Philip Jones Griffiths, who captured the violence that the war in Vietnam brought to that country’s civilian population, died on Wednesday in London. He succumbed to the cancer he had battled for several years. You can read his obit in the New York Times here. Griffiths was a longtime member of the Magnum photo agency, which posted a tribute to him on its website.
For me it has always been hard to rightly describe the impact of Griffiths work, or his place in the history of photography. His book “Vietnam Inc.” is now considered a classic, as the Times says. But for me the pictures were never classic war photos. This work was different from any other produced in the Vietnam War—or perhaps any other war. Steeped in the humanity of the Vietnamese people, it reflected Griffiths love of the country itself. In his 2002 book “Shooting Under Fire,” Peter Howe quoted Griffiths on the subject:
There was a tenderness in the war pictures made by Griiffiths—if pictures of war can ever be described as tender. But then as one time he had been a practicing pharmacist, a kind of healer, who only later began photographing part-time for newspapers.
He was a pacifist covering the trial of war. If he brought humanity to the civilians of Vietnam, he also captured the predicament of the American GIs sent to Vietnam to wage war. For me his great picture was the one he made of an American soldier propped casually in a chair, rifle aimed through a window. A doll sits on the floor near the chair. The Americans, he once said in a lecture, were “for the most part…kids who were confused.”
In 2006 American Photo named Griffiths as one of the most underrated photographers of the past 30 years. Some people thought it was odd to do so, given his stature. But to a large extent his impact had been forgotten as America dashed away from the memories of the Vietnam War. We asked Philippe Garner, the international director of photography at Christie’s in London, to access Griffith’s career. Go here for that article.—David Schonauer