Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Empire of Images — An Iconic Photos Book

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Over the past five years, I have published a lot of posts here at Iconic Photos.

Blogs are transient. Internet is transient. Last year, I was logged out of Iconic Photos by WordPress for some ad infraction which taught me this lesson pretty well. So, without further ado, I decided to transfer the blog into a solid door-stopper of a book.

And Empire of Images is born.

The book is first and foremost a coffee-table history of Long Twentieth Century™ (Paris Commune of 1870 to 2008 Financial Crisis), seen through a series of my blog posts, but with additional next content to link and contextualize them. Therefore, the chapter on pre-war Europe will be an essay on Hitler through these posts. Chapter 16, on Vietnam, will be a tour de force photojourney from Dien Bien Phu through immolations and executions all the way to America’s ignominious retreat from Saigon.

You can preorder the book from Amazon or through my publishers at Roallipof Publishing starting 1st of April. [Click Through to Enlarge the photos].

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 1, 2014 at 3:00 am

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Erwin Blumenfeld

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Excepted from The Economist, Nov 9th 2013:

Erwin Blumenfeld arrived in New York in 1941 with a suitcase, little English and no professional training as a photographer. Aged 44 and undaunted, he went on to reinvent both himself and fashion photography. He created over a hundred start-lingly original magazine covers and countless fashion shots for the slick pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His images mirrored the energy and excitement of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s.

For a Vogue cover from January 1950, Blumenfeld used fierce light to erase a model’s features, leaving only an eye, a mouth and a beauty spot. Another cover, this time to raise money for the Red Cross after the second world war, superimposed a translucent red cross over the blurred figure of a model in a turquoise hat. Blumenfeld’s surrealist image of Adolf Hitler, his face distorted by a skull, covered millions of American propaganda leaflets dropped over Germany in 1942.

Often headless, his nudes appear remote and mysterious, owing to Blumenfeld’s use of mirrors, diaphanous fabrics and solarisation (a darkroom technique that inverts the lights and darks of an image). They reveal the influence of avant-garde photographers such as Man Ray, whose work he saw in Paris in the 1930s. Blumenfeld’s 1937 masterpiece, “Nude Under Wet Silk”, earned him some art-world notoriety when it was published in Verve magazine.

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Blumenfeld’s inventive images earned him fame as “the best-paid photographer in the world”. Yet he chose only four fashion photographs for his book, “My One Hundred Best Photos”, published in 1981 (he died in 1969). He yearned to be taken seriously as an artist, and began experimenting with the medium during his pre-war years in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.

Born in 1897 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Berlin, he got a camera for his tenth birthday. Aged 14, he shot a playful self-portrait dressed as the sad clown Pierrot, holding a mirror to his face to create a double image. “I wanted to be a photographer, pure and simple,” he later wrote. His aspirations turned practical after his father’s death in 1913. Blumenfeld worked first for a Berlin garment manufacturer, then drove an ambulance in the first world war, yet he floundered in any job that did not involve film. After getting married in 1921, he set up a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and struggled to get by. He took advantage of a disused darkroom to experiment with portraits and nudes.

Upon moving to Paris in 1936 he set up a studio with the help of an art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt. A magazine cover for Votre Beauté and an exhibition at the Galerie Billiet prompted a studio visit from Cecil Beaton, an English photographer, who swiftly secured Blumenfeld a contract with French Vogue. “His merit as an artist lies in the fact he is incapable of compromise,” Beaton noted. One of Blumenfeld’s best-known black-and-white spreads, published in Vogue in 1939, features a model perched on the edge of the Eiffel Tower, her flimsy dress fluttering in the breeze.

When war broke out in September that year, Blumenfeld was interned in a series of camps, including Le Vernet. He finally escaped with his family to New York two years later. Studios replete with staff and equipment awaited him, along with a contract with Harper’s Bazaar. His New York years were devoted to self-confident glamour of America and he helped define the way America saw itself—a remarkable feat for a man who described himself as “un-American for ever”.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 20, 2014 at 4:09 am

Look Back in Anger — Nazism in 1930s

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This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Iconic Photos look back at how it all began — and how we covered it. 

Hitler’s first appearance in Iconic Photos date from 1914, when a figure allegedly identified as Adolf Hitler was seen outside Field Marshals’ Hall listening to the announcement of the First World War. After the war, his rise in a defeated and dejected Germany was meteoric. In 1926, he became the Führer of the National Socialists; the then-37-year old was also already a millionaire, thanks to his book Mein Kampf.

His party won the plurality in the elections of 1933. On January 30th 1933 when President Paul von Hindenburg, hero of a World War, called upon Hitler, villain of another, to be German Chancellor. Less than a month later, the Reichstag burnt down in a pivotal event which paved the way for the rise of Nazi consolidation. Hitler fingered Communist agitators as arsonists; civil liberties were suspended, and countless politicians and journalists were locked up, and the communist party was outlawed. When Hitler visited Tanneberg — the site of a famous battle in which East Prussia was liberated from the Russians during the First World War by Hindenburg — later that year, the ceremony was uncomfortably patriotic and militarist. Germany rearmament began on those blood-soaked fields.

A strong re-emerging Germany was on display in pomp and splendor of Berlin Olympics in 1936. There were a few hitches for the Nazis, like  Jesse Owens winning 100 m sprint and smashing Hitler’s theories of racial superiority, but the Olympics were a great success for Germany. The next year, the Fuhrer welcomed the Duke of Windsor, the ci-devant Edward VIII, to his Obersalzberg retreat.

Hitler’s plans for a Greater Germany were sown years ahead. Already in 1934, he has orchestrated the murder of Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss, who was vehemently against Nazism, and set Austria on the course that would eventually led to its capitulation to his Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938.  A few months later, British Prime Minister was in Munich to sign the Anglo-German Non-Aggression Declaration. Sudetenland was transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany in an attempt to satisfy Hitler’s desire for Lebensraum.

A little over a year later, emboldened German troops were in Warsaw, having divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and the world was in a cataclysmic world war yet again.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 14, 2014 at 5:12 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Faces of Time (2009 – 2014)

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Being featured on the cover of Time magazine used to be a big deal, so much so that movies use that as a visual cue to signify the noteworthiness of the protagonist. Is it still a big deal? 

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Iconic Photos is turning five soon – so maybe time to finally submit a thesis and graduate?

We looked back at the last five years (April 2009 – March 2014) during which time Iconic Photos had been alive. During this time, Time America, Time International, and its regional prints have published 125 different covers featuring 139 faces. Assuming 500 different covers during that period (260 weeks, one U.S edition cover and one International cover), 25% of Time covers feature famous people. In Time’s early days a century ago, nearly all its covers featured noteworthy faces. Iconic Photos’ analysis is not academically rigorous; we have adjusted for 2012 Presidential Election and presidential bully pulpit by counting Governor Romney only once, and not counting President Obama at all. Special issues – such as Olympics specials, Time 100 – are not counted (exception is made for Malala).  [Data is at the end of the post]

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Since we counted all international editions, international politicians outnumber US politician nearly two-to-one. (However, international politics rarely intrude upon US editions as superbly illustrated here). Artists are strongly represented, although Jonathan Frazen makes a lonely writer. The Holy See punched above its temporal weight, with five covers between the present pope and his predecessor. Three Supreme Court Justices were featured; four soccer players were featured, all on international editions. Lone basketballer, Jeremy Lin, curiously appeared on the Asian edition. Four chefs appeared (three on one issue); as did four British royals.

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On the other fronts, our analysis is depressing. Faces are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male. Among 139 faces are mere 27 female faces or 20%, and ten of those appearances were by four women (Chancellor Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary Clinton, and Governor Palin).

Nationality-wise, Americans dominate. Excluding the current pope, South Americans are underrepresented – and would be more so if not for footballers. Africans appeared only four times — notorious Joseph ‘the Hashtag’ Kony, legless armsman Oscar Pistorius, late-lamented Nelson Mandela, and protest poet Youssou N’Dour – five, if we bend over backwards and count Mario Batolleli, Italian footballer of Ghanan heritage. There were only three African-Americans on the cover excluding all of President Obama’s appearances: First Lady Michelle Obama, popstar Michael Jackson, and the Rev. Martin Luther King. [Time is not racist. For the magazine, historically, almost anyone from south of the Alps was termed ‘swart’ – I am not even kidding, look it up, I dare you – and by that measure, its cover selection looks pretty diverse].

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A surprisingly strong entry was Ms. Suu Kyi’s homeland of Burma. The Nobel Laureate herself appeared three times, while General Than Shwe, the country’s brutal dictator from two decades, appeared once. His successor, the current President of Burma, appeared once. The country’s controversial anti-Muslim monk, Wirathu, appeared once on a cover titled ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ which was promptly banned in Burma and Sri Lanka.

That Burmese leaders appeared six times highlights Time’s strange editorial decisions. By contrast, Chinese leaders appeared four times – twice when Bo Xilai was embroiled in the scandal that marked his downfall; the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister appeared three times, while Indian, French, Italian, and North Korean leaders appeared twice each. Putin was on the frontpage three times, a dubious honor he shares with Col. Qaddafi of Libya. Notably missing is lethal President Assad of Syria.

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More crudely put, if you are Burmese, you have 1 in 15 million chance of being featured on the cover. If you are American, your chances improve to 1 in 5 million. Global average is 1 in 50 million. In Russia, it is 1 in 100 million; in China, it is 1 in 450 million; in India, it is 1 in 600 million. Even such odds will be enviable to Brazilians, Indonesians, Nigerians, and the Japanese who, despite making up 12% of the world’s population, haven’t appeared on a Time cover in last five years.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 12, 2014 at 2:36 am

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Leaders of Britain, 1944

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I am long fascinated by a photographer’s take on power, such as Platon’s photos of world leaders at the UN or Avedon’s study of America on the bicentennial year. Flipping casually through a Life magazine from 1944, I stumbled upon a photoessay called ‘Leaders of Britain’ by the great Yousef Karsh.

After the success of his photograph of Churchill, Karsh crossed the Atlantic in 1943 onboard a Norwegian freighter carrying a cargo of explosives from Canada to Britain. He stayed in London to photograph wartime leaders and intellectuals, whose portraits were published in the Illustrated London News to raise the nation’s morale. Of this selection, it is interesting to note what Life (and Karsh) decided to publish in 1944.

In the photo-essay at least, Britain of 1944 was a martial society; the King appeared in uniform, alongside Sir Charles Portal, the head of the Bomber Command; Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Admiral Cunningham, who was already secretly supervising the preparations for the D-Day landings, and submariner Max Kennedy Horton.

And then there were a smattering of politicians who would re-shape post-war Britain. Two future prime ministers were there (Attlee and Eden) but other faces proved to be more influential in the coming years. Plans of Lord Woolton, firstly as Minister for Food and then as Minister for Reconstruction, were more immediately felt, but Bevin as the Minister for Labour would enshrine an industrial settlement that remained in place mid-1980s. Cripps as the supremo for both economy and finance, was at the Exchequery  for three years in the post-war cabinet, and would preside over a devaluation, rationings and nationalisation of coal and steel industries. Even Lord Mountbatten — photographed as Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command but later Viceroy of India — left behind a bitter legacy in the subcontinent.

Intellectuals photographed ranged from George Bernard Shaw on the cover to writer H. G. Wells to cartoonist David Low. Others photographed by Karsh during his sojourn in England [but not published by Life] included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Halifax, Field Marshalls John Dill and Jan Smuts, and actor Noel Coward. Life opened the essay which the person the magazine deemed most powerful in Britain — the newspaper proprietor  Lord Beaverbrook, the master of assembly line, who was the minister of supply in the war cabinet.

Notably missing from the essay was the photo that started it all — Churchill’s growling portrait from 1941.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 7, 2014 at 6:20 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Mao’s Last Photo

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The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).

That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).

Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 28, 2014 at 9:05 am

Posted in Politics

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Thurston Hopkins

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Jamaican immigrant Kwessi Blankson gives a light to workmate Jack White in 1955

During the mid-20th century, street photography is a term normally strongly associated with Paris; but interesting street photography work was being done in other countries and cities too.

One such work was that of Thurston Hopkins who documented everyday life of post-war Britain. Hopkins worked for Picture Post, now largely-forgotten British equivalent of Life magazine. Hopkins’ obscurity is more total than that of Picture Post. As of February 2014, Hopkins does not even have a wikipedia page.

But to forget someone like  Hopkins is too forget important work he did in post-war Britain; in 1950, Hopkins joined Picture Post after a stint with the RAF photographic unit during the Second World War (allegedly creating a dummy issue of Post using only his photographs and words). For the magazine, he contributed such important photoessays such as Children of the Streets in 1954, A British Colour Conflict in 1955 and Liverpool Slums in 1956. These were portraits of a bygone Britain, a traumatized post-war nation slowly coming to terms with immigration, loss of empire, and shoots of prosperity that the prime minister would dub ‘never-had-it-so-good’ in 1957.

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[Most of the information here is through an article from Guardian when Hopkins turned 100 in 2013. This is the only article on Hopkins online. A slideshow of many Hopkins photos can be found here. The whole Picture Post archive is online, but not searchable behind a paywall at Cengage Learning. :( ]

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 24, 2014 at 3:35 am

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Last Public Execution by Guillotine

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There are some people still alive today who were present at the last public execution in France. Actor Christopher Lee, for instance. In the early morning of 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann bowed down before the blade of the guillotine, the last person to do so publicly.

Weidmann was the last person to be executed before a crowd in France. He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite. His trial was a sensation in that tense summer of 1939; the Frankfurt-born Weidmann was quickly dubbed “Teutonic Vampire” by the tabloids. His execution outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles was a noisy affair.

In the days following the execution, the press was especially indignant at the way the crowd had behaved. Paris-Soir denounced the crowd as“disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamoring, whistling.” Among the sins the lofty paper found unforgivable was the crowd “devouring sandwiches”. More shockingly for the authorities, the unruly crowd delayed the execution beyond the usual twilight hour of dawn, enabling clear photographs — and one short film! — to be taken. The government regretted that public executions which were intended to have a “moralizing effect” now produced “practically the opposite results.” President LeBrun signed an order to hold executions only behind closed doors.

By this time, France was already an anomaly; the proud tradition of macabre spectacle dating back millennia  was fast becoming forbidden in the West.  Most German states banned public executions in the 1850s. England carried out her last public execution — that of the Fenian agitator Michael Barrett — in 1868, and most of her dominions followed. From then on, momentum was with ban of public executions. Liberal Denmark banned public executions in 1882, and abolished the death penalty altogether in 1933. In 1936, Kentucky became the last American state to ban public executions. 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 31, 2014 at 3:48 am

Posted in Culture

Congo | Andre Lefebvre

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In 1960, a group of firebrand Congolese managed to outmaneuver the Belgian government into giving them independence, rather than a phased transfer of power it envisioned. Prospects for the country were bleak: in the country of 14 million people, there were only three native Congolese in its 1,400-strong civil service, and two were recent appointments. In 1960, only 136 children completed secondary education and thirty graduated from university. There were no Congolese doctors, no secondary school teachers, nor army officers.

In many ways, the Congo was just a mining camp. It was uranium from Katanga region in the Congo that fueled the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country produced nearly 10% of the world’s copper, 60% of its uranium, 70% of its cobalt, and 70% of its industrial diamonds, all of it under auspices of the Union Miniere which reported annual sales of $200 million USD in 1960. The company was loathe to give it all away and urged the resource-rich provinces of Katanga and Kasai to secede. 

The war was bloody and would claim over 100,000 lives. The United Nations intervened, but Congo’s new Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba quickly antagonized the UN mission, led by the respected Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. Despite his later mythic status as a secular saint of anti-imperialism, Lumumba was far from an agreeable figure. He hated and later purged other moderate politicians. On his only visit to the US, he shocked the officials by demanding a female companion for him — ‘une blanche blonde’ he specified.

Meanwhile, the secessionist war accelerated. Lumumba’s battles against Baluba tribes took on genocide fervour according to the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Among the western casualties was an American journalist named Henry Taylor, his death magnified and scrutinized even more for he was the son of the American ambassador to Switzerland. Taylor was killed in a clash between government troops and Baluba tribesmen — a scene (above) well-documented by Paris Match photographer Andre Lefebvre who was traveling with Taylor at the time. The United States was now slowly being sucked into the conflict, not least by arrival of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops into the Congo on Lumumba’s invitation.

The Eisenhower administration supported a palace/army coup in the Congo; Lumumba first sought asylum in an UN compound, and then headed off to Stanleyville, his power base; in a characteristic move, he made frequent stops to give fiery speeches to local villagers along his trip. He was denounced, arrested and handed off to Baluba soldiers. On the night of 17th January 1961, he and two others put on the back of a pick-up truck headed to a remote clearing and — eternity.

Other players from that tumultuous year not long survived. Hammarskjold was next to go — he died in a plane crash en route to mediate the Katanga ceasefire talks. The mining state itself was wound up in late 1962, when the United Nations put an end to its secession in a series of decisive raids. On December 31, 1966, the Congolese government nationalized the Union Miniere, the powerful conglomerate that started it all, seizing over $800 million of the company’s assets.

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Not much is known about Andre Lefebvre (1919 – 1984). His photos from the ambush that killed Taylor were grisly, and showed government troops machine-gunning and bayoneting the Balubas. Lefebvre himself took a bullet to his feet in the crossfire. He retired from Paris Match in 1968.

I have previously covered Congo in other posts, ranging from the atrocities of Leopoldine Congo to its hectic independence day to last photo of Lumumba.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 22, 2014 at 4:46 am

Posted in War

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Corpsman In Anguish | Cathy LeRoy

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Vietnam was to be a photographer’s conflict. A familiar tread for many struggling artist, photographer, or bohemian was the offices of the Associated Press in Saigon, where the legendary photo editor Horst Faas held court. Among many who came to Faas in 1966 was a petite 21-year old French girl named Cathy LeRoy. Defying her factory-manager father, she worked 18 hours a day as an interviewer in a Paris employment agency to save for a one-way ticket to Saigon. She only carried $200 and a Leica M2. Faas gave her three rolls of black and white film and assurances to give her $15 for each picture used. 

The U.S. Army was skeptical of LeRoy at first. She didn’t speak English (apart from four-letter words she would soon pick up from the Marines); she was 5ft, 85-pounds, comically carried cameras and equipment close to her bodyweight, and trundled around with size-6 combat boots too big for her size-4 feet. She was also soon be banned from the frontline for six months for cussing a senior officer. But she spent more time at the front — three weeks a month — than any other woman journalist in Vietnam, and a year later, she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump, joining the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Her pictures from Vietnam were stunning. Her photos from Battle of Hill 881 evoked “ghosts of Iwo Jima and Pork Chop Hill,” Time magazine wrote in May 1967.  Her photos of corpsman Vernon Wike during the battle was a triptych of an all-too-familiar scene: in the first, Wike has two hands on his friend’s chest, trying to staunch the wound; in the second, he tries to find a heartbeat; in the third frame, “Corpsman In Anguish”, he realized the man is dead. 

LeRoy herself came very close to death two weeks later. Her Nikon barely stopped a piece of mortar shrapnel that ripped open her chest. She said that she thought the last words she would ever hear were, “I think she’s dead, sarge.” During the Tet offensive in 1968, LeRoy was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese during the battle for Hue. LeRoy’s photos of her captivity later made the cover of Life, ‘A Remarkable Day in Hue: the Enemy Lets Me Take His Picture‘. She was the first person to take photos of North Vietnamese Army Regulars behind their lines.

In 1972, Leroy shot and directed Operation Last Patrol, a film about Ron Kovic and the anti-war Vietnam veterans. She was in Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city in 1982. Her pictures there were equally poignant. LeRoy died in 2006.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

Posted in Politics, War

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2014 Update

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Another year came and went.

I am still here. I didn’t post often last quarter. I have just been quite busy. There is always an expectation that after you haven’t posted a while, the new post have to be long, thoughtful, better, etc. That was a daunting task. Especially now that the blog is nearing its fifth birthday, and I have pretty much covered and retreaded a lot of topics.

This blog has always been about history as much as it is about photos. My interpretation of recent history will chafe a lot of hardcore academics but popular history as a genre exists for a reason.

Lastly, a journalist based in Montevideo has requested to translate some of my work on IP into Spanish. Thomas Lyford-Pike has done a great job and now you can read Fotos Icónicas in Spanish here (Although I suspect you don’t really need to, since you are already reading this in English!) I guess it is a good thing that photoliteracy is reaching a wider audience.

That’s all for now.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 8, 2014 at 3:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Diên Biên Phu | Daniel Camus

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Since 1941, Ho Chi Minh had been rebelling against the French colonial rule in Vietnam. Sixty years ago, that struggle reached its climax at a broad vale known as Diên Biên Phu. The French, fifty thousand of whom ruled over the colony of 20 million people, grossly underestimated their enemy’s strength and capabilities, initially unaware that the Vietnamese had been supplied with anti-aircraft and heavy artillery by Red China. In fact, as the first French paratroops were dropped into the valley in November 1953, the French government hoped for a swift victory that might just win back public support for the war in Indochina.

It turned out to be a heroic, if foolhardy, last stand. Generals responsible raised doubts whether a defense was feasible as early as January 1954. President Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about warring, privately despaired that the fort was indefensible. But media coverage was almost mythic. Paris Match called Diên Biên Phu “the capital of heroism”. For Time magazine, the attacking Vietnamese general was a ‘Red Napoleon’, and as it was during equally bleak sieges of Lucknow and Cawnpore, Christian iconography was invoked. French papers frequently termed the fort a ‘calvary’. Geneviève de Galard, the only female nurse inside the garrison, became an ‘angel’ (and found herself plastered all over magazine covers [below, middle] and honored with Légion d´honneur and Congressional Medal of Freedom).

Meanwhile the situation on the ground was spiraling out of control. A group of firebrand paratroopers took over combat operations from the camp’s reluctant aristocratic commander General de Castries and were becoming de facto leaders of the camp. By mid-March, Vietnamese artilleries encircled the camp and made the airstrip unusable. By the end of that month, all supplies had to be made without landing. The garrison, however, stood for further forty days, before falling on 7 th May 1954.

An international peace was quickly drawn up: Vietnam was to be partitioned and granted independence. The end tally was bloody. The battle cost France sixteen battalions, two artillery groups, and a squadron of tanks. Some 12,000 French soldiers were imprisoned for a few months in camps where mortality rates exceeded 70 percent. On the Vietnamese side, the losses were above 20,000: many perished even before the battle began to hurl up cannons into the mountain pass; “death volunteers” threw themselves at French defenses with TNT strapped to their chests.

The defeat at Diên Biên Phu was seismic for both Paris and Washington and put them en course towards bloodier conflicts. In France, the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power. Soldiers from France’s African colonies in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal who fought at Diên Biên Phu and saw the imperial power brought low returned home to begin their own independence struggles, and France decided to quietly withdraw from Africa. The French military, however, took the setbacks in Vietnam – and two years later, in Suez – bitterly. It would soon defy both public and political opinion to mount a scorching war in Algeria.

As for the United States, the war was an unsettling development. Its policy of containment could not work if newly independent countries were to choose Moscow-educated leaders, as with Ho in Vietnam, Nassar in Egypt, and Lumumba in the Congo. Diên Biên Phu itself was a symbolic domino, chosen precisely to cut off the Communists from entering the neighboring kingdom of Laos, and its fall was alarming. But coming as it did so soon after an inconclusive conflict in Korea, there was not much political will in the Congress for yet another foreign entanglement. An especially vocal critic, the one who argued against letting the French use American air fields, was an ambitious senate minority leader from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson.

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The siege of Diên Biên Phu was widely covered in the French press; L’Aurore on 24 March published the first photos, which were sent back with letters and evacuatees. The most extensive coverage was in Paris Match, France’s equivalent of Life magazine, which published 144 photos from Diên Biên Phu between 20 March and 15 May, and devoted five front covers to the battle. Its headlines were equally grand: ‘L’épopée de Diên Biên Phu (The Epic of Diên Biên Phu, 8th May); Le Calvaire et la Gloire du Général de Castries (The Sacrifice and Glore of General de Castries, 13th May); and ‘La Tragédie des blesses” (The Tragedy of the Wounded, 22nd May).

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Match had an inside man, literally. Its photographer, Daniel Camus, was doing military service with an army cinema unit when he was parachuted into the garrison. His photos covered about the action of the siege and the desperate intimacy of the besieged, as was in the above photo of the paratroop “mafia” of young airborne officers who had effectively taken control of the fortress (Langlais, Bigeard, Botella, Brechignac, Touret, de Seguin-Pazzis et al). Camus and another photographer Jean Péraud sent back photos from inside the siege until the garrison fell and they were sent to a reeducation camp. During the 300-km march to the camp, Péraud was killed when trying to escape with paratroopers’ commander Marcel Bigeard. Camus was released four months later from the camp.

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There is currently a fascinating exhibition going on in Paris at oft-overlooked Musée de l’Armée. “Indochine: Des Territoires et des Hommes, 1856-1956” follows a century of French colonial rule and runs through Jan. 26.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 5, 2014 at 6:21 am

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