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Remembering Max Desfor Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 February 2018

Former Associated Press photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Max Desfor has passed away at the age of 104.

He traveled the world during his career, photographing world leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Richard Nixon, celebrities from Orson Welles to Charlie Chaplin and sports stars from Dutch Leonard to Sugar Ray Robinson. But there were always a few frames left for ordinary people confronted by the extraordinary.

In 1951 the Pulitzer jury praised Desfor's portfolio of over 50 images from the Korean War as having "all the qualities which make for distinguished news photography -- imagination, disregard for personal safety, perception of human interest and the ability to make the camera tell the whole story."

One of those images cited was particularly appreciated. It was a Dec. 4, 1950 photo of the residents of Pyongyang, North Korea, and other refugees crawling over the twisted iron girders of the city's bridge as they fled south across the Taedong River to escape the Communists.

Desfor remembered the moment. "My hands got so cold I could barely trip the shutter on my camera. I couldn't even finish a full pack of film. It was just that cold."

The youngest of four boys and girl born in New York City to an immigrant Russian-Jewish tailor and his Austro-Hungarian wife, Desfor attended New Utrecht High School and then Brooklyn College for a year. He dropped out because "I hated math," he said.

'Shoot first and ask questions later,' he described his technique.

One day in 1933, his brother Irving took him to work to show him what it was like to spend the day as a retoucher for the Associated Press. Impressed, Desfor got in the door as a squeegee boy, taking prints out of the fixer, washing them and hanging them up to dry. He was soon promoted to messenger.

He taught himself the basics of photography, bought a 4x5 Speed Graphic and moonlit as a baby photographer before getting a few assignments from the Associated Press covering emergencies. He became an Associated Press staff photographer in Baltimore in 1938, moving the Washington a year later.

In Washington he married Clara, an old schoolmate, with whom he had a son.

He was photographing a football game when he heard the announcer order military personnel to phone the office. He called his own and was told to get in right away. Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

He went to work immediately. At the State Department, he got a shot of Secretary of State Cordell Hull berating Japanese envoys sent to talk peace. Then he hustled over to the Japanese Embassy where he photographed diplomats burning papers.

"Shoot first and ask questions later," he described his technique.

He joined Admiral Nimitz's fleet as a war photographer when he was turned down for enlistment because he was nearly 30 with an infant son. He photographed the war in Asia through the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri.

He stayed in Asia after the war, covering the Japanese war crimes trials in Manilla and the Indonesian independence movement. He also covered Mahatma Ghandi (his portrait of Ghandi because an Indian postage stamp), photographing his funeral.

His Korean War coverage began in 1950 when he joined a parachute unit.

Based in Tokyo, he photographed Lyndon Johnson in South Vietnam before retiring from the Associated Press in the 1970s. He subsequently served as photography director for U.S. News and World Report until 1980.

Alan Taylor published 41 of his images in The Extraordinary Career of the Photojournalist Max Desfor in 2016. And in Chronicler of War Nears 100, and Counting, Ralph Blumenthal tells his story with 18 images. The Associated Press has a gallery of 146 of his images as well.

Although famous for his Taedong River bridge shot, it wasn't his favorite. That was a shot of two hands turned blue in the cold and sticking out of the Korean snow. They were the hands of an innocent civilian who had been executed and left to be buried by nothing but the snow.

He called that image Futility because "I've always felt that it's the civilians caught in the crossfire, the civilians, the innocent civilians, how futile it is for war."

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