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Famed American photojournalist Dirck Halstead, who captured pivotal historical moments, dies at 85

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Photojournalist Dirck Halstead, known for capturing pivotal historical moments, passed away last week at age 85. According to his sister, Anne Macpherson, a cerebral hemorrhage ended his life at a hospital near his home in Boquete, Panama. Halstead is known for capturing images during the beginning and end of the Vietnam War and an assassination attempt on Ronald Regan when he was president of the U.S.

Dirck Storm Halstead was born in Huntington, New York, on December 24, 1936. His mother, Leslie, was an advertising executive while his father, William, was a telecommunications engineer that held numerous patents for television and radio equipment. Dirck’s parents gave him a Kodak Duaflex camera for Christmas when he was 13 years old.

‘What made the difference was that they gave me a little darkroom outfit that you could use to make contact prints,’ he stated in an oral history recorded for the Binghamton University Libraries in 2010. ‘And that was the thing that got me hooked.’ The camera accompanied him to class every day, and this is how he became the official photographer at his high school.

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During his senior year of high school, Halstead was working part-time for a local newspaper, getting paid $5 per published photo (about $52 today). The owner acquired seven other newspapers that were publishing his photos. As their only photographer, his income rapidly multiplied. After graduating high school, he took a train to Washington D.C. and covered the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Initially turned away from the funeral of his idol, LIFE photographer Robert Capa, by the magazine’s editor John G. Morris, Halstead was able to get in to pay his respects after a tear-filled plea. He subsequently made a connection with that editor and later submitted a proposal to cover a group of U.S. students building a school in Guatemala. While there, he also covered a coup, backed by the CIA, that overthrew the country’s president. The photos he took were published in LIFE and earned him international recognition.

In 1965, Halstead captured the first U.S. troops to arrive in Vietnam, near Da Nang. In 1972, he was hired by TIME magazine where he went on to shoot 49 of their cover images. They sent him back to South Vietnam the same year he was hired. He took photographs alongside Pulitzer Prize-winner Dave Hume Kennerly, who shot for the White House as well, and they were almost killed by gun-fire several times.

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Three years later, Halstead returned to Vietnam to document the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, today). He documented thousands of Vietnamese citizens attempting to escape by either helicopter or boat. He was able to leave on one of the last remaining helicopters in April, 1975. He also witnessed helicopters being pushed off the deck of a U.S. Navy ship, into the sea, to make room for more incoming refugees.

Halstead documented U.S. President Richard Nixon’s monumental visit to China in 1972. While Ronald Regan and Gerald Ford may have been the easiest presidents to work with, Nixon was his favorite to photograph. ‘He was totally crazy. You could see every emotion. His face was a living contradiction. His eyes would be delivering one message, and his mouth would be delivering another. There was moisture above his mouth, these little eyes would be darting around the room. He was nuts, in a word,’ he said in the same oral history interview with Binghamton University, New York, recorded in 2010.

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Nine years later, Halstead was at the Washington Hilton when president Ronald Regan was shot by John W. Hinckly Jr. He caught the scene with Secret Service surrounding a wounded press secretary, fellow agent, and D.C. police officer. It was in 1996 that he would capture one of his most famous photographs ever – White House intern Monica Lewinsky embracing president Bill Clinton. Their affair would be revealed to the world roughly two years after the image was taken.

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Halstead received the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club for his courage in capturing the fall of Saigon in 1975. In 2002, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the White House News Photographers Association. The Briscoe Center, at the University of Texas, acquired his photo archives of roughly 500,000 images in 2005.

His three marriages – to Patricia Gilmer, Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Zakroff and Virginia Naumann – ended in divorce before he passed. He is survived by his sister, Anne. ‘Dirck Halstead was one of the great news photographers of his generation,” Briscoe Center’s executive director, Don Carleton, told the New York Times. ‘His body of work will be a source of important historical information far into the future.’

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