Wednesday 25 October 2006
Denis Cameron, photographer: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 19 October 1928; twice married (one son, one daughter); died London 6 October 2006.
No surprise that a photographer's life should range far and wide, but Denis Cameron was something else. Like a real-life Zelig, he seemed to pop up at every event of political and cultural significance for a few decades in the second half of the 20th century - except, unlike Woody Allen's character, Cameron was the one behind the camera. He photographed Hollywood stars and the war in Vietnam; his pictures were the common denominator of the Prague Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ayatollah Khomeini, Sophia Loren and Errol Flynn in a casket.
He made his home in Los Angeles, Paris and London, but for a time more than anywhere Cameron belonged in South-East Asia. He loved Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the countries and their people; having initially been sent on assignment by Time and Newsweek for a couple of months in late 1969, he stayed for six years. The war was rolling across borders into an increasingly wide and bloody conflict, and Cameron's camera caught all aspects of the devastation: again and again he documented the suffering of children in the midst of war, but also he knew how to point a camera at a man with a gun and still find the humanity in a battle-weary face. There was dark humour in his reportage - "My God! How'd we get in this mess?" emblazoned on the door of a US helicopter gun-ship.
Cameron was graced with a bloodless nerve that stood out even among the diehards of Vietnam. Once he and the New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson found themselves in the midst of an ambush in Cambodia. "I got caught and couldn't find my handbag and the firing went on," Emerson recounted:
Finally I got out of the car and thought, "It is simply too late. I won't catch up." And I looked and Denis had waited. That was so extraordinary. He was furious I took so long but he had waited. We crawled a bit and sank in all this God-awful mud and Denis said something about "You had to go back for your fucking handbag", and then this splendid noble moment was over.
He waited too when almost all other correspondents had fled Phnom Penh, that awful pause in April 1975 when the city was about to fall to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, ready to wreak the destruction of Year Zero. He had hoped to save those he could from what was to come, but his plan to evacuate hundreds of children on an Australian transport plane fell through in the chaos. Instead he found himself imprisoned in the French embassy for a month along with 20 other journalists, including Sydney Schanberg and Jon Swain.
As the frenzy of killings began, foreigners were no longer off-limits, and several times Cameron and his colleagues believed they were about to be executed. After a month of this hell he and the rest were released at the Thai border following furious negotiations by the French government.
When Roland Joffe's film The Killing Fields (1984) attempted to recreate the events Cameron had experienced, he was so disgusted with the results that he demanded his name be removed from the consultant credits. There were to be other conflicts - Lebanon, the Iranian Revolution, the first Gulf war - but with all the years of battle reporting it was Cambodia that left its mark on Cameron and haunted him until the end.
Born in Minnesota in 1928, Cameron had jobbed his way around America - at one time a pilot in Alaska - before finding his way to Hollywood in the mid-1950s. There he worked around the studios in a variety of capacities before making a profession of his lifelong love for photography, beginning at Life magazine. His assignments eventually took him across the Atlantic, and in Cyprus in 1963 he and Don McCullin shared the experience of their first war. In the 1967 Six-Day War Cameron was fast enough almost to outstrip the Israeli army. His reward: a picture of an Israeli soldier cooling off in the Suez Canal. The Life cover iconised the conflict for the times.
Truly modest and sublimely economical with words, Denis Cameron was the opposite of the stereotypical macho braggard war reporter. When he made a joke - which was often - you had to be awake, for his striking features gave no clue, a mastery of deadpan good enough for Buster Keaton (whom he had befriended on the set of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1966).
Had Cameron wanted to boast, he could have spent all night dropping the names of the stars he had known as a stills photographer in Hollywood. With his subtle but forceful charisma, he achieved a high degree of intimacy with these A-list actors that is revealed in the pictures he took. There's an artistry to Cameron's publicity shots of Burt Lancaster on The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) which nail the actor's noble, delicate humanity. With John Wayne (whom he met in 1962 on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) Cameron succeeded where other photographers had failed: to get the legend to wear cowboy costume in a modern setting.
Cameron managed to elevate what could have been a gimmick into something warm and richly humorous - an apt legacy for a man who once said of his profession, "Pictures will be our epitaph."
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