John Vachon: A Certain Look

PrintPrintEmailEmail He kept a record of every photo trip he ever took after 1937—there were 456, all told—and listed every airport used, every interstate train ridden, and every state in which he’d had a haircut. He also kept track of how much time he’d spent in each of forty-nine states (he never visited Alaska); for example, four months, nineteen days, eleven hours in California; fourteen days, six hours in Oklahoma. On a map at his apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, he marked off every U.S. county he’d set foot in (flyovers didn’t count) and, by 1971, had totaled 2,479 of them (out of about 3,000). He kept a journal, too, so that he knew pretty well everything that had ever happened to him since his Washington days, and even before. Out of town he liked to visit jazz clubs, burlesque shows, and good restaurants on waterfronts and in warehouse districts, and he listed each one of these in his journal so as not to forget the good places in case he returned.
And he was always researching the slower way to get anywhere and the longer way home. He never flew if he could go by train, preferably by night, so that he and the writer could sit up, play draw poker, drink whiskey, and look out at the little towns going by. (He hated to lose at poker, but if he won too much, he’d let his opponent win back something.) He’d get you to Dallas via Chicago or to San Francisco via Las Vegas. Once in New Zealand we came home via Sydney, Australia, because neither of us had been there, although it added two thousand miles to our original flight plan to the West Coast. And from anyplace on the continent of Europe, he would route himself through Ireland. He also had faith that you could always get where you wanted to go, and he never missed. Once, in New Delhi, where we’d gone in 1962 to try to cover the China-India border war in northern Assam, we found an Indian army press officer surrounded by reporters and refusing to allow the Indian air force to fly any of us to the staging areas outside the Assamese capital city of Gauhati because, of course, India was losing. Vachon, however, soon learned that an Indian commercial airliner was still flying its regular twice-a-day Delhi-Gauhati schedule and so got us to Gauhati before nightfall. We stayed five days and returned to New Delhi to find many reporters still waiting for transportation.
He was always researching the slower way to get anywhere and the longer way home. He never flew if he could go by train.
The dark side to all this was a personal life beset by tragedy. His first wife suffered from emotional illness and, in 1959, committed suicide. His second marriage, to Marie Francoise Fourestier, was much happier and gave him another daughter, Christine, and a son, Michael. But alcoholism plagued him, limited his career after Look, and undoubtedly hastened his death. It was also a problem on Look story assignments, and there were writers who simply declined to travel with him. Other writers, myself included, probably did him more harm than good by enabling him to believe his drinking was tolerable. Although he never had to face reality, somehow, through cold showers, coffee, and lots of delays, we never came home without our story.
He used to say he drank because he liked to. He refused help through Alcoholics Anonymous or therapy. And the drinking wasn’t all. I felt he also got an excessive kick out of the risks we sometimes had to take: on a police story, there might be a wild chase; on some backwater landing strip, a hairy landing; in a riot, a flying brick or police nightstick. Taking the chance and surviving seemed to afford him release and a kind of grim satisfaction. Something was boiling inside him that he couldn’t handle, so he finessed it with booze or bravery. Once, when we were producing our picture story of a geological expedition in the Antarctic, he wanted to take a picture from a C-119 cargo plane of a planned parachute supply drop as we were flying two thousand feet above the South Pole. His solution was to tie his ankle to my ankle, lean far out the cabin door while I held on to an inner beam, and, using a frostproof view camera, dangle outside in minus seventy degrees Fahrenheit until he saw the drop falling away and got the amazing picture he wanted. Neither one of us had been too prudent, but he seemed to enjoy it much more than I did.
Vachon faced his own death with great courage, but again he seemed almost bemused by his suffering and was going gently. I saw him at home a few days before he died. He knew and I knew, but we talked about the Antarctic, the best trip we had ever taken together even though we got only six pages in the magazine. He had come to terms with his death, I think, but perhaps not yet with his life. He had always had a sense of humor; but there was no soul-searching talk in him. He had depended on his friends to protect him, and the rage in him just never came out.
Fortunately his professional life ended on a happier note. With Look gone, he had continued to work as often as he could. He photographed two stories for Vermont Life, a magazine edited at the time by his son Brian. And in the spring of 1973 the Guggenheim Foundation awarded him a fellowship in photography for a yearlong project. In his application he had described the work as a “documentation of the vanishing American small town, a focal point of rural life that. . . began to change and disappear about the time of the Second World War . . . [towns] far enough removed from urban centers to have retained an individuality.” He said he was going to photograph “the main street . . . band stands, the vacant lot. . . church suppers . . . lodge meetings, the county fair . . . the country lawyer . . .