Burrows Collection, explained that the new show features 11 digital color prints that were made from the original transparencies. “We printed some before in other formats,” he noted. “We used to do everything as dye transfers since the color in the original dyes had an intrinsic richness. But this is the first time we seriously did these as digital prints from the original transparencies — and the color holds up in the new prints.”
Recalling how the dye transfers were made for the first Laurence Miller Gallery show in 1985 (10 years after the war ended), Burrows said, “The people who worked on these in the lab were very committed to getting the colors right. But while we were struggling to explain to them how red the mud should be, a couple of sales people from the lab — Vietnam veterans — walked by and said they could smell it. So we called them in and from the beginning, we had a set of prints we could go back to.”
Burrows related how, in 1985, he didn’t want to take it upon himself to decide what the color should look like. “The whole idea was to try and match the original picture,” he said. “You find people who see a picture reproduced somewhere else and they say, ‘Why isn’t the picture like that?’ Well, it’s the reproduction that’s wrong.” He explained that his father’s photos have very much of a “Vietnam look,” with colors that are recognizable. Some pictures were shot with Kodachrome, but most were taken with extra High Speed Ektachrome. The other photographers working at the time only shot with black and white film.
In one of the new digital prints, “Relief of the Khe Sanh” (1968), the impact of color and Burrows’ well-regarded compositional abilities are very evident. The red flag becomes a framing device, separating soldiers on the left with the artillery piece and helicopter in the background. An army jeep in the lower right completes the picture, with a cloud of yellow dust adding another element to the spectacle.
Burrows’ talents raised conflict pictures to the level of fine art. In fact, he was the only photographer allowed to take the doors off a fighter-bomber so he could lean out and take pictures. When other photojournalists asked why they didn’t get the same privilege, the Vietnamese authorities replied, “Mr. Burrows request was granted not because he is a photographer, but because he is an artist.” His editors and colleagues all agreed.
Russell Burrows feels many pictures have a cinematic quality, as in a frame from a movie, noting, “There are people coming and going in them.” Perhaps the best example is Burrows’ iconic image entitled “Reaching Out” (1966). It shows an injured Marine, a bloody bandage around his head and supported by fellow Marines, gesturing as if trying to comfort his wounded comrade, who is lying in the mud, his hand grasping the remains of a tree. Other soldiers seem oblivious; it’s just another day of war, and the photographer fills the frame, edge to edge, with the story. However, when it was later discovered that friendly fire had caused the casualties, “Reaching Out” helped fuel anti-war sentiment. “This tableau,” Burrows’ son observed, “has been described as representing the American war in Vietnam.”
In his heartfelt introduction to the book “Larry Burrows: Vietnam,” David Halberstam’s wrote, “From the start, the best photos from Vietnam were his. He had a feel for the war and the people fighting it, for the special texture of it, and he understood as well that if you were going to be a photographer for a great photo magazine, this was the ultimate assignment, demanding the ultimate risk, for the two could not be separated, opportunity and risk.”
As this exhibition demonstrates so vividly, Larry Burrows made the most of the opportunities and took enormous risks. With images including “Puff the Magic Dragon” (a machine gunner aboard a C-47 over the Mekong Delta), ARVN soldiers loading captured guerillas onto a boat, and Secretary of Defense McNamara at rallies in Saigon, his work is truly monumental, and a poignant reminder of a divisive time in US history.
Today, when cable news and the Internet have become the main source of news for millions of people, this show can give a new generation a better appreciation of the permanency and power of a single news photograph.
Through June 29 at Laurence Miller Gallery (521 W. 26th St., btw. 10th & 11th Aves.). Hours: Tues.–Fri., 10am–6pm and Sat., 11am–6pm. For gallery info, visit laurencemillergallery.com or call 212-397-3930.