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Photographer Carl Mydans Dies; Covered War and the Depression

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page B06

Carl Mydans, 97, who died of a heart ailment Aug. 16 at his home in Larchmont, N.Y., was one of the most celebrated war photographers and roaming journalists of the past century. He often worked in tandem with his wife, the writer Shelley Smith Mydans.

Mr. Mydans was the fifth photographer hired by the fledgling Life magazine in 1936, after Tom McAvoy, Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Peter Stackpole. The weekly publication became known as a bastion of pictorial journalism, its photo team chronicling Depression misery, wartime tragedy and home front sacrifice and gaiety.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, center, and Gen. Richard Sutherland, left, wade ashore at Luzon near the end of World War II. (Carl Mydans -- Life Magazine Via AP)

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Mr. Mydans remained at the vanguard of photojournalism for the next four decades. His assignments took him from the barren Texas brush country to palmy Hollywood -- and later to jungle war zones.

Marianne Fulton, the former chief curator at the George Eastman House photography collection in Rochester, N.Y., once wrote that Mr. Mydans interpreted scenes for maximum strength. "That is what sets Mydans apart from other photographers," she wrote. "It reiterates his command of telling gesture and powerful arrangement."

With his wife -- and a jackknife, a poncho, a canteen, a cup, a spoon and a helmet -- Mr. Mydans hopscotched throughout the South Pacific during World War II for Life, taking pictures and filling notebooks with his observations.

Staying behind after Allied forces retreated in the Philippines, the Mydanses were imprisoned by the Japanese for 22 months. Mr. Mydans later felt triumphant as he accompanied Gen. Douglas MacArthur on his famous promise to liberate the islands from Axis control.

On Jan. 9, 1945, he photographed MacArthur as he waded ashore on his return to Luzon in the Philippines, a stirring moment as the war in the Pacific neared its end.

Mr. Mydans captured the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. He attained a clear position atop a 40mm gun turret that gave him a perfect view of the Japanese foreign minister, Shigemitsu Mamoru. He said he felt an unexpected surge of compassion as the defeated official signed the surrender.

"I watched Shigemitsu limp forward, his wooden leg tapping out his progress in the silence," the photographer told the Christian Science Monitor in 1995. "He was helped by two servicemen to a chair. He leaned on his cane, took off his top hat, and stripped off his gloves, and for an instant seemed confused.

"As I watched this man, at what for him must have been a terrible moment, I suddenly felt all my pent-up wartime anger drain away, and compassion filled my heart."

Mr. Mydans became Life's Tokyo bureau chief, covering the 1948 earthquake in Fukui, Japan, which took more than 1,500 lives. He photographed a Japanese man carrying his dead wife over his shoulders as he whispered, "Too late."

Mr. Mydans also rendered scenes of postwar American occupation in Japan and political tensions leading to the Korean War.

His shot of a hulking Winston Churchill in 1955 was one of the many definitive moments he captured of world leaders. He also took a memorable shot of Sen. John F. Kennedy and his wife campaigning in 1958 and later showed suburban commuters reacting in horror to a Nov. 22, 1963, newspaper headline about then-President Kennedy's assassination.

"From my earliest years, I have been fascinated by human behavior," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. "By the time I used a camera seriously I had become an obsessive people-watcher, observing mannerisms and body postures, the slants and curves of mouths, the falseness of smiles, the directness or evasions of eyes. When I learned to understand these signals and interpret them, I had found a source of stories as wide and as varied and as captivating as the human race."

Carl Mayer Mydans, the son of a classical oboist, was born in Boston on May 20, 1907, and raised in nearby Medford. His early ambitions were to be a boat builder or a surgeon. Working for the student paper at Boston University swayed him toward journalism, and after graduation in 1930 he was a reporter and editor for various publications, including American Banker in New York.

Taking his miniature camera on assignments, he soon became far more intrigued by photojournalism. In 1935, he, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange were hired by what became the Farm Security Administration to take pictures that would arouse a public upwelling of support for New Deal policies.

Mr. Mydans's bleak pictures of sharecroppers and roustabouts during the Depression and industrious Civilian Conservation Corps workers in Prince George's County helped him win a position at Life.

He showed a flair for the humorous. One scene from 1937 that he dubbed "Chain Gang" depicted elegant New York Stock Exchange officers chained together as they carried traded securities to banks and brokerage houses.

After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Mr. Mydans spent time on the Finnish-Russian front, taking shots in such bitterly cold conditions that he hid two cameras under his sheepskin coat and alternated their use to prevent them from freezing up. "Pictures lay at every glance," he once wrote, "but never have I suffered more in getting them."

The next year, during the Nazi advance toward Paris, Mr. Mydans and other journalists were sent to cover refugees fleeing the capital.

One night, sleeping in a wheat field, they were awakened at gunpoint by frightened French civil guardsmen who believed the reporters were German parachutists. Awaiting their fate in a country house, he wrote that a shadowy, sympathetic stranger led them to safety while he could still hear others demand their death.

Mr. Mydans left for the Pacific to report on the Sino-Japanese war before the invasion of Pearl Harbor. After Dec. 7, 1941, he and his wife remained in the Philippines and watched Manila burn while other correspondents left with MacArthur.

On Jan. 2, 1942, the Mydanses were among 3,500 Americans and other Allied nationals rounded up and held at Santo Tomas University in Manila. They later were held in Shanghai, and in December 1943 they were released to American authorities in a prisoner exchange.

Returning by ship to New York, they were met by a Life colleague who said, "Better hurry. They're waiting for you back at the office."

They went to Europe as Allied forces were preparing to invade Italy and France. He took harrowing and haunting shots, of townspeople in Marseilles about to shave the head of a woman accused of being a Nazi collaborator and of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was destroyed by American forces in their pursuit of German troops.

After Life folded as a weekly publication in the early 1970s, Mr. Mydans did occasional work for Time magazine.

In 1986, at age 79, he returned to the Philippines to cover the end of the Marcos regime. At one point, being manhandled by Marcos security at a campaign rally, the diminutive but determined photographer brushed past the officials with his four Nikon 35mm cameras dangling from his neck and continued to the podium to do his job.

He wrote several books, including "More Than Meets the Eye" (1959), in which Mr. Mydans explained an insight from his work.

"All of us live in history, whether we are aware of it or not, and die in drama," he wrote. "The sense of history and of drama comes to a man not because of who he is or what he does but flickeringly, as he is caught up in events, as his personality reacts, as he sees for a moment his place in the great flowing river of time and humanity."

His wife, whom he married in 1938, died in 2002.

Survivors include two children, Seth Mydans, a New York Times reporter based in Bangkok, and Shelley "Misty" Mydans of Sacramento; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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