Khe Sanh 1968 (c) Larry Burrows

 Larry Burrows (1926-1971) is often sighted as one of the individuals who brought colour photography to conflict zones. This is probably an easy way to refer to him, but I think it is a mistake to use it as the first port of call. His work is not constrained by technique or palette. Content is king, to use the oft repeated phrase… but then maybe I just made the mistake of trying to simplify the photographs instead of leaving them as the complex things that they are.

The large Burrows monograph ‘Vietnam’ sits on my shelf, and I go to it often. The Vietnam War had finished well before I was born, so my understanding or experience of it comes solely from anecdote and published material. This book is incredible in its depth and example of a photographer creating incredibly graphic, visually arresting pictures while working as a commissioned journalist on tight deadlines. He worked for Life Magazine for many years, and was one of their photographers at the time of his death.

Yankee Papa 13 (c) Larry Burrows

Yankee Papa 13 is a short, brutal set of B&W pictures from 1965 that stops me every time. He photographed helicopter door gunner  Lance Corporal James C. Farley, the crew chief of Yankee Papa 13, through a horribly frightening and tragic day. While dropping off ARVN troops outside Da Nang their mission came under heavy fire. Another chopper was grounded by damage, and Farley left his machine to try and assist the injured crew who were making their way over to Yankee Papa 13. Of course Burrows went straight out with him. The pilot was dead and stuck in the downed machine, so they returned to their chopper to escape from the incoming fire. The trip out is recorded by Burrows. Farley is shown returning fire and then, after his weapon jammed, desperately woking to help the injured until they reach medical support. The photographs show a young man, so confident and upbeat as he prepares his machine, and then destraught, frightened and broken at the completion of the mission. An awful group of pictures.

Yankee Papa 13 (c) Larry Burrows

Then there is the photograph from Mutter Ridge, Nui Cay Tri, which is so often referred to as a piece of mastery that it could be easy to assume that one would become a bit blasé. But when it falls open across a double page, the colour, the gesture, the mud and stripped trees… you have to pause.

Mutter Ridge 1966 (c) Larry Burrows

I have read all sorts of references to Burrows and his beginnings. I have even seen it written that he was the young darkroom assistant that got a little too excited and melted Capa’s D-Day negatives. I do not know if this is true, but I’m not letting the lack of confirmation stop me from continuing the flow of rumour. It is easy to find other claims saying it is a myth. His extensive body of pictures made before he travelled to SE Asia for the Vietnam War is something that I need to spend some time looking at.

He was killed when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down over Laos in February 1971. The photograph of a mangled Leica recovered from the crash scene tells the story of the forces involved as the chopper fell out of the sky. The picture has been doing the rounds for a while, but I can’t help but post it again here.

AP photo by Ronen Zilberman

Photographers who work in conflict zones are so often spoken about as if they are related. The reasons for them being there, their interests and drive, political and social persuation, intended audience and method of reproduction are all so different that we should take our cue from the pictures rather than a sweeping generalisation.

His work is stunning, and any opportunity to look at it should be taken.

2 Responses to Larry Burrows

  • Melanie Schaefer says:

    The soldier sitting on the ground, wounded and exhausted, is my father. He was PVT David Schaefer at the time, now retired SFC David Schaefer. He was 19 years old in the photo. The black man in the photo saved my dad’s life. I can’t write too much, as this photo evokes emotions I surpress when seeing this. My dad struggled for years, and sometimes still does.

  • Mike Brown says:

    This photograph is probably one of the most truthful photos of it’s time. In the 60’s there was the race riots back home, hatred between races, turmoil. Then this photo appeared. In the military it did not matter what race you were, all were brothers. The American people that did not experience combat during this time did not understand. Band of Brothers.

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