When I first came to New York I carried a list of names and numbers of potential contacts -- friends of friends – that represented a kind of lifeline for someone with unrealistic ambitions and no connections. One of these friends of friends was a photographer whom I’ll call Kurt Korngold. He had achieved some degree of fame for photos he’d taken – one in particular -- when he was covering the Vietnamese War for a wire service. It’s hard to recall in this era of Instagram, Flickr and Snapchat how much impact photos of that war had at the time. The iconic images that press photographers captured at great peril to themselves – the naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl set ablaze by napalm, the public execution of a Vietcong suspect by a South Vietnamese officer, the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk on a Saigon street -- seared themselves into the minds of Americans. But by the time I met Kurt almost four years had passed since his return from Nam and he was no longer taking pictures; it was as if his camera represented a part of his life that he’d deliberately forsaken. His talent had become a burden. He had little money. (Rights to his photos belonged to the wire service.) He became a limo driver. His stories about the multimillionaires and celebrities he shuttled around town added up to a kind of Rabelaisian epic of licentiousness, drugs and debauchery. He drank. He would wake up in a strange apartment without knowing how he’d gotten there. Was that blood on the floor his? It can’t be said that he drank because of his experiences in the war; his drinking had started long before. His childhood had been tumultuous; he’d served time in a juvenile facility for trying to burn his house down. As a friend put it, he’d been at war for all of his life and Vietnam only represented a continuation of that war in a more exotic context. Alcohol fueled his anger and prompted him to fly into rages. He’d often get obstreperous in bars and fall into insane arguments with bartenders. “Do you know who I am? I’m one of the country’s most famous photographers?” Who were they to deny him another drink? But no one cared about the war anymore, much less about the people who chronicled it. And he was drunk so it didn’t matter who he was or what he’d done. And they threw him out.
Kurt sobered up. He began going to AA meetings. He realized that if he didn’t quit drinking he would be dead in six months. As time went on we drifted apart. I later heard that he’d decided to become a stockbroker – a stockbroker! It was as if he’d chosen a career that was as far removed from photography, from the life of an artist, as he could possibly get. It was an act of renunciation that I don’t pretend to understand. Kurt might not have understood it either. He was, unwittingly, following the path laid out a century before by Arthur Rimbaud who having revolutionized French poetry by the age of nineteen put down his pen and went on to become a slave trader in Abyssinia – an act of renunciation that sill puzzles biographers.
I hadn’t thought of Kurt in years when I saw his most famous photo again – splashed across the front of the arts section of a major daily. In the accompanying article the writer put him in the same pantheon of such great photographers of the war as Malcolm Browne, David Douglas Duncan, Eddie Adams and Horst Faas. But nowhere in the article could I discover any reference to what had become of Kurt. A Google search produced scores of entries for his photograph but practically none for the man who’d taken it. It was as though as soon as Kurt had clicked the picture the trajectory of the image and its creator had followed divergent paths as one achieved immortality and the other faded away. Kurt had deliberately shunned the renown that could have been his for a life of obscurity and relative normalcy. In America where so many people strive to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame Kurt had done the exact opposite.