Carl Mydans Biography

Born May 20, 1907, in Boston, MA; died of heart failure, August 16, 2004, in Larchmont, NY. Photographer. Carl Mydans spent 40 years with Life magazine, and delivered some of the most potent images of American triumph in World War II in just one phase of his long career. Mydans snapped the iconic moment when General Douglas MacArthur purposefully strode ashore in the Philippines in 1945, and also captured the signing of Japan's surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, among other scenes. But he also photographed the war from the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier or sailor. "Resourceful and unruffled, Mr. Mydans sent back pictures of combat that even now define how we remember World War II, Korea, and other conflicts," noted New York Times obituary writer Andy Grundberg.

A native of Boston, Mydans was born in 1907 into a family of second-generation Russian immigrants. He studied journalism at Boston University, where he first learned how to take and develop photographs. After he graduated in 1930, he found work as a reporter for American Banker, but eventually bought a 35-millimeter Contax camera, which was a competitor to the more-famous Leica brand. The Contax was small, and enabled its carrier to easily roam about and take photos with a minimum of advance preparation. He quickly mastered the camera, and began to sell his work to Time and other magazines.

In 1935, Mydans was hired as a photographer with a U.S. federal agency called the Resettlement Administration; it later became the Farm Security Administration. He traveled throughout New England and the South, documenting the end of a rural-based economy, and gained a measure of renown for his images of bedraggled Arkansas farmers and their families. It was the Great Depression, and the poorest of America's poor were devastated by the economic downturn. "One picture, of a Tennessee family living in a hut built on an abandoned truck chassis, portrays the misery of the times," noted Mydans' Times of London obituary, "as starkly as any photographs by his more celebrated contemporaries."

After a more than a year with the Farm Security Administration, Mydans was hired by Life magazine just before its debut issue hit newsstands in late 1936. He was only the fifth photographer on its staff, joining an impressive roster that included Alfred Eisenstaedt and Margaret Bourke-White. For one of his first assignments, he was sent to a Texas town, Freer, to document the heady oil-boom atmosphere there. In 1938, Mydans married Shelley Smith, a Life staff writer whose father had established the journalism program at Stanford University. The pair would spent the remainder of their marriage working side by side.

At the onset of World War II, Life sent Mydans to shoot the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. He later roamed over to the Pacific, where he covered the Sino-Japanese War, but in the Philippines capital of Manila he and his wife were captured by incoming Japanese troops in January of 1942. They were held captive for almost two years—first in Manila, then Shanghai—and were released in a prisoner-exchange agreement. After a brief respite in New York, both Mydans and his wife returned to the combat zone, this time in Europe as the war wound to a close.

Back in the Pacific theater in mid-1945, Mydans shot the famous image of General MacArthur striding ashore. The legendary officer had declared, when the Japanese came in 1942, "I shall return," and Mydans' photograph of the formidable general immortalized that claim for posterity. Some asserted that it must have been staged, but Mydans resolutely defended the photograph as entirely spontaneous, though he did admit that MacArthur was savvy about public-relations opportunities. The general had appeared in Mydans' other memorable image from that assignment, watching with other top U.S. brass as a Japanese delegation signed the official documents of surrender on an early September day in 1945. "No one I have ever known in public life had a better understanding of the drama and power of a picture," the Guardian 's Christopher Reed quoted Mydans as saying about MacArthur.

Despite his two years in captivity, Mydans bore no ill will toward the Asian nation, and accepted an assignment to head Time-Life's Tokyo bureau with his wife. Time-Life was the publisher of Time, Life and other top magazines, which Mydans continued to provide with an array of visual stories. In 1948, he just happened to be in the city of Fukui when a massive earthquake struck; some of his shots were taken on the street while buildings were collapsing around him.

After covering the Korean War, Mydans traveled the globe for the next two decades for Life before the publication folded in 1972. When it was relaunched several years later, he was still listed as one of its contributing photographers. He died on August 16, 2004, of heart failure at his home in Larchmont, New York, at the age of 97. Widowed in 2002, he is survived by his daughter, Misty, a California attorney; and his son, Seth, who is the New York Times ' Asia correspondent.


BBC News, (May 3, 2005).

Guardian (London), August 20, 2004, p. 25.

New York Times, August 18, 2004, p. A21.

Times (London), August 20, 2004, p. 32.

—Carol Brennan

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