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Juanita Berge | Philly Creative Guide Event Reporter

American Society of Media Photographers ::
Dirck Halstead Lecture
by Juanita Berge, 1 Nov 2008

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The Dirck Halstead lecture was presented Thursday, October 9, by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and took place at the University of the Arts here in the city. Halstead, a photojournalist, has photographed more Time Magazine covers than any other photographer in the world. He covered the historic trip of Richard Nixon to China, the Vietnam War, and was on the set of many of the major movies of the last two decades of the 20th century.

He began his photojournalism career during high school. At the age of 17, he became LIFE magazine's youngest combat photographer, covering the Guatemalan Civil War (the editors at LIFE had no idea how old he was). After attending Haverford College, Halstead worked a two-year stretch as a roving photographer in the U.S. Army. He went on to work for United Press International (UPI), covering stories around the world for more than 15 years; and was their picture bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War.

American Society of Media Photographers :: Dirck Halstead Lecture

Halstead accepted an independent contract with TIME magazine in 1972. Covering the White House for the next 29 years, he was one of only six photographers asked to accompany Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in that same year. His photographs have appeared on 47 TIME covers.

In 1992, he played an instrumental part in the formation of Video News International (VNI), which started what is now the Platypus movement, teaching still photojournalists to cross the barrier between print and video. In 1997 he created The Digital Journalist, an online monthly magazine for visual journalism. In the late 90s, he began to understand the immense changes that were about to take place due to the emergence of the World Wide Web. In 2000 he created the Platypus Workshops which has taught hundreds of photojournalists the language of High Definition television and enjoys an international reputation. He is recognized as a leader in the industry, and shared his insights in a fast-moving 90 minute multimedia show at the Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium on the UArts campus.

The program was opened by President of ASMP, Amanda Stevenson. Halstead was introduced by David Graham, a professor at UArts, and coordinator of the Photography Program there. His lecture focused on his new book, Moments In Time, as well as what it was like to cover the White House as a photojournalist. He was there from the Kennedy through the Carter years.

American Society of Media Photographers :: Dirck Halstead Lecture

He began by stating that the most important part of 'photojournalist' for him is 'journalist.' He uses his camera as a tool in his job as a journalist. It is all about the storytelling for him.

"The essence of the man (the president) is all in the eyes. This is what I see as a photographer." So his job, as he saw it, was to tell the story of the man that the print media didn't; by telling the story through shots of unguarded, unscripted moments.

"Much effort was put (by the White House) into preparing for the press each day. Briefings, press releases, sound bites, etc. But the White House staff didn't care what the photographers thought. So what photographers were able to capture was not filtered through as much as what the print guys received."

He had unique insights into the men who served as president. Of Nixon he says, "He was probably the smartest president we ever had. He was very, very intelligent. But he was a man in total conflict. He was very uncomfortable around people. Whenever he spoke to the press he had constantly darting eyes... The man never made eye contact with the press; he tended to gaze toward the flag during press conferences."

American Society of Media Photographers :: Dirck Halstead Lecture

He had been working for United Press International (UPI) but was offered a Time contract after Nixon's China trip. This meant he had to use his camera to figure out what was really going on. Previously, he covered just the daily happenings and photo-ops in the White House. With Time magazine however, his photos had to stand up for days, sometimes weeks, before another was run. So while other photographers used 50mm lens, he lugged in 600mm and 800mm lens. He cared about boring into the face of his subject to tell a story, not just covering the daily goings-on.

Of Gerald Ford he says, "He was the most decent person to occupy the White House. He loved photographers. He was very natural in front of the camera."

Of Carter, "Visually, he was the greatest disaster as a president. He, in trying to be 'the people's president,' wore the same old ratty, wrinkled up raincoat for years. It looked terrible. The press called him the Potomac Flasher because of that coat."

He mentions in an aside that he covered Carter's visit to 3-Mile Island during that crisis. It was a real risk and people didn't want Carter to go. For 20 years after 3-Mile Island occurred Halstead received a questionnaire in the mail every year from the government inquiring after his health.

About Ronald Reagan – Reagan was his favorite president to cover because he knew exactly how to give photo-ops. "That's where his professional training (as an actor) came in. Plus, with Reagan there were never any late nights. Reagan worked from 10:30am to noon every day, and that was it. Plus, Reagan went to all these wonderful places, and when he went, he went in high style and comfort." There were great benefits for the press corp. Out of his entire 8 years in office, Reagan spent the equivalent of one entire year in Santa Barbara.

Of Clinton, "He was the most difficult president to photograph. He was always guarded, always had on a photo-op face. The only real photo of him came six years into his presidency after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke."

Halstead left the White House when Bill Clinton left. In 1997 he started the Digital Journalist; his attempt to reinvent the Life magazine format. He took stock of himself and determined that he was a wire service photographer who knew how to shoot color. Very few knew how. He would cover stories all over the world and the same six guys were always there... the six wire service photographers who knew how to shoot color. This was his unique selling point. U.S.A. Today changed all that. Everything was in color after USA Today hit.

American Society of Media Photographers :: Dirck Halstead Lecture

He went on to offer advice to the audience full of would-be photographers: "It's inevitable that newspapers are going out of business," and proceeded to give a financial breakdown of the industry.

"It's all going to web video. Advertising photographers will do OK but budgets will shrink. Photojournalists are screwed. They (newspapers) will just take frame grabs from the video. All the photographers are video photographers now. As we go into this new evolution forget about being a photographer. Instead think of yourself as a producer. That's what everybody is going to want from you. It's a whole new realm and a much broader vista."

Dirck Halstead considers himself a journalist, not an artist. As such he is heavily involved with the Platypus Workshop, generally acknowledged as the gold standard of Digital Video training. In two to nine days, they teach high-definition digital shooting and editing, with an emphasis on storytelling. It is unique in the industry and results in the evolution of attendees from still photographers to videojournalists.

Halstead is now a senior fellow in photojournalism at The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. He has won the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Picture of the Year award twice; the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the fall of Saigon; and two Eisie Awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. In 2002, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA); and in 2004 he was honored with the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award. The University of Missouri presented him with the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism in 2007.

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