tv Frank Johnston Oral History Interview CSPAN September 17, 2017 11:06pm-12:02am EDT
press and was important as a photographer covering the carter administration. carter never had an official white house for target for. --official white house photographer. he has the images we would have normally got through a white house photographer. and we have a two-time pulitzer prize winner. he is a proud graduate of the university of texas at austin. for 27 years he was a staff photographer for the washington post. he won the pulitzer prize for covering three generations of poverty in washington dc and the refugee situation in kosovo.
we also have the collection of david valdez, he was george w. bush's white house photographer. and we have diana walker, a time magazine photographer for 20 years. she is known for her work covering hillary clinton. she covered the clinton white house really broadly and deeply. she also cover the reagan administration and george h.w. bush. david valdez and diana walker are actively involved in our program. they both belong to our advisory council. >> what you hope viewers will take away? >> the importance of photojournalists and new
documentary -- news documentarians. the value of their work, not only for the news but also as historical evidence. these photographs capture and document an amazing array of extremely important processes and event and personalities. i hope the public appreciates the work that they do. they see their work every day on television and newspapers and so forth, and i hope they will not only appreciate the work that the photographers themselves. >> thanks for joining us. >> you are welcome. announcer: now, an oral history interview with photojournalist frank johnston courtesy of the dolph briscoe center for american history at the university of texas austin.
>> we want to find out how your career began. i know your father was the chief photographer for the philadelphia inquirer but that's not mean that you would be a photojournalist. how did you become one? >> it started with the photographers at the philadelphia inquirer. i used to go back and harass them in the dark room. i ended up in the print barrel upside down. that was my first taste of photography. i was enamored with what they did in the business. my father passed away just before my 15th birthday. i knew what i wanted to do for the rest of my life. i was on a mission to those on to the news media somehow.
and become a part of photojournalism. i was lucky enough to do that. i got out of the marine corps and applied at upi news . the boss in new york said we were so tired of getting your letters that we decided to stop the letters and hire you. i got to know austin and the people and i grew fond of austin. i thought what a great gig to hook on to a lucky break like that. we had a group of photographers.
that's where i began my career here in august. that was right at the bgining of june and july of 63. i came on board, and as you know the kennedy assassination happened in november. of course i got involved in that right away because i had walked into the office at noon time and was reading the wire when the first dispatch of eight bells went off and the bulletin came out that the president had been shot in dallas. i had been with him the day before.
he and jackie. they were going to send me to dallas with him but there was a dinner in austin. bit ofre having a little a political difference of opinion at that time and that is texas, one came to of the reasons why he came to texas. that was the beginning of my career. i spent the next year and a half here, and then i was transferred to philadelphia. i ran it for over for about a year and a half. >> before we get away from your upi stint here in austin. you happened to be present in that fateful moment when lee harvey oswald was being transferred from the police
station and jack ruby shot him there in front of everyone. you were there with a camera. >> i relieved to the overnight person, photographer that sunday morning. we thought they were going to transfer oswald during the night. they did not do it. they arraigned him on sunday morning. i received the overnight guy and i was there from 5:00 in the morning at the base of the driveway across from the lockup area until they brought oswald to transfer. they were going to transfer him in a car and put a blanket over him.
there are going to use a decoy to take him to the courthouse. when they brought oswald out, he was within three feet of me when jack ruby leaked out from andeen me and bob jackson fired the gun. we were all thrown to the floor. there must have been a hundred police in that basement that morning. it was the first time they ever did videotape on a spot news story. nbc was there. they kept replaying it. they continued that for weeks on end to illustrate the story. that was the beginning of my career. i remember being thrown to the ground and i was shooting with an sp nikon. when i looked up, there was a dallas detective with a gun
pointed at me yelling do not move. they did not know what happened. it all happened so quickly. even though there were tv lights, it was fairly dark down there. there was so much emotion, because jack ruby came from where we were standing, the still photographers. there were only three of us and then the movie tone news cameraman, and then the tv people. it happened so quickly, as quick as you could snap your fingers. when i photographed him when it happened, i looked up and this police officer, i'm looking up from the floor and he has a handgun on me yelling don't move. i kept everything steady until they got the ambulance to transport oswald to the hospital. after that it seemed like an hour but it was probably five
minutes. i remember going up the driveway because i did not know dallas at all and i had only been at the police station in the hallway. i had to practically lived there for a week. when i got to the end of the driveway, i remember looking for a telephone. there was a telephone booth down at the end of the street, so i ran down there and i called the bureau and they said we saw you on tv, you get any pictures? i said i got pictures but i don't know, it happened so quickly. as quickly as you saw on tv. they said, where are you? i put the telephone down and i looked at the street signs a few feet away to see where i was.
i remember than sending george, who was a lab guy from upi, he pulled up in a pickup truck and said give me your film. it was one roll of film, and i handed it to him. he looked at me and said, well ,frank, baby, you really ran into it this morning, didn't you? and he took off in the truck. he told me i had been with united press for 30 years, i developed a lot of film but when i turned the lights out in the darkroom to process your film, and he said, i froze. it never happened before. he said i started to think about how important the image was i was about to develop and he said
i never had a roll of film so important in my life. it had a historical effect on everything we did in the business. he told me this story after. that was really the beginning of my time. i was subpoenaed to testify at the ruby trial. they called me to testify the second week. the unique part of the story is, and my boss used to kid me, every time i send you to dallas something happens. i said nothing will happen, i'm going to court. that's it. i photographed jack ruby doing the walk in and walk out. he ends up saying the first week you did not get called. wednesday, everyone sat on the
floor because there was nowhere to sit in the hallway. we had a press room at the far end of the courtroom and it dead ended. there were two courtrooms, and they used one as a press room. i said to my colleagues, i'm going to tell the office it is quiet. i had my cameras around me. i walked past the elevator and i did not realize what my competitors was behind me. he was going to do the same thing. i did not hear him when he said it. i get down to the end of the hallway and there is a l shape. it would dead end at the end of the hallway. there were two doors to the courtroom.
i walk to the hallway and heard a woman scream. three feet away from me, there is a guy with a gun to her head. he says, i'm going to kill her, like that. the aps photographers said the guy has a gun, and he pushed me head first into the doorway. he came in behind me. i did not get any pictures because it happened so quickly. doorway ande other walked out in the hallway and he had disappeared. he had two hostages in the empty courtroom. he came in with a different hostage and he started toward me. it was so dark there is no light
, in the hallway and he makes a right-hand turn and he is heading to all the people. i say this guy has a gun and he is going to kill jack ruby. nobody knows about it. everyone is all the way at the far end of the building. i'm sliding down the wall going that way and he is three feet away. he says to me, you take another step and i'm going to kill her. what i didn't realize was, there were two texas rangers on the opposite side against the wall. one had a 45 in his belt. the other detective slammed the fire door which locked me behind. i said i have to get out of the
building and get back to that courtroom. there were people in line waiting to get in during the court session. all the way up the stairs on the far side of the building. i had the fire escape, went down the fire escape, i have my camera flopping and flying. i get around the building and who do i run into. this guy had gotten around the corner. i came around the corner and almost ran smack into him physically. and of course, he freaks out. he crosses the street with the hostage. he has a gun to her head. i am looking through my camera
and i see this body jumping cars. over the top of the cars. it was a dallas detective, it turned out to be. over the cars and captured this fellow on the street. what it was there was a , jailbreak on the upper floor. this guy came down through the laundry chute. he took two hostages. that's when i ran into them ,oing into the press room coming to tell them everything was quiet and nothing was going on. my boss called and said, remember what i told you. what is with you. >> what is that character, always a cloud over his head.
>> they kid me and say you are the forest gump over quantity. -- the forest gone of photography. [laughter] >> your life seems to go from one adventure to the next. you are an ex-marine and find yourself covering the vietnam war. you take a picture of a wounded, beleaguered marine. this was a dramatic picture of a soldier under the duress of him. it was a dramatic couple of days on this blog. -- for this squad from a downed
helicopter. that photograph acquired a history all of its own. thatus the impact of photograph. >> it was a seven year history that i could never believe took place any photograph i have ever shot. it happened may 15, 1967. it was youit like and i talking now. i had gotten dropped into a search and destroy operation. we were not on the ground for 15 minutes. they had been hit the day before. taking on a lot of casualties. i was no dinner on the ground, walking over to link up with them, and all of a sudden, the north vietnamese had us
surrounded. 30 or 40 feet away, and they opened up on all of us. one of the marines to my left was looking to -- through the tree line of the jungle and there was a building on the other side. he was yelling, let's get to the building, let's get the casualties and get them over to the building. it turned out to be a catholic church that had been built act during the french period. it was a large church. we made our way to the church, and the enemy followed us to the doors of the church. a lot of things i did not know for many years, but we were being shelled by them.
there was a movie cameraman with me. and whitem black movie film. we get into the church, and there were a lot of wounded and a lot of dead unfortunately. shovels were coming in, we thought they were going to zero in on us. i am lying facedown on the floor in the church, and when i looked up, i saw this marine sitting there with his m16. dirty face, he had been out there for several days. he had the thousand yard stare. the light was low.
i remember the light being so low, i was shaking so bad from being shelled i was afraid i would mess up the picture. i had one frame. then we had to hit the floor. we were rescued the next day out of their. later, we lay in the tree line for hours. we got all the wounded and dead out of there first. we were the last out of there. each chopper that came in got fired at.
those marines were a godsend. they risked their lives to come get us. the marine i photographed with next to me. i could never get his name because we were under fire. there was not a minute to talk. we were both fearing for our lives. i was just shooting while this whole thing was going on. he got off the chopper, he went to the left, i went to the right and got on an airplane to saigon. i went out on another operation the next day. years, this picture got circulated and there were stories about vietnam and this picture seem to end up as sort
of an icon for some of the written stories. a friend i worked with at the paper, he had been in the army and worked for stars and stripes. he said who shot this, you dad. he was teasing. i said, uncle phil no. it was me, i have to admit. he said what happened to this fella. i said this is the only photograph i have in my den from the war. my wife used to say he may do just fine. i kept saying to her, i hope you are right.
it is the one thing that has always haunted me. he said we should find this man, which he did. his brother had contacted me, he knew i took the photograph years before and i told phil he lived in atlanta, georgia and always had this hanging in their home. his brother told me on his 14th birthday richard was killed by a sniper. i never knew that for many years. until phil is a story --did this story and we went down to see the family and it was a three
part series in the paper. after the third piece, usa today took this black and white photograph and blew it up full page. when they did this, i was going over to the white house, and one of my colleagues said did you see they use that room picture you shot in usa today. they said he was a soldier. and they colorized it. in the meantime, a fellow calls
pbs. he walks in the office and sees this photograph. he calls the publicist for pbs and said, i have never been able to get a print of this picture. he said i've never been able to get a print of this picture, it is a picture of me. she said, i think you are -- she said i beg your pardon. it turned out -- she says you should call the photographer, he lives in washington. he said, oh no he is dead. i called upi back in 1970 to try
to contact him and they told me he had been killed, where richard's brother was killed. there was dead silence, and she said, no, i am going to give you his telephone number. i know he will want to talk to you. he calls me, and quite often militaryre out on operations, you all look alike. dirty faces, you have been out in the bush for a few days. it could have been a mistake. trip, whenalled mike i had him on the phone, the first five minutes i am saying this is incredible. i'm 98% sure, not even seeing the man, that this is the man in the church with me who i photographed.
i said i will make sure you get a print. i said can you send me a picture of yourself back then. i just wasn't sure. everything was spending at the time -- everything was spinning at the time, even though i didn't believe him. -- i did believe him. i said would it be possible for me to fly up with the writer and i would like to see you. he said, sure, come on up. we flew up immediately. i remember walking up the front walkway to a nice house and his wife said, frank, i cannot tell you how much we appreciate you coming up here. she gave me a hug. she did not know the whole story. she said mike is out back.
i am sitting in the living room and mike -- and mike comes into the room, i look at him and that is the marine i photographed. it was really incredible. it was unbelievable. after talking for a couple of hours, he said, i am going to church, i want you to meet my priest. he knows the story all about us. we are sitting in the service and he elbows me and says, beats the last time we were sitting in church together.
[laughter] then i knew. there was no doubt. i had the hard thing to do a head of me. before i flew up there, i call this man's brother. i told him what had happened. i told him i will let you know as soon as i know. he said call me tomorrow morning, meaning the next day. i was up all night with mike and i go back up to a hotel and it is 6:30 in the morning and i picked the phone up to call and rob had been a marine also. i am saying to myself, i cannot do this. i cannot do this to this man, not over the telephone.
as another fellow marine, i'm having a hard time dealing with this. i said, i have to call him. i do not know what i'm going to say. i was scrambling, i was scared. phone, and thee first thing out of his mouth was, j, what you think. -- what do you think? i said it is more important what you think. is it possible for me to bring him down to atlanta? what you guys to meet. we flew to atlanta, we went to rob's house and we are all talking.
one of the things rob said was it is my son's high school homecoming and i would love you guys to join us. i told my son this is not uncle richard like we thought. it is another fellow marine. he said i explained it to my son, he was 15 years old at the time. he is over on the highschool football field having lunch with his friends. so we went over there, and i remember the four of us walking across the field. he spotted us from the stands and he came down. he crossed the field and he --
rob says i want you to meet mike tripp, the marine in the picture we have had hanging in our home all these years. in this young fellow shook mike's hand and said that her i'm glad to see you are alive. i still lose it, to this day. but anyhow i did not realize how , many lives it affected. about a year and a half ago i met with the same marines in that church with us at quantico and we sat down and had dinner.
it was a great evening. we all got older, greyer and put here -- i felt fortunate to be alive and see all these guys again. they saved my life. i would never have made it out of there alive. and the rest of the marines. i feel very fortunate. the picture had a never ending route for me and for mike tripp too. he is the real brother i never had.
>> amazing story. there is a lot more to photography than aiming and shooting. >> yes, it affected so many american families. believe me the men from the 9th , marines were an incredible group of brave men. they really were. later i was, years , doing a story. the comptroller of maryland, his bodyguard was a maryland state trooper. we're sitting in the kitchen when he was getting a telephone call. i do not know how we got on the subject of where he was going on vacation, he said he was going on vacation to southeast asia. i said i was just over there a few years ago. it is a great place to go back. he said i was there during the
war. he said i was a marine. i said what out there for you with? he said i was with 1 9. i asked if he was at anwa. he said i was a mortar man a anwa. talk about a one in a million chance. i said i was one of the guys there and i thank you for saving my life along with another friend of mine and getting us out of there really. it is a small world in many ways. photography makes an amazing circle. >> i want to get you to talk briefly about the moment you decided to put your photographic archives at the briscoe center. how did you make that decision? >> i was approached by don
carleton who is a man of vision. too many times in photography film gets lost or destroyed. it never surfaces and it never gets a chance to surface because of that kind of a situation. when don approach to me i -- when don approached me i thought how did he find me at all and i asked if he had the right feller. i realize when he told me what he was going to put together, i thought that is amazing. the university of texas, that is where i started out, in austin.
i got chills up and down my body when i started to think about it. what better home than the university of texas could i put anything i ever did. i am thankful to join an incredible group of photojournalists. don has had the insight to go after them and collect their material. a lot of people i worked with in the field in vietnam and other
places, to be included as part of that group, that is the way i felt about my whole journey, it has been incredible. with allison, she has managed to carry me in here. what a team. when i start to talk about them to my friends, i think back, he could have ended up -- it could have ended up in a basement somewhere thrown into a trash compactor like so many people's work. they do not know what it is so they toss everything. don got to us just as the -- just in the knick of time.
>> as you say, a lot of important historical evidence would have been lost. i want you to end with your experience photographing that tragedy at jonestown. with jim jones and the people's temple. i know you covered that. >> i was the first guy in. very quickly, one of our reporters was with congressman ryan and they were at the runway five miles from jonestown when a group of men came in and shot everybody. killed them. charlie dove to the left of the front wheel of the aircraft and others went the other way.
most of them were killed. charlie escaped into the jungle and got out of there and went into like a village that night and the army sent up a transport the next morning, and he flew back to georgetown where we all flew in to. i came up in the middle of the night on a charter to collect charlie's belongings because we thought he had been killed. we went up to his room in the hotel in georgetown and open the door, and there was charlie filing a first person story. talk about a great site to see he was covered in mud from head , to toe. charlie was filing this story from what happened.
in the meantime, he finished his filing, and the minister of information holds a press conference and they got into a bit of a match between television and the minister of information, the minister of information decided no one was going to go. charlie was in the room and the others said the man was one of the only survivors. please, let him go up there with a photographer. he all drew straws and i drew the short straw. charlie and i flew from georgetown. we get off the airplane and there is a helicopter. we ran to the chopper. there was a soldier in the chopper. i jumped into the gunner's seat.
the door was open. we took off fairly low. we were 500 feet off the ground and as we approach to the compound we saw all these people outside this pavilion, bright colors on, the closer i am getting to the scene i began to realize no one was moving. no one at all, on the ground. we sat down and walked into the compound, there were dead people outside all over the place. the first group i came upon with a group of six people with a child between them. they were all facedown, arm in arm. the child had sneakers on, they were dead. first people i photographed. i got into the compound and
there was a sea of bodies on the outside. there was a throne and a sign where jones would sit, it said on a sign those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. i remember it like it was five seconds ago. when i looked down on the floor at the people i had to step between i realized the people , all have nametags on. there was a big table like a picnic table at the far end of the pavilion and there must have been 100-200 cups and that is how they dispensed the sinai to all these people and they died. but outside, there was probably another 800 people who were all dead. i did not realize how many there were because the apparently they covered them up and stuck them
as they died. late in the afternoon, they told us they did not fly after 3:30. i got out of the pavilion and a -- i heard a radio crackling off to my right in a little building. there was a soldier in there with a backpack and i asked him whether he spoke english or not. he nodded, and i said would you call our helicopter pilot. tell them we need to get back to georgetown, guyana. not 15 minutes later this chopper comes over and i thought thank god i'm not going to have to spend the night here. they had just captured the people who were instrumental in jones and they had fled into the jungle and the army
caught them. i saw all these passports that he hid underneath the house from all the people who live there. they pulled out a stack of treasury checks that belong to the followers that he was , i guess cashing and putting , into private accounts. he was dead outside the doorway. we jump in the chopper, we fly five miles back to the runway and it was only a single engine. he went down the end of the runway, ready to take off. they were leaving us. we jump out of the chopper and are waving our arms, he had to fly back over our heads. charlie and i run for this aircraft and the door comes open and there was only one seat available.
charlie jumps in and i said to the pilot, you have to find room for me somewhere. i have to take the film back. it is very important. he goes like this, i swing around to the back of the tail dragger, aircraft part come and go back to the rear. he pops a baggage door open and i crawled in and flew back to georgetown on my stomach in a baggage compartment with this film. i remember it like it was five seconds ago. we commandeered a bus at the airport, it was the only transportation we could find. we get to the hotel after there are chickens and kids on this bus. we got picked up along the way. the reporters ran for charlie when he walked in. the ap photographer, we had been
in vietnam together, and had done major stories together. he was a good close friend, he said did you get pictures of jones. i said yes, i did. i told new york you have pictures of him. i said yes i did. we are in the taxicab going to the newspaper and develop the film and i said jim, there are hundreds of people dead up there. i have no idea how many. no one knew this. i said jones is dead outside the compound. i said they dispensed some type of poison to everyone. there was nothing alive, including the animals. he looked at me like have you been -- no jim, for real. we go into the dark room and he
processes the film and on one of the rolls, i had been on the first frame of this role, i had intographed ann landers washington, d.c. for a style , story. there was one frame on that and then all the aerials of these dead people. he looks and says what is ann landers doing there. [laughter] it was so ironic how that happened. and he started laughing. then i hear him going, oh, my god. he then looks at all these pictures i had shot. it never stopped from there. from that point on. "newsweek" did not have anybody down there. they commissioned me to do color for them. i shot some color going in
because i did not know what to expect. then i went back to do that for them. i took the color to new york to jfk and there were nine loads of people waiting to get through customs. jim says i have to call the office and tell them we are delayed. and i said i have to call "newsweek" because they have the whole staff there and they are delaying the publication. it was on a friday afternoon. i called and said i don't know how long it is going to take. they said do not worry, all the editors are here. i remember walking down the hallway while jim was on the phone. it was like a dead end hallway.
i looked through the doorway and i see this customs officer sitting at his desk and i said i am sorry to disturb you, i told him the story i'm just returning from jonestown and jim and i were trying to get back to the office, they are holding newsweek magazine to do this. he said oh my gosh, your friend, your suitcases, bring them to my office right away. i said jim, let's go. i said i do not have time to explain. we go to the customs officer's office with our suitcases and he opens the door and it is the
crew headquarters for filing their flight plans for the pilots. we walked past all them, he opens another door and we are out on the taxi stand. this was before cell phones. i do not have time to call "newsweek". i show up at their door with this film and they are shocked. they wondered how i got through customs in that time. the whole story was sort of ironic. the whole thing. decided to finish up the last of the photographs and copies and took it up to the publisher. there was a woman who got on the train with the magazine and she is in philadelphia and she is talking about the jonestown story and how bizarre and how ironic. i was listening, i did not say a word and she finally got off in new york.
she went one way, and i went the other. i thought, if i had said anything she would have thought i had been some sort of a nut. she never knew. in our business it is, many times it is that way. in some cases, in some far out ways of describing whatever you are doing, you don't get into it because it is too lengthy. >> you have given us insight into the work you have done and the iconic photographs you have brought to the public guy. thank you for sharing. >> you are welcome. my pleasure. american history tv, all weekend, every weekend, on c-span3. to join the conversation, like us on face book at c-span
history. next, >> up next, the presidency with edward witmer and frederick loganville. they reflect on president kennedy's legacy. the john f. kennedy presidential library director moderates the discussion. this is about 90 minutes. host: good evening. did you know that john f. kennedy was the most photographed leader of his day? this may not surprise you. he used photography strategically to share values and vision for america. it was also the golden age of photography in america and that is why this is of interest to us