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Death Anniversary of Horst Faas: The Greatest of an Extinct Breed?

May 13th, 2013 No Comments

Execution of a Viet-Cong, Napalm Girl, and Reaching Out are the three iconic images of the Vietnam War.  These photographs were taken by, respectively, Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, and Larry Burrows.  

In all truth one other photographer’s name ranks right up there; though somehow none of his Vietnam War images became an instantly-recognizable global sensation, his body of work is perhaps superior to those of any of the other three photographers.  In addition, he was also an AP Photo Chief; indeed, it was this very photographer-editor, based in Vietnam, who approved and pushed both, Adams’s Execution of a Viet-Cong and Ut’s Napalm Girl!  And, arguably, it is one of this photographer’s War Photographs that unforgettably conveys the indescribable raw terror of war . . . .

Let’s remember Horst Faas, a War Photography titan, on his first death anniversary.

Last year Denver Post published a fantastic collection of Faas’s Vietnam War photos in high-res.  (Caution: Some images are extremely graphic; others are equally distressing.)  These are among the best, the very best, images of war you’ll ever see.

With Faas, you get harrowing, shocking images of an American GI implicitly bidding farewell to his dying buddy . . . and a Vietnamese woman explicitly bidding farewell to her dead husband.

You get art photography like this image of infantrymen crossing an arcing bridge or a minimalist nighttime silhouette of soldiers, smoke, and spotlight, each of which is suitable for framing and hanging.

Here is the chaos that ensues among well-drilled marines when a helicopter crashes.  And there is the sheer, raw bedlam-horror of warfare.  

There’s a village pathway littered with corpses.  And what about children on motorcycles going along a road that is verily strewn with corpses as if this is a day-to-day reality?

If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, here’s a photo that will play back Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in your mind.

Pure reportage yet superlative photography – a photo of a wounded soldier being treated; another of a wounded soldier being evacuated.

How about this brilliantly composed and executed photo of haphazardly collapsed soldiers fast asleep with one lad wide awake?

Even a simple photograph, by dint of its composition, perspective, and angle of elevation, becomes a riveting document of war.

This character study and portrait conveys what ‘all senses on red alert’ means.  Here is another character study and portrait, albeit one that is radically different.  Do we see dignity in this woman’s sorrow or is it just me?

Here’s a moving, wonderfully ‘tight’ (close-in) photo of tough warriors weeping for fallen comrades.

Faas brings us a smiling blue-eyed boy informing us that ‘War is Hell’ to be contrasted with a blonde lad with ‘KILL’ emblazoned on his hat.

You are thrilled by the drama of seeing a Hannibal-like elephant-back force crossing a river . . .

You are distressed at seeing a submissive captive being ‘pistol-whipped’ with the handle of a knife . . .

—And you have your heart rent by a photo that is the ‘Pieta’ of the Vietnam War.

Faas also covered the Congo Conflict, among other war zones, such as East Pakistan / Bangladesh.  His photo of a wild-eyed Baluba warrior with a stick is as terrifying a photo as you will see.  

All these photographs reveal that, besides being a gifted photographer, Faas was a very brave man; a man among men.

Perhaps Faas’s most famous image is the unnerving, shocking image of a Vietnamese peasant showing an apparently dead child to American troops on an armoured vehicle, almost as if saying, “Why did you do this? Why?”

However, Faas shot the haunting, unforgettable image of images that defines the raw terror of war – descriptions are superfluous.  This photograph ought to be as famous as any other war photo.  Look into the womens’ eyes (and contrast with the blissfully uncomprehending baby’s expression).  Look once, you’ll never forget.  How the photographer managed to shoot this particular instant in quite the way he did is beyond analysis.  This image too needs to be distinguished by a universally-known name.

If someone declares that Horst Faas is the greatest of the extinct breed of authentic War Photographers, no argument would be made by this writer.


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