By José Manuel Serrano Esparza
During his long service as an AP foreign photojournalist and picture editor in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1974, Horst Faas (1933-2012) became one of the best war photographers ever and mentor of a number of other top-notch war photographers like Peter Arnett, Huynh Thanh My, Nick Ut, Malcolm Browne, Eddie Adams, Hugh van Es, Dang van Phuoc, Henri Huet, Richard Pyle, Steve Stibbens, George Esper, Art Greenspot, Robert Ohman, Ghislain Bellorget, Neal Ulevich, Roger King, Ollie Noonan Jr, Dick Blystone and others, making up the mythical AP Saigon Bureau, which provided a very high percentage of the most famous images of the conflict to a number of newspapers and magazines all over the world.
Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes of Photography (1965 and 1972), the Robert Capa Gold Medal (1997) and the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize (2005),
Horst Faas has been one of the greatest and most influential war photographers in history, particularly excelling during his coverage of the Vietnam War, creating a raft of iconic pictures faithfully depicting what war really was and oozing impact, in addition to proving once and again a huge flair for this photographic genre, using Leica M cameras and highly luminous 35 mm lenses as main photographic tools.
THE BEGINNING OF A PRODIGIOUS CAREER
Horst Faas´s photographic baptism took place in 1951, when being only eighteen years old he took a job as a darkroom assistant for Keystone Photo Agency in Munich, where he discovered his photojournalistic vocation on developing a lot of black and white films exposed by different photographers, as well as making prints.
The feeling on beholding black and white images appearing on photographic paper inside the darkroom was something magical for him, pervading his soul, and he started to develop an exceptional memory and thoroughness with pictures, along wit a tremendous organization and archival ability with original negatives and contact sheets, something that which would be one of his hallmarks throughout his professional career.
Three years later, he became a full-fledged photojournalist for Keystone Press, covering the Vietnam Peace Talks in Geneva in 1954 and making some more assignments in 1955, until in 1956 he was hired by AP, creating his first reportages as a war photographer between 1960 and mid 1962, making photographs of the Civil War in Congo and the Algerian War of Independence.
A BOUNDLESS COURAGE
Horst Faas was an utterly fearless war photographer on the battlefield and steadily risked his life to get good pictures, most times from a very near distance, so his bravery was legendary among his professional colleagues.
Besides, he always had an amazing ability to anticipate where the action would be.
And imbued with a pretty unselfish personality, the German photographer was highly skillful discovering, recruiting and supporting new photojournalists gifted for war photography, subsequently putting them under his tutelage.
His courage in the midst of the most dangerous contexts was truly mind-boggling and he never lost his nerve.
Impressive photograph in which Horst Faas captures a group of American soldiers trying to take cover as fast as possible, just after the same CH-46 Sea Knight U.S helicopter shown in the previous picture has crashed on the ground on July 15, 1966.
Incredibly, the bulky but very fast and agile German photographer has been able to run some hundred meters following the trajectory in the air of the shot helicopter during the previous seconds until reaching a spot very near a hill area where it has crashed and exploded killing one crewman and twelve marines, while three crewmen have managed to save their lives.
Horst Faas doesn´t hesitate to greatly risk his life, putting one knee on the ground to get the picture from a very low angle and achieve maximum feasible impact, sense of motion and collective convulsion. The timing accuracy and sense of composition of this image are staggering.
The middle area of the picture is the most meaningful and important one, proving for the nth time Horst´s Faas huge talent, with the two G.I running in opposite directions (the nearest one to the camera adjusting his helmet to his head and his right leg and foot in motion, while the other one is about to begin his run with his left foot on the ground and the right one in motion).
A very powerful triangle is made up by these two soldiers, hugely enhanced by the pronounced diagonal towards the left of the image described by the U.S soldier holding his rifle with his left hand crossed on his chest towards the right of the picture.
The heavy smoke visible in the background adds drama to the image, reinforced by the American soldier appearing in the distance (naked from waist upwards) between the two main characters of the photograph, framed by other soldiers around them, who run in every direction looking for shelter.
In addition, the German genius has managed to strengthen the tension of the image with a masterful pressing of the shutter release button of his Leica M2 just at the moment in which it seems that the trajectories of the soldier adjusting his helmet with his right hand and the one visible on the left of the image with both arms stretched, supporting his body weight on his left foot and with his right leg and foot in motion, will inevitably collide in the lowest middle border of the image.
Furthermore, Horst Faas has shown an stunning experience and knowledge of the distance from which he must get the picture, because if he would have approached more with his camera to the epicenter of the action, he would have become a physical hindrance for the soldiers in such a chaotic context like this, so he shoots with his Leica M2 coupled to a Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 1st version from a very near distance, but leaving a wise chosen space between him and the G.Is, masterfully capturing the atmosphere of the moment with the fastest autofocus in existence then and nowadays : shooting with the camera previously set for use with hyperfocal technique, having probably selected f/8 diaphragm, in order to get extensive depth of field and enough sharpness in the whole image, from foreground to background, to such a degree that even the pieces of earth flying in the air as a consequence of the very near impact of the shell are visible slightly on the left of the middle area of the image.
Horst Faas made always a point of getting the best possible images of the Vietnam War, with a fundamental keynote : to turn Associated Press into the reference-class news agency of the conflict in terms of defining pictures.
And he was successful, being willing to pay a high price for it if necessary.
And after being wounded by a rocket grenade during fighting near Bu Dop (Province of Binh Phuoc) in 1967, he was about to lose both legs.
Horst Faas was also an exceedingly talented planner of assignments both for him and other photographers, able to get scoops by dint of perseverence, uncommon intuition and sense of anticipation.
The upshot of it is that Horst Faas had a got a huge talent both generating defining images and as a picture editor, choosing at top speed the best pictures made by other war photographers and transmitting them by wire before the deadlines, in addition to being a great writer able to befittingly explain with words the images he saw through the lens of his camera.
ECLOSION OF HIS INTERNATIONAL FAME DURING THE VIETNAM WAR
In late 1962, Horst Faas was sent by Associated Press to Saigon (South Vietnam) as a war photographer and picture editor.
To begin with, this was an uncommon double mission (both roles and professions were clearly differentiated at the time), conspicuously showing the boundless confidence AP had on the German photographer and his already proved tremendous visual culture, experience and insight with images, bolstered with a stunning flair for selecting the most meaningful pictures.
Right off the bat, Horst Faas, named to practical effects Chief of Operations of AP in South East Asia, managed to spawn what would be internationally known as " Horst´s Army ", made up by the aforementioned well-known war photographers, trained and mentored by him, who would supply a lot of defining images of the Vietnam War to the best illustrated newspapers and magazines in the world during sixties and first half of seventies, complementing the extraordinary pictures made by Horst Faas himself.
Moreover, Horst Faas was (along with Larry Burrows) a pioneer in the use of Leica M2 camera in Vietnam, because until his arrival, vast majority of AP photographers had used big 4 x 5 " (10 x 12 cm) large format Speed Graphic cameras.
But he went to Vietnam taking with him the Leica M2 cameras and lenses that he had been using since 1959 in Congo and Algeria.
And it paid off for him.
Horst Faas knew that the image quality delivered by the large format Speed Graphic cameras was impressive and it enabled to do very big enlargements and excellent selective reframings.
But they were too big, heavy and cumbersome to shoot handheld for the kind of photography he wanted to do, with both eyes open, enjoying a totally unfettered freedom and great speed of movements, enabling him to anticipate to action and above all to unobtrusively approach as much as possible to the thick of combats.
And the best photographic tool to attain this was a 24 x 36 mm format Leica M rangefinder camera, because of the very tiny size and light weight of both body and lenses, the superb optomechanical quality of its objectives, the lack of a swivelling mirror making possible to shoot handheld at very low shutter speeds without trepidation and a breathtaking shutter lag of only 12ms (Leica M2) between the instant in which the photographer presses the shutter release button of the camera and the exposure.
Moreover, the images created by Horst Faas during the Vietnam War feature the unique and very nice image aesthetics delivered by non aspherical Leica M lenses designed by Walter Mandler at the Leitz Factory in Midland, Ontario (Canada), particularly the 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAWOM 11308 First Version (1958-1969) in chrome mount and 12504 lens shade, which was the one most widely used by the German war photographer throughout this conflict.
On the other hand, Horst Faas was a very strong man, full of stamina, featuring an outstanding resistance to fatigue, and incredibly agile for his big size and weight, who developed a highly protective attitude towards the photographers with whom he worked in Vietnam, always helping them as much as possible, guiding their careers, becoming a source of inspiration, and creating unforgettable moments and anecdotes with his very special sense of humour. And he was also instrumental in the careers of three great women photographers : Edie Lederer ( who in October of 1972 became the first woman assigned full time to cover the Vietnam War by AP), Christine Spengler (who after buying a one way ticket to Saigon and ask AP for a chance to photograph at the front, was assigned for the first time in Vietnam by Horst Faas in 1973 after a meeting in the 17th floor of the AP building in that city and shortly after it she made her first picture of a South Vietnamese soldier swimming in a rice paddy near an ox, image that made the first page of the New York Times), Catherine Leroy (who being only twenty-one years old met Horst Faas on her arrival in Saigon in 1966 and a year later became the first woman to parachute in a combat area with the 173rd U.S Airborne Brigade during the Operation Junction City as a Life magazine war photographer), Germaine Swanson ( a stringer for Time Life in Saigon who became a key translator and liaison for the Press Corps) and others.
A GREAT HUMAN BEING WITH VERY DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF ASIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE
Aside from his immense talent, courage, speed of movements, sense of anticipation, unwavering commitment in everything he did, incredible accuracy on pressing the shutter release button of his camereas to capture the most defining instants, perseverance, abiding love for his trade, leadership and many more things, one of the key factors that turned Horst Faas into one of the foremost war photographers on earth during his coverage of the Vietnam War was undoubtedly his deep fascination for Asia, its different countries, ancient cultures and history, to such an extent that he became an expert on it.
Faas was always mesmerized by the unique landscapes of countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, Burma, etc.
And whenever it was possible, he prepared in advance each photographic mission in Vietnam, paintakingly studying maps, books and all kind of things that could help him to glean as much information as possible about the areas where he would get pictures,
many of them depicting the civil population suffering the war.
Another of his top priorities was always to prevent the AP photographers (both foreign and Vietnamese) he had trained and encouraged from taking too many risks during the assignments, frequently choosing to go alone during the most dangerous missions, so minimizing as much as he could the probability of death of other not so experienced colleagues.
That was the reason for which when he hired a 15 years old Nick Ut as a photographer for AP on January 1, 1966, he ordered him not to go with his cameras to any war zone, so Huynh Thanh My´s seven brother spent the next two years working inside the AP bureau darkroom until 1968, when he began to get pictures of combats.
As a matter of fact, from his very arrival at Vietnam in 1962 until 1974, Horst Faas became a kind of father for the rest of war photographers and correspondents in the AP Bureau of Saigon, which gained huge world celebrity on winning nothing more than five Pulitzer Prizes of Journalism throughout those twelve years :
- Horst Faas (1965, for his combat photography of the War in South Vietnam in 1964).
- Peter Arnett (1966, for his coverage of the War in Vietnam).
- Eddie Adams (1969, for his photograph " Saigon Execution " ).
- Horst Faas and Michel Laurent (1972, for their picture series " Death in Dacca " ).
- Nick Ut (1973, for his picture " Vietnamese Girl Running After Being Burnt with Napalm in the Village of Trang Bang " ).
Horst Faas was the mastermind behind everything, not only for his signature photography of the Vietnam War, but particularly as a brilliant editor and manager of AP´s far-flung international photo network, always doing his best to promote and spread the pictures made by other AP photographers, including a cadre of young South Vietnamese men coached by him to take photographs, providing them with cameras, b & w films and daily assignments.
He was a Renaissance Man with vast culture, able to speak for many hours on a wide range of topics, and had great interest for history and art, to such an extent that he would turn into a great collector of Asian antiquities.
All of his colleague war photographers loved him, and the Vietnam conflict forged lifelong bonds amongst them, greatly built on the new standards Horst Faas set for future generations of professionals embracing this photographic genre and also steadfastly searching for the most telling images.
Horst Faas never lost his passion for great stories, took a lot of pride for being an AP newsman and made all the photographers and journalists around him better.
THE FINAL YEARS OF A MAN WITH A LION´S HEART
After Vietnam War, Horst Faas moved in 1976 to London as AP´s senior photo editor for Europe, retiring in 2004.
In 1997, Random House published the book " Requiem : By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina ", written by Horst Faas and Tim Page (a war photographer of United Press International), where they make a laudable selection of pictures made by more than eighty photographers and journalists from ten different nationalities killed during the Wars in Vietnam between forties and seventies, and it turned since early 2000 into a travelling photographic exhibition all over the world under the custody of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
In 1998, Horst Faas and Richard Pyle went to Laos along with a Hawaii based Pentagon unit specialized in searching American soldiers missing in action in Indochina, managed to find the place where photographers Larry Burrows (Life magazine), Henry Huet (Associated Press), (Ken Potter United Press International) and Keishaburo Shimamoto (Newsweek) were killed on February 10, 1971 when the South Vietnamese helicopter in which they were flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, covering the Operation Lamson 719, was shot down by a North Vietnamese 37 mm antiaircraft gun and exploded in mid air.
And with the help of local workers, they could also recover camera parts, film and other items, together with traces of organic material of the four photographers.
But Horst Faas and Richard Pyle needed to pay homage to their lost friends,
and five years later, in 2003, both of them were the authors of the book " Lost Over Laos : A True Story of Tragedy, Mystery and Friendship ", published by Da Capo Press, whose presentation at the Overseas Press Club in 40 W. 45th Street in New York on January 4, 2003 was an unforgettable and very touching event, conducted by Larry Martz, former President, as well as having the attendance of Horst Faas and Richard Pyle.
One year later, on May 4, 2005, shortly after the celebration event of the 30th Anniversary of the end of Vietnam War with photojournalists who covered it, when they had just held a meeting on the rooftrop of Rex Hotel in Saigon, Horst Faas was stricken by a blood clot on his spinal column, being evacuated by plane to a hospital in Thailand, and after some days, he was taken in a flight of Thai International to Munich, where he was hospitalized again at the Klinik Murnau in the outskirts of the Bavarian capital.
From then to his death in 2012, Horst Faas lost all his sensitiveness under the waist, so he couldn´t walk and had to use a wheel chair at every moment, as was confirmed by his great friend Marianne Fulton (Chief Curator of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film between 1975 and 2002, as well as worldwide lecturer and organizer of more than 80 exhibitions with pictures made by world-class photographers) who visited him in the Unfallklinik Murnau.
But he plucked up courage and kept on as active as possible, organizing a lot of worldwide meeting of photojournalists, reunions of the war time Saigon Press Corps, international photojournalism symposiums, exhibitions of his work in different countries, etc.
Something exceedingly praiseworthy, because Horst Faas spent the seven years of his life virtually disabled, on a wheel chair and above all suffering from continuous and very intense pains that the legendary old lion tried to conceal before everybody.
On April 3 and 4 of 2008, the scant remains of Larry Burrows, Henry Huet, Kent Potter and Keishaburo Shimamoto were honoured, with eulogies and speeches by Richard Pyle, Horst Faas, Russell Burrows (Larry Burrow´s son), Peter Pritchard (Newseum President) and Tom Curley (AP President) and buried at the Newseum in Washington, D.C, along with seven South Vietnamese soldiers who went also inside the helicopter when it was shot down.
That same year appeared a new book :" Horst Faas, 50 Years of Photojournalism ", published by Editions du Chêne, profusely illustrated and written by Horst Faas and Helene Gedouin, a remarkable work that was selected by Visa Por L´Image Perpignan.
In a last strenuous effort to promote photojournalism and encourage new young war photographers, Horst Faas made two arduous trips to United States in 2006 and 2008, giving some very interesting lectures, and also helped to the development of the Degree Program in Photojournalism of the University of Magdeburg-Stendal, founded in 2008.
In late 2008, his health deteriorated even more and he had to be hospitalized again because of skin problems, but he had to also undergo gastric surgery.
The paralysis had remained since 2005, when an Australian doctor at the Bumrungrad hospital in Bangkok (Thailand) discovered the blood clot in his spinal column and made the first surgery to drain it.
Increasingly ailing and weak, Horst barely made further public appearances from 2010, and died on May 10, 2012 in a hospital of Munich.
Horst Faas, a giant in the History of Photography. His pictures defined the Vietnam War, in the same way as the images made in that conflict by other great photographers of Associated Press taught by him and whose images he very wisely edited. In addition, he carved out new standards for covering wars, was the key photo editor of the Vietnam War and became a role model for today´s front line war photographers around the globe.