EXHIBITION ON VIEW
David Hume Kennerly: The Vietnam Era
David Hume Kennerly began his photography career in 1966, working for the Oregon Journal. After joining United Press International, in 1967, Kennerly worked in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., and photographed the growing protests against the Vietnam War. In 1971, Kennerly traveled to Vietnam to serve as UPI’s Southeast Asia bureau chief in Saigon.
Kennerly’s last assignment before leaving for Vietnam was to photograph “The Fight of the Century,” heavyweight champion Joe Frazier versus former champion Muhammad Ali, who had been exiled from boxing for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Kennerly’s photograph of Ali’s fifteenth-round defeat by Frazier was published on the front pages of dozens of newspapers around the world.
Kennerly photographed soldiers on battlefronts throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as American prisoners of war, South Vietnamese children caught in the crossfire and refugees desperate for their lives. In 1972, at the age of 25, Kennerly won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography “for his dramatic photographs of the Vietnam War in 1971.” His image of a U.S. soldier walking down a bomb-shattered hill in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley was singled out for capturing the “loneliness and desolation of war.” Kennerly remained in Vietnam working as a contract photographer for Time magazine.
Still on assignment for Time, he returned home in the summer of 1973, during the Watergate crisis, photographing former President Richard Nixon’s final wave goodbye from the steps of Marine One following his resignation. In August 1974, President Gerald Ford asked Kennerly to serve as his personal photographer. Kennerly accepted the position only on the condition that he have “the freedom to walk in and out of the President’s office at will to take whatever pictures he felt were a part of history.”
A contributing editor for Newsweek for more than a decade, and a contributing photographer for Time and Life magazines, Kennerly covered the 2016 presidential campaign for CNN, and was a major contributor to the book Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything. Named one of the “100 Most Important People in Photography” by American Photo magazine, Kennerly has published several books of his work.
The War Front
In 1971, David Kennerly traveled to Vietnam to serve as United Press International’s Southeast Asia bureau chief in Saigon. Unbeknownst to the U.S. Congress and the American people, Nixon had expanded the geographic scope of the war, while promising a gradual withdrawal of troops, and authorized the bombing of Viet Cong sites within the neutral nations of Cambodia and Laos. Kennerly arrived in Southeast Asia the year that the revelation of Nixon’s actions came to light.
Many of Kennerly’s photographs captured American instruments of war, including tanks and armored vehicles, warplanes and ships. Others depict scenes of U.S. soldiers confronting the most formidable ally of the Viet Cong: the unrelenting heat and rain, heavily forested jungles, paddy fields and swamps, and treacherous mountainous terrain. Within Kennerly’s Pulitzer Prize–winning portfolio of a year’s work, his image of a sole U.S. soldier walking down a bomb-shattered hill in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley, in the mountains outside of Huế, was singled out for its depiction of the “desolation and loneliness of war.”
Kennerly later recounted his discovery that “all the images I made for UPI resided in the wire service’s files. The original negative of the GI traversing the devastated hill went missing and was never found.” Equally distressing was learning that UPI’s common practice was to cut up the rolls of the thirty-six black-and-white negatives in three-frame sections, with the chosen image in the center — all done to make sure the film would fit into an old stockpile of small envelopes. The rest of the negatives were thrown away. Kennerly was dismayed that “ninety percent or so of the images I shot during my five years as a UPI photographer were discarded, including at least a year and a half’s worth of Vietnam pictures. It was heartbreaking.”
Leaving UPI, Kennerly worked as a contract photographer for Time magazine. He remained in Vietnam and, in 1973, photographed the haunting scene of the last American prisoner of war released in Hanoi.
In the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War effort escalated, and David Kennerly captured many of the American personalities and events that reflected the turbulent era. This included 1968 presidential candidates Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy,as well as cultural icons ranging from Miles Davis to the Supremes. Kennerly also documented the protest movement that erupted across the country in response to the Vietnam conflict.
Anti-war protests were often violent, met with confrontation by police forces, the National Guard and pro-war demonstrators. As the conflict in Vietnam grew, media coverage also expanded in print and on television. In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson escalated the war by commencing air strikes on North Vietnam and sending more than half a million U.S. soldiers into combat, Americans developed a voracious appetite for Vietnam-related news.
By most accounts, the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the beginning of the end of America’s positive outlook on the conflict. It came at a time when President Johnson was attempting to reassure the American public of progress on the war front. When the casualty reports and images of rows of coffins occupied the front pages of newspapers across the country, Americans were horrified. The vivid reporting made clear that victory in Vietnam was not at all imminent. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term as president.
In the 1970s, the combined revelations of President Nixon’s bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos, and the publication of the top-secret Pentagon Papers by The New York Times, revealed decades-long involvement in Vietnamese conflicts and a high-level deception of the American public by the Johnson Administration. This resulted in enormous public outrage in the United States and forced Nixon to push for a peace settlement. Kennerly, on assignment in Vietnam, returned home to witness the Watergate scandal — the impeachment proceedings against Nixon, and his ultimate resignation.
Vietnam: The Final Days
On April 30, 1975, South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam as North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon, ending the Vietnam conflict. The last few Americans still in South Vietnam were airlifted out of the country as Saigon fell to Communist forces. The Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular foreign war in U.S. history and cost more than 58,000 American lives. As many as two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed.
David Kennerly was on hand to photograph machinations behind the scenes at the Ford White House, and he traveled back to Vietnam and Cambodia to document the harrowing and chaotic period of U.S. withdrawal:
When President Nixon resigned, and Ford replaced him, he asked me to be his chief photographer. With that job came total access, not just to the President and his family, but to everything that was going on behind the scenes. It was quite an honor, wildly exciting, and one of the most professionally and personally rewarding times of my life.
My previous life as a combat shooter was running head-on into my latest career as a presidential photographer. I documented the events of the next few weeks as any professional news photographer would, but with a major exception. I was deep inside the White House as the president’s photographer, and was given an unparalleled opportunity to see a war implode from within the halls of power. This special access also led to a secret trip back to Vietnam on a special mission for the President of the United States, and then back to the White House for the finale of the Vietnam drama.
April 28th and 29th of 1975 were personal days of hell as the last act of the Vietnam tragedy unfolded...Just a few short years earlier, I was consumed with a drive to document events…on the front lines where the action was. Or so I thought. Not much later, I found myself in the center of action of another kind — watching and recording the agony of decisions about life, death and the future of nations being made one at a time by a president until there were no more decisions to make. And then, the Vietnam War was over.