The White House News Photographers Association is sad to announce that Max Desfor, our oldest member, died Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Silver Spring, Md. Desfor became a member of the WHNPA on Dec. 31, 1939, when he was a photographer for The Associated Press. He was 104.
It was a long road from photography enthusiast to world class photojournalist. In 1933, with help from his brother Irving Desfor, Max began working for the AP in New York as a messenger and lab assistant. He bought a used camera with his savings and gave himself practice assignments. He often stayed late at the office, hoping to be sent out when there were no staff photographers on duty. His perseverance paid off and in 1938 he joined the AP as a full-time staff photographer.
His first posting was in a one-man office in Baltimore. From there he moved to Washington, sometimes also working as a photo editor.
In his book, Presidential Picture Stories, Dennis Brack writes about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and what Desfor’s day was like. On Dec. 7, 1941, Desfor was covering the Washington Redskins football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Griffith Stadium in Washington. He was in a special press box on the 50-yard line that held about five photographers. He was sitting behind a camera called a ‘Big Bertha” a Speed Graphic with a long telephoto lens that used 5×7 sheets of film. During the first half of the game he heard a series of messages over the stadium’s public address system telling colonels and admirals to call their offices. He knew something was up and at half-time called the AP bureau from a pay phone. “Max,” he was told, “get your ass back here. We’ve been attacked.”
As soon as Max returned to the office he was told to go to the State Department which was at the time in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. He arrived just as Japanese diplomats Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu were leaving the building with Secretary of State Coredell Hull following them, all while berating them in a loud and angry voice. Desfor would see one of the Japanese diplomats again – nearly four years later on the deck of the USS Missouri as Japanese officials signed the document of surrender that ended World War II.
Max then went to the Japanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue where a host of other photographers already had arrived. The Japanese embassy staff was burning top secret documents and the staff tried to prevent the photographers from taking photos by chasing them with brooms. The photographers divided into two groups and while the staff chased one group, the other group made their photos.
Soon after, Max walked out of the Washington bureau of the AP, at the time located in the Washington Star building, and turned the corner and was fitted for a brown military uniform. The wire service and Life magazine photographers became part of a still photo pool. Their photos went to all publications at no charge and the government would paid for their transportation, food and housing.
During World War II, on Aug. 6 and 7, 1945, Desfor was in Guam, when he got orders to get to Saipan and then over to a little island called Tinian to photograph a B-29 called the Enola Gay. He made it before the plane returned from its mission and he stood outside the airbase to photograph it landing with his trusty 4×5 Speed Graphic with the view finder and range finder removed. Using only the scale on the Graphic’s bed to set the focus distance and the wire sports finder to compose, he got the photo of the plane landing after dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. When Desfor turned 100 in 2013, and 68 years after making the photo of the plane, he visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center to see the plane and his photo that goes along with the exhibit.
After the Japanese surrender and the war trials, Desfor spent three years in India. He was covering the Mahatma Ghandi cremation from a rickety stand loaded with shooters when along came Cartier Bresson, who passed his camera to Max to “make a few frames.” Which Max did. Whenever the picture came up with Bresson he was honest…”the AP guy made it for me.”
Then there was a year in Rome. Desfor attempted to get a photo of Indgrid Bergman, pregnant with the child of director Roberto Rossellini who agreed that Max would get the pool for father-mother-and-child. But that never happened. Rossellini et al skipped town.
World War II turned out to be only the first war that Desfor covered as a photographer. Five years after he witnessed the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri, he volunteered to return to Japan to help in AP’s Tokyo bureau to cover the Korean War.
During the war, Desfor was with a British unit when he got word of a planned parachute jump behind enemy lines to rescue Army prisoners of war. The next morning he was on one of the first planes, with a parachute and a bag with a strap to hold his camera gear. Max had never parachuted before. His training consisted of the soldier on the plane next to him advising him to bend his knees before hitting the ground. He landed and immediately begin taking photos.
On reflection, Desfor remembered making his best photos when the North Korean army took the city of Pyongyang. To avoid capture, he and his reporter fled town and got over the Yalu River on a pontoon bridge in a jeep driven by a signal corps photographer. Immediately after crossing Desfor looked to his right and saw an old bridge covered with people. The bridge had been destroyed during bombing, yet people were crawling over the bridge to escape the North Korean army. Climbing a ridge, he found an overlook. Conserving his film, 4×5 Pan X 100 ASA film, he made only a few images in the freezing weather.
When the Pulitzer Prize committee honored Desfor in 1951, they cited image of the refugees fleeing across the battered bridge as “an outstanding example” of his photographic coverage of the Korean War.
In late 1950, AP photographer Frank ‘Pappy’ Noel was captured in North Korean and was held prisoner for 32 months. Desfor was one of the AP conspirators who delivered a camera to Noel in a North Korean POW camp. The project was dreamed up at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents club as AP staff sat around wondering what to send Noel for Christmas. Cigarette? Bourbon? Goodies? “How about a camera,” Max suggested. That brought laughter, but the more the gang had to drink the better the idea seemed. And so, it was done, with the help of Communist correspondents at the Peace Talks. Max named the project for security purposes, and for keeping UPI in the dark, Father Christmas.
In 1968 he became the AP’s photo editor for South East Asia where he covered Vietnam and President Richard Nixon’s 1976 trip to China. His images and front-line daring helped demystify Asia for the American public and his work helped continue the long-standing tradition of visual journalism excellence. Later he would head AP’s Wide World Photo division, the mailed feature photo service and commercial side of the photo operation. He was the first photographer to become an executive at the AP.
In 1978, Desfor left the AP to become a photo editor at U.S. News & World Report. A year later he was named their director of photography. He remained at the magazine for 5 years.
Desfor was a long-time volunteer and supporter of the WHNPA. For almost 10 years he was the chairman and driving force behind the WHNPA’s “Knowledge is Sharing” program, a seminar that brought together school-aged photographers from around the Washington area to learn from members of the WHNPA. He was a longtime member of the Stills Division annual ‘Eyes of History®’ contest committee. Desfor relates the time when Harry Truman was still a Senator and was to be one of the judges in the annual contest. Stopping by Truman’s Senate office in the Russell Building, Desfor was walking with Truman when he stopped and said to Max, “I forgot something. Max you wait right here.” After returning with a brown paper bag, they went to the room where all the contest prints were displayed for judging. Truman took a fifth of bourbon out of the bag, put it on the table and said, “now we can get going.” Truman was a favorite of photographers, first in the Senate, and then as President.
Hal Buell, former director of photography for the Associated Press, said of Desfor, “Max did everything there was to do in the world of AP photos. He covered domestic news and sports, international scandals, features and put his life on the line in two wars. And to show that he knew how to do it, he won a Pulitzer Prize. I remember his 100th birthday party at the National Press Club where Max was the same Max I knew over the years in New York and Asia. He did not age in the first century of a life well lived.”
Chick Harrity, who worked with Desfor, both at the AP and at U.S. News & World Report said, “I had the pleasure of meeting Max in 1965 when I started working for the AP as a photo editor at New York headquarters. He became a mentor and assisted me in convincing the bosses that I should go back to shooting. I was transferred to AP’s Washington Bureau in 1968 and wound up working with Max on many Presidential trips and other assignments in Asia. Fast forward to 1981 when Desfor had started working at U.S. News & World Report. “Desfor called me and Darryl Heikes of UPI and we both started new careers as magazine photographers. When I decided to take early retirement in 2001, Max called me and told me I was making a mistake and I would be bored out of my mind, that was one of the very few times that he turned out to be wrong.”
As per Desfor’s wishes, there will not be a formal funeral. The family is planning a remembrance party in Washington sometime within the next couple of months. More information will be released when available.