FRANK JOHNSTON of The Washington Post has been named Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographers' Association.
In a question-and-answer session, Johnston discussed facets of his career leading up to this honor. Q. This is the third time you've won this prestigious award. What were the other years; what were the winning pictures? A.In 1978, I won with a series of pictures on the drought in the Southwest. In 1979, with the pictures from Jonestown, Guyana. This year my series on the return to Vietnam was chosen. I consider myself very fortunate and am very appreciative of these awards. The competition in this contest is very stiff. Q. What kind of equipment are you currently using? A. I'm using the Canon T-90 system. It's an absolutely incredible camera. If you doubt it, you're wrong. I keep discovering all kinds of good things it will do. I carry two bodies and a full complement of lenses, from 15mm to 600mm. I also carry an M Leica for 35 and 50mm work. Both lenses are Sumacrons. Q. How did you get started in photography? A. I had some lucky breaks. My dad was chief photographer on the Philadelphia Inquirer, and some of my earliest memories were of running around the paper's darkroom. Even when I was a little older I used to terrorize the darkroom; I'd sneak up on the photographers working in the lab and smack them with wet cotton balls. I remember the time may father had to rescue me from a trash can where an irate photog had stuffed me. Q. When did you start shooting pictures? A. My first camera was an Ansco box that my father gave me when I was six years old. I burned up film like crazy. Anytime anyone slipped me a roll, it would be shot in no time.
But my dad saw that my interest was real, and when I was 12, he bought me an old Anniversary Speed Graphic, and had it totally redone. No fancy extras on it, no rangefinder, just a footage scale. He gave me three 4x5 holders that had been his, and took me off to shoot pictures.
We went down to the waterway near Chester, Pa. I set my camera up on a tripod and made pictures of tankers near the shore.
I was processing my own film by this time. I used DK-50 for negs and an Omega D-2 enlarger.
By the time I was 14, I had started to shoot some Ektachrome, and was learning how to process color. More important, I was learning about color generally. How to shoot it, how to light it, how to load it.
In high school I worked for the yearbook and even did a little freelancing at proms. I worked part-time at a commercial studio, and learned a lot more. They kept me on full-time during the summers. I liked what I was doing, but felt the desire to return to journalism. I was a sometime messenger for UPI United Press International and that helped me get my foot in the door.
I went to the University of Pennsylvania, then entered the Marine Corps Reserve in 1962. When I came out in May of 1963, UPI picked up my option and sent me to Austin, Texas. I was just in time for coverage of a really wild series of news stories.
Like so many others, I was in a state of shock after the assassination of President Kennedy. But I didn't seem to have the time to stay shocked. Too much happened too quickly.
I remember the day I was supposed to testify at the Jack Ruby trial. Things were running behind, and there was no room left to sprawl in the witness room. I walked back past the courtroom, down a corridor, and almost collided with a guy holding a woman by the throat and a huge pistol at her head. It was my first hostage situation. I was just about to start shooting pictures when I was shoved from behind by an AP Associated Press photographer and into another room.
I ducked out of a window, went down the fire escape carrying a Nikon with a 200. The gunman went through the court building and out on the street, just as I came off the fire escape. He kept moving, dragging the hostage, gun to her head, with him. I followed him through the 200, and as he passed me, I saw a detective stalking him from on top of a line of cars. When the detective jumped him, I had a good set of pictures -- just like on TV. Q. Then what? And where? A. UPI sent me back to Philadelphia where I spent the next 18 months. I learned a lot in 1964. I covered my first political convention and learned a good bit about administration of a gigantic photo operation. This was followed up immediately by the Philadelphia riots. I went into that action alongside of Frank Rizzo former Philadelphia police chief and mayor and was able to make a series of pictures on the looting. Q. Then? A. Vietnam for 13 months.
Now, before we say anything more about Vietnam, let me tell you about a recent discussion with some high-ranking military. It's a kind of a conversation I've had before and really makes me angry.
These military people spoke long and loud about the media and coverage of Vietnam. They spoke of inaccuracies and showmanship, and seemed to single out photographers for being particularly inaccurate. I resent this. Completely and totally. I challenged them, as I do anyone, to show me a forged picture from Vietnam; to show me an inaccurate picture from Vietnam; to show me any picture that in anyway hurt our war effort or to show how any picture, even out of context, was less than honest.
The roll call of photographers killed in action in Vietnam is long and honorable. Considerably more honorable than their misguided critics. Pictures still do not lie.
In fact, there are those of us who feel that a memorial to those dead photographers would now be in order. Not just our own, but those of all countries.Q. Tell us about this year's winning pictures; your return to Vietnam 10 years after the fall. A. Just getting into the country was a problem. I made the only flight from Bangkok that the Vietnamese would let me on -- by about 5 minutes.
The return was very emotional. I saw things that I hadn't seen in 17 years and remembered a lot. I had made a long list of requests for pictures, figuring that if I was allowed 1 percent I'd be in clover. Instead, they allowed me about 90 percent of my requests. Q. Such as? A. High on my list was to meet Ho Chi Minh's personal photographer. He was alive and well and living in Hanoi. We had a super conversation for about three hours. We talked photography. Q. What was denied? A. I had asked to return to the church at Anhoa. I had been there in May of 1967 with the First Battalion, 9th Marines. Seven hundred Marines went in and only 43 came out. The authorities told me that the church had been destroyed and the area was still dangerous because of mines. Q. Currently? A. It's my turn to cover the White House. Q. Next? A. Let's talk again next year.
Carl Kramer, former director of photography for The Washington Post, will try to answer your photography questions in his column, but cannot reply individually.