Remembering Dickey Chapelle on the anniversary of her death

On November 4, 1965, Dickey Chapelle was killed by shrapnel on a battlefield in Vietnam. She was the first female war correspondent to die in the field, but that designation doesn’t do her justice. Dickey was a tireless photographer, an emphatic patriot, and a plucky role model for young women in the Midwest.

Last year, Milwaukee Public Television aired a really good documentary about Dickey. As you listen to it, scroll through a gallery of her photographs.

Don’t have time to watch the full doc? Here’s a quote from Dickey about her love of country. I guarantee you’ll feel a strong urge to scrounge up that ol’ flag pin hiding somewhere in your dresser.

“I grew up in the heart of the United States, and I believed that I could do anything I really wanted to do. And I still believe it. In the first place, I hope you will never say it [the name of the United States] without its sense of its uniqueness. You have just defined Americanism. Because nowhere else in the world, and I’ve now worked in my 44th country, no where else in the world, can a woman about seventeen — or an old lady in her 40s like I am — no where else in the world can she say, ‘I can do anything I really want to do.'”

Dickey originally wanted to be pilot, and she received a full scholarship to study aeronautic design at MIT after graduating early from her high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But she flunked out after skipping an exam to cover a stunt-plane exhibition instead. She made pit stops back in Wisconsin and Florida before landing a job as a PR writer for the TWA in New York. That’s where she took the photography class that radically altered the trajectory of her life and career.

We’re rarely able to get an up-close look at the moment when a woman becomes an artist. But Dickey wrote candidly about her earliest exposure to photography in her fascinating autobiography, which illustrates her gift as a storyteller both in words and images. Here’s the section about her introduction to photography:

Summer of 1939, Long Island

It was about this time, anyway, that I began to have a regular Sunday date with the George Washington Bridge. I walked along each of its sides in sunlight, darkness, rain, snow and fog. From a rented launch, I peered upwards into its vast intricacies and from a sputtering rented plane I gazed down at the round gray arches lifting from the water.

My date was a collective one, really, with the bridge, a camera, five other aspiring students of photography and a once-a-week teacher: Tony Chapelle, who directed the making of TWA’s publicity pictures. Tony had been one of the first Navy photographers in World War I. That made him (when you are nineteen you stop to figure these things out) at least forty!

He was not as tall as he seemed; authority gave him height to me. He was chunky, with a lot of brown hair and a dark mustache and large animated brown eyes. He moved fast for such a broad man and spoke in a deep melodious voice. He had the most cheerful disposition of anyone I had ever known except when he was initiating tyros into the mysteries of the one matter on earth he held utterly sacred, photography.

I was awe-struck by Tony in this drill instructor role. Fearful of his Homeric wrath, I learned my lessons bone-deep as quickly as I could. And I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten any of them. Tony made a sharp distinction between photographers and reporters in the lensmen’s favor, of course. “You have to be able to write, too, so you can do captions. But the picture is your reason for being. It doesn’t matter what you’ve seen with your eyes. If you can’t prove it happened with a picture, it didn’t happen.”

Tony taught us how to use the heavy Speed Graphic, the camera newspapermen still carry in the movies. It is so big that snap-shooting, or making a picture casually, can’t be done with it. You have to plan the picture in your mind’s eye and move to the vantage point from which to shoot before you raise the camera. This was the most important habit Tony wanted us to learn. But there were others. If you were a real photographer, you kept your equipment ready to shoot. Anywhere on earth at any time, you reloaded with fresh film and labeled and stored the exposed supply before you went to sleep. First thing the next morning was always too late, according to Tony. (Even today, I don’t try to sleep till my camera cases are in order.)

If you were a real photographer, you were on the spot where things happened beforehand. You did not walk to airplane crashes, Tony told me scornfully, recalling my story of Captain Orta’s death. “You’re sitting on the fire truck before the airplane hits and nobody takes time to throw you off so you get out there ahead of the police. Ahead.”

You practiced judging the intensity of light till your fingers automatically went to the aperture and shutter controls of your camera every time a cloud came across the face of the sun. You practiced judging distance until you unthinkingly rolled your focusing knob if someone walked across the room. And you practiced guessing the speed of a passing object so you could stop its motion in a picture of course, our “objects” were the cars on the George Washington Bridge till you set your shutter at the right speed from the sound, not the sight. In short, you became a picture-making machine, and could give all your conscious effort to deciding what was worth recording on film.

If a picture was a failure, no alibi would placate Tony. If your equipment failed, it was because you hadn’t taken proper care of it. If you weren’t in the right position to shoot, it was because you were too lazy to have climbed up where you should have been.

My course in picture-taking did not end the first time I produced an acceptable picture of the George Washington Bridge. In October of 1 940, the teacher and I went out to Milwaukee, and in front of a bank of gladiolas from my mother’s garden, we were married.

When WWII broke out, Tony re-enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in Panama. Dickey scrounged up a photography credential from Look Magazine in order to go with him, and she was a war correspondent from then on. She accompanied the Marines to Iowa Jima and Okinawa, and later during the Cold War went to Hungary to photograph refugees. She was captured on the Hungarian/Austrian border and held for 38 days in solitary confinement, an experience that affected her for the rest of her life. She also photographed conflicts in Algeria, Lebanon, Cuba, and Laos. At age 40, she was the first female journalist to parachute into war zones along with the military, completing six jumps in all.

Dickey was, truly, an American original. And today, we salute the memory of one of the most fearless women in our history.

Reading List

What’s a Woman Doing Here? A Reporter’s Report on Herself

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