My father taught me as a kid that anything you can see, you can photograph. He gave me his Kodak camera, a very doughty instrument that was capable of making great snapshots, and I began developing pictures in the basement. I built an enlarger out of a coffee can and emptied out a coal bin for my darkroom.
A photo is a biography of a moment that would otherwise have gotten away.
I became a lead navigator during World War II. I survived the famous Kassel mission, where 31 B-24 Liberators didn’t make it back. And I had a Leica shot off my chest in a fighter attack and got through that OK. I knew I could become powder all the time, but it never bothered me. I never really, in my heart of hearts, believed it could happen to immortal old me.
Jimmy Stewart was my commanding officer. We looked alike and sounded alike and were fucking the same girl. Our crew almost killed him by mistake. We had started making artificial buzz bombs—the V-1 German bombs. It was a four-inch metal pipe on a metal stand, about four feet high, and we’d just aim and shoot it out. One day Jimmy was coming out of the officers’ mess, and debris from one hit him. He looked up at our group of four conspirators and said, “That’d be a fine fuckin’ way for Jimmy Stewart to die, wouldn’t it?”
My first published pictures were of a midair collision. I had eight shots left on my beat-up old Leica, an orange filter on it ready for the sky, and the shutter at 500. I heard this roar overhead, and there were 50 Liberators. Two of them hit, and they started to go down. I got a hundred bucks for it.
My wife, Florence, taught me that I am better and smarter than I really am. She was known as the best of the photographers’ wives at Life magazine. She could get me off of a ladder in Seattle on a Friday afternoon and have me on deck for a Sports Illustrated football game the next day in Kansas City.
My son Harmon was a character. He went off the IQ charts at 200. The whole house is cluttered with his inventions. He was murdered in the hippie jungles of Florida in 1972, just two weeks before his 21st birthday. You don’t get over that. I often cry when I’m driving alone. What a waste it was.
Nelson Algren was Harmon’s godfather. I have a postcard someplace with his advice to Florence. He said, “Tell the kid never to eat at a place called Mom’s, never to play poker with a guy named Doc, and never to sleep with a woman who has more troubles than his own.”
I’m very good at hiding cameras on me. I learned that from an old Life photographer, my mentor Francis Reeves Miller. He was a little guy from Texas who looked like Santa Claus and drank 20 film containers of straight rye whiskey on every job.
Elizabeth Taylor was the loveliest woman I’d ever met, and she had the humor of a Bronx housewife.
I did 83 Mafia stories, if you can digest that. The last one was in a grass alley in New York. I went into it with my little Leica and telephoto, and there were all these guys playing poker on either side. They looked up, and there’s Life magazine. A couple of guys drew their guns. I knew they weren’t gonna shoot me, and they knew they weren’t gonna shoot. But it’s still unsettling when someone points a gun at you.
The one time John F. Kennedy spoke to me, I was loading film down at the 1960 debates at CBS in Chicago. He said, “Where can a fella take a whiz around here?” He was conscious, but not too conscious, of who he was. His whole attitude toward the world was, “Fuck you.”
Don’t invest too much in your own immortality, if at all.