Bird Bites Dog

Just five days ago I wrote a column about the odd things photographers collect, and how one of my most treasured possessions is a signed print of Nick Ut's 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph--without a doubt one of the most recognizable photographs ever taken.

I worked with Nick when I was in Los Angeles in the early nineties and, like most photographers of my generation, had idolized him for years before ever meeting him. Nick called me yesterday from Los Angeles and said that he hopes we can get together when he comes out to Washington for a ceremony in which some of his cameras will be given to the Newseum. I can't wait.

I've always tried to make The Dark Slide less of a wedding blog ("and Jennie wore a gorgeous Vera Wang dress...") and more of a ongoing exercise in connect-the-dots. I try to make connections--from the wedding world to photojournalism and from the current back to my past--that lead somewhere. Learning today of the deaths of two great photographers, I was again reminded that life truly does follow such a path of connectivity.

My signed copy of Nick Ut's photo is something I cherish. Needless to say, it's a photo every young news photographer knows well, an image I can remember looking at over and over again during lunchtime at Mattlin Junior High School on Long Island. But I have lots of other photos that mean a great deal me, photographs that may lack the recognition of Nick's image but are equally as important. One such photo, taken in 1961--one year before I was born--has to be one of the oddest, a bizarre encounter between one truly peeved bird and one dopey golden retriever.

It's signed by the photographer, right down there in the right hand corner: George Honeycutt, 1961. It's a remarkable picture--a weather feature, I'm guessing. Remarkable, of course, because, well, you just don't see a lot of birds taking on dogs ten times their size. When I started my career in Binghamton, New York we used to call these photos "enterprise." As in, "Matt, we need some enterprise art for 1A." For the non-newsies here, that usually gets translated as "Matt, we don't have a clue what to put on page one tomorrow. Can you go drive to a park and find us a sunny day photo?"

I did that a lot but I never got a picture this good.

George Honeycutt died on Tuesday of a stroke. His son, Kevin, who runs a company which produces massive charity events and who gave me this picture some eight years ago, wrote to tell me, as well as point me to an appreciation piece in the Houston Chronicle, where his dad served served as director of photography for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years. Wow.

Kevin has always been very proud of his father. I knew it way back when he gave me the bird photo. We were sitting in a diner near the town of North Pole, Alaska (which is nowhere near the north pole but makes a lot of money selling postcards to tourists who couldn't care anyway), eating some of the best pie you'll ever have, when Kevin started telling me about his dad. We had time to kill, as the thousands of cyclists who were taking part in the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride still had fifty miles to ride that day. Kevin told me about this photo his father had taken, the one of the bird and dog, and promised to send me a signed copy as soon as we got back to civilization. He kept his word.

But today, when I clicked on the link Kevin sent me, I learned a lot about George Honeycutt that I didn't know: How he saved a fellow photographer from drowning with only a camera strap, how he won accolades for a 1966 piece on poverty in Texas, and that he loved to fish. I love hearing stories about photographers, especially those of the generation before me, and I'm glad I had a chance to learn more about the man behind this photo that has always made me smile.


Another great photographer passed away this week, one whom I did have the pleasure of knowing, if just for a few years. If Nick Ut's photo blindsided a nation with the horror of the war it was waging in Southeast Asia, Bernie Boston's iconic 1967 image of an anit-war protest single-handedly captured the growing tide of discontent with that war. Like Ut's picture, Boston's picture is timeless: a young man in a turtleneck sweater placing flowers in the barrels of soldier's guns. It's a photograph that became spokesmodel for an entire generation, much like the image of a lone protester waving off a tank in Tienanmen Square would some twenty-two years later.

I had the pleasure of working alongside Bernie Boston when I came to the nation's capital in 1988. To say that he was a true gentleman would be an understatement. Politeness oozed out of the man. He treated younger photographers with incredible kindness and generosity. And other than veteran Washington photographer Doug Mills, whose bald head has been recognized below more congressional hearing tables than perhaps anyone else, Bernie Boston was not a difficult guy to spot in a scrum. His ever-present cowboy hat was a hallmark of the Washington news media.

In fact, Bernie's cowboy hat is one of the reasons I'm writing this photography blog today. Back in 1984, when I was still a clueless English major in Binghamton, New York, reading "Absalom, Absalom" and "Look Homeward, Angel," Ronald Reagan made a campaign swing through the Triple Cities. By this point in my life I was spending far too much time working for the college newspaper and far too little time reading Faulkner. I covered Reagan's stop at Union-Endicott High School and was mesmerized by the presence of the traveling White House press corps.

"There they are!" I thought, as I watched the photographers whose photo credits were legendary to any budding photojournalist: Dirck Halstead, Bernie Boston (yup, he's the one in the cowboy hat), Barry Thumma, Wally McNamee. Ronald Reagan was on the stage but somehow I was shooting pictures of the press corps! (It wouldn't be the first or last time in my life that I'd miss the main picture.)

When I read this afternoon that Bernie had passed away I knew exactly where to find that old contact sheet from Endicott, New York. It's one of those relics that I stumble upon from time to time, one that always reminds me how I got from point A to B.


p.s. As always, double click photos for larger viewing. And if you can identify anyone else in the press corps photo, extra credit! Top picture by George Honeycutt, Vietnam protest by Bernie Boston.


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