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Photojournalist Eddie Adams, Pulitzer Prize-Winner, Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page B06

The photojournalist Eddie Adams, 71, who died of a neurological disorder Sept. 19 at his home in New York, won the Pulitzer Prize for defining in one ferocious and unforgettable moment war's shuddering horror: a South Vietnamese general's street-side execution of a suspected Viet Cong leader.

The power of the picture, taken on a Saigon street Feb. 1, 1968, rests with its eternal immediacy. Mr. Adams, who had been photographing the suspect as police marched him to his fate, was not aware of what was planned.

Eddie Adams took this photograph of Mother Teresa cradling an armless infant at her orphanage in Calcutta in 1978.

_____Photo Gallery_____
Eddie Adams's Daunting Legacy

The general -- all business, his sleeves rolled up -- approached the man and said nothing.

Mr. Adams, who lifted his camera in synch with the general's gun, took the famed photo the nanosecond the bullet passed through the man's skull. The deadly blast from the snub-nosed gun -- poised inches from the scruffy, grimacing target -- conveys a violent echo off the page.

The general explained, "They killed many Americans and many of my people."

It was war in its purest, most personal form. It did not show preparations for battle or its aftermath, the bodies in flag-draped coffins.

The execution, which had also been filmed by NBC, went on to influence the U.S. presidential race that year. The killing lent support to the antiwar platform of Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy (D-Minn.). Less than two months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) announced he would not seek reelection.

For the photographer, the picture left a daunting legacy: He felt pressure to match the power of the image for the rest of his career, and he faced occasional scoldings from colleagues.

At an awards ceremony, a Dutch reporter asked, "Why didn't you stop him from shooting that man?"

Mr. Adams couldn't look at the picture for two years.

"I was getting money for showing one man killing another," he said soon after he won the Pulitzer. "Two lives were destroyed" -- the general later encountered immigration difficulties in the United States over the shooting -- "and I was getting paid for it. I was a hero."

Edward Thomas Adams was born June 12, 1933, in New Kensington, Pa. While in high school, he began charging $20 to shoot weddings and other events.

He was a combat photographer while serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He later worked for a newspaper in New Kensington and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Starting in 1962, he spent a decade with the Associated Press and had several assignments in Vietnam. Twice, his helicopter was hit by 81mm mortar fire. In October 1965, he filed a dispatch from the besieged Plei Me outpost held by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The camp, he wrote, "looked . . . as if it had been tortured by an earthquake."

A half-second in February 1968 overshadowed all else in his career.

After he photographed the killing, he walked the film to his news bureau, and within 24 hours it was having an impact around the world. Mr. Adams defied the advice of co-workers and visited the office of the general, Nguyen Ngoc Loan.

"He got up from his desk," Mr. Adams said, "put his nose right next to mine, looked me directly in the eye and said, 'I know the Vietnamese who took the picture.' "

Loan later moved to Northern Virginia and ran a restaurant, Les Trois Continents, in Dale City. He died in 1998.

In all, Mr. Adams covered 13 wars from the Korean War to the Persian Gulf War. He worked with AP again from 1976 to 1980 as a special correspondent, and freelanced for Time-Life and Parade magazine. Parade featured Mr. Adams's photos hundreds of times on its cover.

During his career, he also photographed a stone-faced Malcolm X; Louis Armstrong caressing his trumpet; a bony-fingered Mother Teresa cradling a child; President Ronald Reagan holding a miniature U.S. flag; and a slew of entertainers, including Bette Davis, Jerry Lewis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He won dozens of honors, including a Robert Capa Award and three George Polk Memorial Awards for war coverage.

Largely, he tried to find redemption for the photo that won him the Pulitzer. He came close, he said, when in 1977 he captured Thai authorities preventing the landing by boat of Vietnamese refugees.

He said the resulting pictures helped persuade President Jimmy Carter to admit hundreds of thousands of boat people to the United States.

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

In 1988, he founded Barnstorm: the Eddie Adams Workshop, held over a long weekend every October at his farm near Jeffersonville, N.Y.

Veteran photojournalists, including Nick Ut, Carl Mydans and Annie Leibowitz, tutored novice photographers. The students would roam the area for stories about people -- at rodeos, opening a flower store, anything to express activity and life.

Mr. Adams, a sartorial iconoclast who, it was once said, would wear a white jeans suit to a black-tie affair, liked arriving late at his workshop's opening-night ceremonies. He came hoisted by chair to a musical fanfare. Lots of camera flashes heralded his mock majesty, a gesture known to scare first-time attendees.

Mr. Adams was found in May to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He continued to shoot until about two months ago.

His marriage to Ann Fedorchak Adams ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Alyssa Adkins Adams of New York; three children from his first marriage; a son from his second marriage; his mother; four sisters; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Adams told an interviewer that he stayed in touch with Loan after the execution, and once invited him to his workshop.

"When you become involved with your subject -- say I take the picture of someone who is hurt or wounded -- I find I become the person who I'm shooting," he said. "I'm hurt, I'm wounded and I really feel it. I think a lot of really good photographers fall in love with their subjects, really. I don't know how to do it, but you want to keep in touch."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company