Eddie Adams
Every Picture Tells A Story

Photos © 2003, Xenophon A. Beake, All Rights Reserved

Eddie Adams probably won't tell you that he's among the most published photographers of our time with covers of Life, Time, Vogue, Parade, Penthouse, and many others to his credit. Or that he has been the recipient of over 500 national and international awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. But he'll be quick to tell you a story about getting smashed drinking wine with Bette Davis and getting no pictures. Or how he was warned before leaving on a plane for Zambia that he had better not board because he was at the top of a hit list and armed men were waiting for him on the other end. "It was cool," Adams says. "I never knew anyone on a hit list before."

As guest lecturer at the Valley Photo Event in Springfield, Massachusetts, on May 31st, Adams informed the audience that he has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and to sit tight because he is all over the place. And he was. A session with Adams is a bumpy ride. We're kicked out of Ethiopia, arrested in Beirut, hunted in Haiti, and detained in Israel. Then suddenly we are looking at magnificent portraits of Oliver Stone ("stoned"), Bill Gates ("no personality"), Louis Armstrong ("one of my favorite shots"), then of himself dressed in fatigues, duck hunting with Fidel Castro, 76 dead ducks lying on the ground in front of them. (Castro was mad--he missed one--there should have been 77.)

Every Picture A Story
Each picture had a story to go with it and Adams is an inveterate storyteller. Photography has been the only thing he has ever wanted to do in his life and as a kid he sold newspapers to buy a camera and projector, renting movies for $5 and showing them to kids at the local Moose Club, netting him a profit of $10 for the day. By the age of 14 he was doing wedding shoots for $5 and was working full-time evenings for the local paper while a senior in high school.

Adams worked for three newspapers in one year. Not surprising. Long-term commitments don't fit well into the ADD syndrome. He tells of one editor whose desk faced the wall and he used to hand him the assignments over his shoulder, never turning around. "He couldn't look at me," Adams says.

It may have had something to do with a picture of a sourpussed basset hound that Adams photographed. "It was one of the funniest pictures I ever took," he says, "but the publisher asked me what the hell I was trying to do, make fun of those dogs?" Two weeks later Adams got an assignment to photograph the wives of members of the Chamber of Commerce. "The first one," he recalls, "had this white dress with big black blotches and it reminded me of a pile of coal so I found this mountain of coal with all these guys shoveling. I had them lean on their shovels and they were checking her out. Another woman had on a brown sheath dress and she looked like a tree trunk. I took her out into the woods and photographed her with branches coming out of her. The publisher called me in and asked me what I was trying to prove. They were very important people."
Next came the saga of a papier-mâché cow that Adams placed in the midst of a live herd that crowded around sniffing the model. Along came the bull and you can probably figure out the rest. The papier-mâché cow was no more. Neither was Adams' job.

From Pennsylvania Adams moved to Battlecreek, Michigan, and hated every minute of it. He says, "It (expletive) snowed in August there!"

In a short time Adams had joined AP Worldwide and was sent to Port Au Prince in Haiti. He went to the border between Santa Domingo and Haiti to photograph the struggle and was beginning to get front pages all over the world. "Nobody thought I was going to get out alive."

The Press His Gallery
Adams' pictures don't hang in museums. His galleries have been front pages and magazine covers worldwide. "Some have been fun," he says, "others have been important photography because they came from the heart. A photograph can change the world and move mountains. It is through a photograph that we remember people and places the way they were."

A complex man, Adams has worked tirelessly and with plenty of chutzpah and imagination. He is best known for his photograph of a colonel in Saigon shooting a young enemy soldier at pointblank range. Adams does not readily speak about that photograph. He would rather tell of coming back to the US on a 30-foot fishing boat with 33 refugees. Those photographs resulted in President Jimmy Carter's final decision, "Let them come to America," allowing many thousands of Vietnamese refugees to enter the country. "This was the best thing I ever did in my life," Adams says.

"Some of the pictures I have taken tore my heart out," he quietly admits. "I have seen all kinds of things in my life and I have walked away from taking many pictures. I found out that I put myself in other people's shoes and often feel that I became my subjects. When someone was wounded I felt the pain. I got tired of crying. Each year we have a memorial service for my friends killed in Vietnam and I have to turn my head when we release 144 yellow balloons. I still cry."

Back To NYC
Worn from the sadness he had seen and realizing that he had missed out on the best years of watching his children grow up, Adams returned home to New York.

"I switched to celebrity photography. They take nothing out of your heart and it pays better." There was Hillary and Bill Clinton, Pope Paul, President Bush who Adams discovered he liked "even though he was a Republican."

A particularly poignant image of Jerry Lewis, his face painted, offers Adams' perception of the man vs. the clown. Then, Jimmy Durante, John Travolta, singer Jimmy Buffet, and many more including Marlo Thomas who gave Adams a rough time but wound up a friend.

From The Heart
Adams will admit he's had several lifetimes and his children have a special place in his heart. His 13-year-old son is a constant companion. The plight of children in need persuaded Adams to photograph six beautiful children who were terminally ill. The photographs affected British drummer Ginger Baker's wife so deeply that she started Project Linus, now a worldwide organization dedicated to providing blankets for children in hospitals around the world.

Adams favorite image shows a West Virginia coal miner with his burro, taken in the '70s. "He was a Vietnam veteran making $8 a day," Adams recalls, "and to me it was pretty sad. The hair on the back of the burro was worn off because the mine shaft was so small."

Recently Adams went to Burma where few photographers have been allowed to enter. With a false business card indicating he was a physician, his mission was to photograph Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her work in human rights. Freed last year from being under de facto house arrest since '91, she has of this day been arrested again and possibly wounded.

Adams took his first digital camera to Burma, the new Nikon D100, with no flash, just one little reflector, and an extra battery. "I couldn't believe the quality of the pictures," he says. "I'm sold on digital, though not totally. I'll still use some film."

Speaking His Mind
Adams is a complicated man, a kind of irreverent marshmallow who does not hesitate to speak his mind when he needs to. "Most Americans," he says, "haven't been anywhere that's really bad. We've had it too nice. People here want to see clichés and when you have to do a picture of a US marine, they want a square-jawed, 6'4" handsome guy. Most marines are this big," he says, moving his hand down a foot. "Hey, I was a marine and look at me!"

Life is a challenge for Adams, one he is determined to conquer. Now in its 16th year, Adams' Barnstorm Workshop in Jeffersonville, New York, exemplifies his unique ability to provide four days of intensive interaction between 100 top students from around the world with leading photographers and editors. (The workshop is free to the students.)

His latest ambition is to write a book. "It's going to be a novel but really it will be nonfiction, stuff nobody would believe, though it will be funny. The truth is funny. I'm dedicating it to the people I really don't like. I won't say anything negative until they read the book. I'm not naming names." But he did--and I won't tell. "Recently I went to Pete Hamill's Columbus Day party and Tom Brokaw approached me and said he wants to come up and do our workshop," Adams says. "`But,'" Brokaw warned, "`on one condition--I'm not in your book.'" "You're on," Adams agreed.