Page 4 of 6
He is lucky. In the Los Angeles media community, only the paparazzi fail to treat him with reverence. They push. They shove. "They're animals!" Ut says. He's not angry, he decides. It's their job. "But my God! They don't care who you are. Bam! You're airborne. But I'm a lucky guy. Everyone else, they take care of me." In the photographers pit, the ones who don't know him push like crazy. The ones who do know him but push anyway, well, "I punch them right back," he says with a hearty laugh.
Ut was 14 when his older brother first handed him a camera. A novice ought to learn on a medium-format camera, La instructed.
"I don't like," young Nick replied. "I want one like your camera."
"You're so poor, you want to be like a rich man?" his brother said, laughing.
"He had a Leica," Ut says now. "Looks so beautiful to carry around." Then with a sly grin, he adds, "You look like a playboy."
The rudiments of photography, Ut learned from his brother. But perfecting photography — that he learned from the pros at AP. They taught him to look first, shoot later.
He recalls his friend and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Joe Rosenthal — "I called him my father" — who shot the iconic "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" with a bulky 4x5 Speed Graphic. "You know, one frame? Put the film in again? Shoot another frame? How slow is that? Very slow. But he made history. That kind of photography you need to learn."
Young photographers today, who "shoot 15 frames a second," exasperate him. "Too fast. Picture lousy. One frame. Show the best picture. That's how I learned. Look for the picture first."
Besides, "If you come back with 500 pictures from one assignment? Your boss will yell at you. Too many! Who wants to look at all those pictures?"
Ut is nothing if not pragmatic. He dislikes, for instance, pictures of dead bodies. "They're already dead. Why bother? I like pictures of people still alive. Screaming, laughing, crying, hurt — that tells story."
How does he find good pictures? Same as in Vietnam: He looks to the sky. In Vietnam, he looked for the trails of black smoke that indicate a fresh bombing. In Los Angeles, he looks for circling helicopters. That's where the action is. While at the scene, "I keep watching. If something happens, I shoot more pictures. But if it's like Ansel Adams — mountain, waterfall, cloud, rock — you don't need many pictures of that."
Stylistically speaking, Ut favors the medium-distance shot, although these days, he's sometimes forced to come close. Microphones and digital recorders held right up to the subject's mouth get in the way. "Why do you guys get so close?" he asks of reporters. "First of all, I can't see. I'm a short guy." Exactly how short, he forgets. He digs around in a pocket for his wallet and fishes out his driver's license. He is 5 feet 3 inches. "Too short, right?"
He gives up on the Silver Lake Reservoir and settles for an impromptu tour of the old Victorian houses in Echo Park. "Beautiful," he murmurs, driving slowly. "Look at that."
By noon, he has made it downtown. In Chinatown, he buys lunch at a favorite restaurant. But instead of eating it there, he drives to a Buddhist temple 15 minutes away. He prefers to keep moving, a habit from his combat days.
"In Vietnam, there was open freedom for media. You can jump on a helicopter or airplane or truck. Just show your media pass. Oh my God, so easy. The best."
At the red and gold jewel box that is the Thien Hau Temple on Yale Street, Ut chats up the employees, then settles onto a plastic stool at a folding table near the rear of the altar. Ut is a paradoxical combination of boastful and humble. Strangers want to shake his hand and pose for snapshots with him. American soldiers thank him; because of his picture, they say, they got to come home to their families. Men of a certain age who narrowly avoided the draft confess to him that, because of Napalm Girl, they didn't have to go to Vietnam. Ut's good luck, apparently, was contagious.
Today, the 35mm Leica M2 camera with which he shot Napalm Girl is in a museum — the Newseum, in Washington, D.C. Before that, it was at the London Science Museum. Back in June 2000, the Science Museum called him up shortly before the opening of a new wing. "They said, 'Nicky, the queen wants to see you,' " he recalls. "I said, 'You're kidding.' " A week later he was shaking the gloved hand of the queen of England.