Famed Vietnam War Photographer Catherine Leroy Dies at 60
"She came from a generation who would put their lives on the line for their convictions," one friend recalls.
Catherine Leroy, a pioneering female photographer who documented some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War, died from lung and pancreatic cancer Friday, July 7 in Los Angeles. She was 60.
Leroy won several awards during her career, including the coveted Robert Capa Gold Medal, the Picture of the Year competition, and the New York Art Director’s Club, to name a few.
A tiny woman who stood barely five feet tall and weighed well under 100 pounds, Leroy nevertheless had an enormous impact on the photography world and those with whom she worked.
New York University professor Fred Ritchin, a friend and colleague of Leroy’s who served as a consulting editor on her Under Fire book, says that Leroy was a “very passionate and intense and enthusiastic person who wanted to make the world a better place.
“She had an outsized courage and sense of conviction, which made her not easy to deal with for a lot of people,” Ritchin concedes. “But she stuck by her guns and did what she felt was right. She came from a generation who would put their lives on the line for their convictions.”
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Leroy first arrived in Saigon in February of 1966 without ever having published a photo. She had in her possession a Leica M2 and a mere $100. Just 21 years of age, she had no formal photographic training and had never been more than a few hundred miles from Paris. Through pluck and luck, she would go on to become the most famous female war photographer of the Vietnam era.
One of the first things Leroy did was to march into the Associated Press offices to meet with AP picture editor Horst Faas. Leroy lied and told Faas she had experience in combat photography and was given an assignment for the standard rate of $15 per photo moved on the wire.
Her photos of combat and the soldiers and Marines in battle were soon published around the world in newspapers and in the leading picture magazines of the day like Life and Look.
For a cover story on Leroy in the December 1988 issue of American Photographer, the precursor to American Photo, Leroy explained the draw of war photography: “I’ve always found that it was very exhilarating to be shot at without result,” she said. “It’s the biggest high of all, a massive rush of adrenaline. The high you experience in times of great danger is a high that you cannot experience anywhere else.”
But by the late ’80s, the physical and psychological toll of two decades of combat photography had begun to wear on Leroy, and she grew sick of war and the job of photographing it.
Ritchin says that Leroy had undertaken several ambitious projects in recent years, but had little success finding the institutions and funding necessary to complete them. “She had a lot to say but few places to stand,” Ritchin says.
Last year Leroy had envisioned a grand symposium on the legacy of Vietnam and the photography that came out of it, and she had recently prepared a book proposal on the human destruction of the environment, which she was shopping around to publishers. Neither project ever came to fruition.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon last year, Paris Match magazine asked Leroy to revisit the subject of her famous shot from 1967 of a grieving Marine kneeling over the body of a fallen comrade. Leroy and Paris Match correspondent Regis Le Sommier met a shattered man who was still dealing with the trauma of battle some three decades ago. The pair also met and photographed a subject of another iconic photo from that era, Jeremiah Purdie, a wounded Marine who appeared in a photo by Larry Burrows publishin by Life in 1966.
Leroy’s sudden death — many of her closest friends didn’t even know she was sick — has left many unanswered questions, such as what will become of her vast collection of negatives. Over the past several years she had battled her former agencies to obtain ownership of her archives.
Leroy’s legend was only aided by her independent spirit and resilience. On May 19, 1967, Leroy was injured by a mortar while on patrol with a group of Marines. “We were being mortared again and again, and there was nowhere to hide,” she recounted to American Photographer. “I remember lifting my camera up to take a picture when there was a huge bang and I went down in the grass. I was conscious but couldn’t move, and I was completely covered with blood — and terrified that nobody would see me because I was covered by grass.”
A month after suffering the worst of the mortar round, Leroy was back to tackling some of the most dangerous stories imaginable. In January of the next year Leroy and fellow French journalist Francois Mazure were captured by the North Vietnamese and she photographed her captors for a cover story in Life magazine.
Leroy remained in Vietnam until March of 1969. Still in her early 20s, she left the country a rising star in war photography. From there she went to New York, where she recuperated for the better part of a year and blew off an assignment from Look magazine to cover Woodstock. “I blew it,” she once recounted. “I dropped my camera and enjoyed myself.”
Leroy next directed a couple of documentary films, including The Last Patrol, a film about a group of Vietnam veterans crossing the United States to protest Richard Nixon’s renomination at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami.
She then began working in Cyprus, which had just experienced a military coup, for Paris-based Sipa Press. With impeccable timing, she arrived just a day before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. In 1975 she returned to Vietnam to document the fall of Saigon. Then it was on to Beirut to cover the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war, a story she followed for the next two years.
Arnold Drapkin, the legendary Time picture editor, once observed of Leroy: “She has a great news sense and an abiding desire to get where she wants to go. She’s relentless when she wants something, and that’s exactly what you want from a great news person. And of course, she always comes up with a marvelous image.”