Picturing history

Photographer known for capturing momentous occasions recognizes one in move to digital media

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Dirck Halstead is one of those lucky guys who picked up a camera in high school, learned how it worked, then made it work for him for nearly 50 years as one of the country's premier photojournalists.

Life's ironies for Halstead began in 1954 when he was 18 and already employed at a small upstate New York newspaper. He discovered that one of his heroes, famous war photographer Robert Capa, was to be buried in Amawalk, N.Y., near Halstead's home.

Capa was killed by a mortar round while photographing the French-Indochina War in what is now Vietnam. Halstead, the only working photographer at Capa's burial, met one of Capa's editors at the funeral. Shortly after the funeral, Halstead was knocking on the door of editor John Morris, who in turn got him an assignment from Life Magazine to cover Guatemala's civil war.

The kicker: 21 years later Halstead was awarded the Robert Capa award "for superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad" for his coverage of the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

In 1957, Halstead landed a job with United Press International, which at that time was a healthy competitor of the Associated Press. He worked out of UPI bureaus in Philadelphia, Dallas, New York, Washington, D.C., and Saigon. He stepped up to being their roving photographer, covering major stories worldwide. In 1972, he was one of six still photographers chosen to accompany President Nixon on his history-making trip to China.

After returning from China and for the next 29 years, Halstead worked as a Time magazine photographer, covering the White House and its occupants along with world events.

Halstead's photographs made the cover of 54 issues of Time magazine, a record.

Halstead made contacts in Hollywood, and when his Washington schedule was open, he shot publicity stills for movies such as "Black Rain," "Memphis Belle," "Goodfellas," the remake of "Shaft" and others.

There are a lot of professionals out there with excellent camera equipment and good ideas, elements that make big-time photojournalism a very competitive sport.


Dirck Halstead/Special to the Journal-World

China's Premier Cho En-Lai, left, and a translator show President Richard Nixon how to use his chop sticks during his visit to China in 1972. Photographer Dirck Halstead was one of six photographers chosen to make the historic trip.
photo Photo Gallery: Dirck Halstead photos

Halstead's ability to look beyond his camera's viewfinder always kept him near the front of the pack. But being competitive didn't stop him from helping many photographers find better jobs or more lucrative assignments along the way -- something he still does.

Years ago, Halstead told anyone who would listen that because cable television channels would continue to multiply, still photographers should learn to shoot video -- to produce good documentary videos like they were shooting with their still cameras. Robert Capa was an advocate of this 50 years ago.

Putting his money where his mouth was and with help from Canon, Halstead created Platypus workshops, which train photojournalists during weeklong sessions to produce quality video. The decline in the freelance magazine market has made such video even more attractive.

In 1997, with help from Hewlett Packard, Halstead created The Digital Journalist (digitaljournalist.org), a monthly online magazine with an estimated audience of 15 million worldwide. He also consults for Hewlett Packard and advises the Brooks Institute of Photography.

Halstead is a fellow at the Center for American History at the University of Texas. He also teaches at the journalism school there.