Remembering the work of war photographer, Carl Mydans…
Carl Mydans holds a special place in the long list of great photographers who worked for American Life magazine. Having started his career as a newspaper journalist he took up photography during America’s Great Depression and began working for the FSA (Farm Security Administration) as part of a team of photojournalists capturing the horrendous plight of so many farm workers and their families as they travelled across the States seeking work, food and shelter.
One of Life’s earliest recruits he joined the magazine in 1936 and along with his wife, Shelley became the magazine’s first roving reporting team. During the Second World War they would travel some 45,000 miles across Europe and Asia including being sent to China in 1941 to cover the Japanese bombing raids. It was during the Japanese overthrow of the Philippines that they were both captured in the capital, Manila and held captive for almost two years, including a year in Shanghai, before repatriation in a prisoner of war exchange. Their treatment beggared belief, seldom fed and watered the couple lost 130 pounds in weight between them and Mydans later captured the brutality of POW treatment brilliantly in a photograph (see below) of two captured civilians, John Todd and Lee Rogers in a scene reminiscent of the Nazi prison camps.
In 1943 the magazine had sent him to cover the most important, strategic battles in Italy and France before returning to the Philippines a year later to cover its liberation by the Americans. The iconic photograph of General MacArthur marching ashore following its recapture was made possible by MacArthur’s personal order that Mydans should be one of the first to go in alongside the initial wave of armoured tanks. MacArthur was famously astute when it came to ‘capturing the moment’. In 1945 he was aboard the USS Missouri to photograph the Japanese surrender and the humiliation felt by Mamoru Shigemitsu as he signed the documents in front of the assembled delegates and soldiers.
Wherever he went he was unwavering in his honest approach to documenting scenes of war, he was passionate in showing how life was for the young soldiers sent to fight in foreign fields and he is responsible for some of the earliest and most graphic photographs of conflict of the last century. Following World War Two he covered the Korean War, headed Time-Life magazine in Tokyo for two years before spending the next twenty years working for Life around the world until its closure in 1972. One seldom reads much of the Great Depression but a look back at Mydans coverage will do much to show how the experience helped shape America’s determination to rise up and become the ultimate super power it still is.
Carl Mydens died of heart failure in 2004 aged 97.
photographs copyright: Carl Mydans/Life Magazine.