March 25, 2022
The Briscoe Center mourns the loss of Dirck Halstead, award-winning photojournalist, freelance photographer, and digital journalism innovator. Halstead died on March 25, 2022.
Halstead was a pioneering photojournalist, best known for his work for Time magazine, UPI, and Life magazine. He covered major world events throughout the late twentieth century including the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon in 1975, five presidential administrations, President Richard Nixon’s trip to China, and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. He was the publisher and editor of the online magazine the Digital Journalist. Halstead donated his archive to the Briscoe Center in 1995.
Reflecting on his career, Halstead said, “I have never thought of myself as a great photographer. That’s beside the point. What I am is a storyteller. I have always felt that [my career] isn’t about what I saw. It is about how I fulfilled my responsibility to reporting history.”
“Dirck Halstead was one of the great news photographers of his generation, and his body of work will be a source of important historical information far into the future,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “Dirck also played a key role in the establishment of the Briscoe Center’s renowned photojournalism archive. He not only placed his own extensive collection at the center, but he also persuaded many of his professional colleagues to do the same with their collections. He was my good friend, who I will always remember with much affection and respect.”
“I am honored to have my archives alongside Dirck’s at the Briscoe Center,” said Diana Walker, award-winning photojournalist who donated her archive to the Briscoe Center in 1997. “When I first started freelancing for Time and later was offered a contract, Dirck immediately suggested I have a desk in his office and supported me in every way. When we traveled together on presidential trips, he was always so even-handed with our coverage of summit photo-ops. Other photographers were not so welcoming of female neophytes! Not Dirck. He was a kind and generous man who was an excellent photographer, and I enjoyed immensely sharing the White House coverage with him. He was a fabulous team player, and did his utmost to promote the work of many photographers in his Digital Journalist magazine. His ironed blue jeans and brown Gucci loafers will always remind me of a wonderful colleague who always got the picture.”
“I think Dirck would like to be known as a person who covered history in an intelligent way and took risks,” said David Hume Kennerly, acclaimed photojournalist and lifelong friend of Halstead. “He showed people what was going on in the world, things they wouldn’t have seen if he hadn’t been there. The genius of Dirck Halstead was he wasn’t afraid to take chances. His legacy of published photos is extraordinary, as were the lengths he would go to get a picture. He was someone who really appreciated life, and lived it well.”
Halstead was born in Huntington, New York, on December 24, 1936. He began his photojournalism career during high school when, at the age of 17, he became Life magazine’s youngest combat photographer, covering the 1954 Guatemalan Civil War. (The editors at Life had no idea how young he was.) After attending Haverford College, Halstead served as a roving photographer in the U.S. Army for two years.
Halstead went to work with Black Star for a brief period before joining the staff at United Press International (UPI) in 1956. As he later said, “When I started, photojournalists—there was no such word. You were a press photographer.” He was based at UPI bureaus in Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In 1965, he opened the first UPI picture bureau in Saigon to facilitate coverage of the Vietnam War. He left UPI in 1971.
Halstead accepted an independent contract with Time magazine in 1972. He shot 47 of their covers between 1972 and 2001, distinguishing himself as the photographer with the most Time covers to his name. Assigned to the White House for the next 29 years, he covered the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (George H. W.), and Clinton administrations and was appointed Senior White House Photographer.
“Dirck was a student of news, a student of history, and a student of people and how they react,” said Kennerly. “He had an intellectual interest in the news business. I learned from him that a great newsperson is somebody who makes it their business to know what’s going on—anticipating things and being up to speed on who the players are and what might happen.
Halstead’s photos of the fall of Saigon represent some of the most significant images taken during the Vietnam War. That event also served as a deeply personal milestone, as he later noted: “I was in Vietnam covering the first Marines landing in 1965, and then the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. That constitutes an epic in mind.”
In his 2006 memoir, Moments in Time: Photos and Stories from One of America’s Top Photojournalists, Halstead expanded on his experience on leaving Saigon: “I look down and watch as the city that has been so much a part of my life slips over the horizon. The bends of the Mekong lie before me. I realize that I’m feeling as though a vital part of my life is coming to a close. … How can it be that in a place of war, I find the happiest times I have ever known? How could I possibly explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it how much more alive I feel returning to Saigon at the end of the day, and living and enduring in a place where I’m not even sure I will survive?”
Halstead was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal by the Overseas Press Club in 1975 for his coverage of the fall of Saigon. He also won the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Picture of the Year award twice, and won two Eisie Awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. In 2002, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA); and in 2004 he was honored with the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award. The University of Missouri presented him with the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism in 2007.
One of Halstead’s most storied photos was of Monica Lewinsky being embraced by President Bill Clinton. The picture was taken during an Oct. 23, 1996, fundraiser, months before Clinton’s relationship with his intern was public knowledge. When the scandal broke, Halstead had an “inkling” that he had a photo of Lewinsky with the President. “We remember things in terms of the photographs we shoot. Your mind creates folders,” he said. After sorting through thousands of Clinton outtakes, he found the photo. It landed on the cover of Time and became one of the scandal’s signature images. “It was an extraordinarily lucky moment,” Halstead recalled. “If I had posed and lit the whole scene, I couldn’t have done it any better.”
Halstead also became a much sought-after freelance photographer for major motion picture companies and corporations. Halstead worked as a “Special Photographer” on films to produce photographs used in advertising materials, including such titles as Goodfellas, Memphis Belle, Shaft, Black Rain, Dragon, Dune, Conan the Barbarian, Greystoke, and Cliffhanger.
Long an advocate of adopting new technology in the newsroom, Halstead began exploring the role of digital media in capturing news stories for electronic publication. One of his most important accomplishments was the Digital Journalist. Halstead launched the online magazine in 1997 to provide photojournalists with a forum for exhibiting their work. The site also provided a space for frank discussion about the state of photojournalism and the news media.
As Halstead noted on the site’s ten-year anniversary, “We wanted to give photojournalists the space to tell their stories the way they had originally envisioned them. Also, we knew that the most underrated journalists in publishing were the photographers. They had lived their stories, and could be marvelous storytellers if they were only given the chance. The stories are personal—what was it like and how did it feel to witness earth-shaking events from the unique perspective of the photojournalist?”
“[Dirck] launched the Digital Journalist website to showcase the work of photographers and to illuminate the medium’s history and potential,” Jay M. Smolsen later noted in American Photo. “His experiment has since turned into one of photography’s greatest resources—an archive of portfolios, interviews, and industry news. An average monthly issue gets some 1.5 million viewers.”
In 1992, he played an instrumental part in the formation of Video News International (VNI), teaching still photojournalists to cross the barrier between print and television. Halstead also created and taught Platypus workshops, where photojournalists and others learned to create their own documentary videos. He also was an instructor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Beyond the awards and magazine covers, Halstead will be remembered for his deep compassion for and support of his fellow photographers. As he wrote in a 1997 Digital Journalist editorial, “Think about how the camera has brought aid and life to starving people; how it has altered history by ending wars and alerted the world to the problems that must be addressed if humanity is to survive. Think also, for a moment, of those photojournalists who have paid, and continue to pay, the price to serve us all.”
His memoir, Moments in Time: Photos and Stories from One of America’s Top Photojournalists., was published in 2006. As he wrote in the book’s preface, “One of the best-kept secrets in journalism is that photographers can be terrific storytellers. They recall memories in colorful, visual terms, and their sense of timing can be unerring. However, you rarely hear them regaling guests at a cocktail party or dinner. The stories are so big, and based on such important events and people, that even talking about them would be in bad taste. But late at night, in a dark bar in a place like Bangkok, Paris, Calcutta, or New York, among their own kind and usually encouraged by a few drinks, the stories start to flow—and they are wonderful.”
About the Archive:
The Dirck Halstead Photographic Archive consists of over 500,000 photographic images in various formats, including prints (color and black & white), mounted prints (color and black & white), laminated prints, contact sheets (color and black & white), transparencies (including 35mm slides), internegatives (4″x5″ and 8″x10″), 35mm negatives, 120mm negatives, correspondence, printed materials, creative works, business records, and artifacts. These images are largely in transparent format.
The photographic material covers Halstead’s work from the 1950s through 2001 and includes subject matter such as world events, topical news stories, famous personalities, and the United States presidencies from Kennedy to Clinton. The personal papers include presidential trip itineraries, magazines (and magazine covers), and assignment materials related to his work with United Press International (UPI) and Time Magazine. The artifacts include press passes and awards.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Briscoe Center Photography Collections to fund an internship in Dirck Halstead’s name at the Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.