Icons of Photography: Tim Page

Tim Page was born on May 25, 1944, in Tunbridge Wells and grew up in Orpington. At seventeen, he ran away from that archetypal Home County exurbia – to find himself, probably. He found a calling, anyway – in Laos where he acquired a camera and stumbled on a coup. By twenty-one, he was in Vietnam and a staff photographer for UPI’s Saigon bureau. 

The pictures he took in Vietnam were among those which fixed that war’s place in the world’s eye and imagination. Along with, say, Don McCullin and Philip Jones-Griffiths (both also Brits, of course) he helped make it the first (and probably last) war which was given shape and meaning by photographs and photographers.

His pictures were not what made his name, though. This is how he really entered the world: ‘Page liked to augment his field gear with freak paraphernalia, scarves and beads, plus he was English, guys would stare at him like he’d just come down off a wall on Mars.’ That’s the second sentence on the fourth page of Michael Herr’s 1977 book, Dispatches. It’s the war seen and felt – and loved, frankly – through the rock’n’rolled eyes of Herr and Page and Sean Flynn, another photographer who went MIA in Cambodia in 1970. John Le Carré called it ‘the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.’ 

Herr also wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam picture Full Metal Jacket and worked on the narration for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The nameless crazed photographer played by Dennis Hopper in that film, the first Vietnam epic, was a composite of Page and Flynn. The drugged-up, wacked-out lensman, a visionary in combats.

That’s Page’s place in photography – not for his photographs but as a photographer. A life lived through emulsion – glare-washed Ektachrome. As close as you can get to the guns, maybe closer – a 21mm lens, so hungry for understanding that it buries itself halfway into its subject’s bodies. An M3 Leica and a Nikon F hanging from the neck – part cameras, part post-historic totems, part body armour. Chrome and steel all black-taped up – camouflage as style (or perhaps the reverse). 

‘Our adventure sandbox,’ that’s how Page described his and his pals’ Vietnam. ‘There was too much to shoot,’ he wrote. ‘Too many frames to be made. No time to do it.’ That was in his book, Tim Page’s Nam, which only came out in 1983, eight years after the war ended – by which point, the legend and myth had easily replaced whatever reality might have been there in the first place, in the public imagination and inside Page’s head. ‘The POI didn’t know zip about door guns, just sat there gawking.’ That’s one line in it. I’m not sure I know what it means and I’m not sure Page did either. Here is another line: ‘the camera became a filter to the madness and horror, a means of portraying it.’ And another: ‘The only thing it couldn’t stop was the stench of death.’

He also wrote this encomium: ‘a pure and simple sexiness, the romance of power over life, ego-saving, black and white decisive life and death, the ultimate blast, the final wave on the best-equipped boards in the surf.’ Was he thinking of his pictures or his experience? Again, I’m not sure he knew. I certainly don’t.

His life was his work. Like Apocalypse Now, his work patrolled the boundaries of consciousness. He became his own opium pipe. Herr described him as the most ‘extravagant’ of the ‘wigged-out crazies’ in Vietnam. When Page asked himself why he was there, this is what he replied: ‘for the hell of it, for the kicks, the fun, the brush with all that was most evil, most dear, most profane.’ 

He was wounded twice, both times by US forces. Of the first time, he wrote: ‘They fed me cognac and dope and cleaned out the shrapnel and I went right back the next day. Why not? I mean, it was like an itch, and this was the only way to scratch it. It’s rock and roll, you know.’

When a British publisher asked Page, in a very English way, if he would perhaps be interested in making a book which took the glamour out of the war, he replied: ‘Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that? . . . Oh war is good for you, you can’t take the glamour out of that. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex.’ Note the words and phrases. ‘Bloody hell’: you can take the man-child out of the Home Counties but, however foreign the field, part of him will be forever England. And: ‘War is good for you’. He meant ‘for me’, of course, but still . . .

Compared to the high standards of his life and rhetoric, his actual pictures could only disappoint, of course. He worked mostly for Time-Life (particularly LIFE itself), but also for UPI and AP and Paris Match. He was a hard-grafting – if drugged-up – front-line photographer, set on filling magazine pages, mostly by getting too close to the action. He wasn’t a man of art or design. His pictures told the story at the time and told it well – well enough, anyway. 

Some of his snapshots are good, in an image-of-record way, given texture by the drained colours of Ektachrome. (Too many people looking straight into his camera, though.) There is a whole history of that confused war in one of his images – the one of a US soldier in a tank turret, with a pink umbrella and the word ‘Hippie’ on his helmet. And there’s a great picture of a helicopter coming into land, dust raising, men huddling and running, twigs scattering. There’s an almost unconscious classicism about it: the inviting void at the centre of its composition luring the viewer into a world of metaphor, of thoughts about war’s own empty intractability. Yet there’s joy, too, in the boyish appreciation of helicopters – choppers, as Page would call them.

When his pictures do echo down the years and across the miles, it’s because they capture something of his interior landscape. And ours, of course, exploring – and irritating – the tension between love and hate. On the one hand, our grown-up, sensible and moral abhorrence for warfare. On the other, our irrational, atavistic taste for guns and ammo and hi-tech death-delivery systems and men in dusty helmets.

On April 19, 1969, at two minutes past two in the afternoon, his ‘Nam blew to a standstill’. The helicopter he was in had been ‘diverted to a dustoff for two troops who gotten badly chewed up on a bouncing betty trap’. He stepped out and ‘some dink’ set off a booby trap bomb. It took part of his brain out. ‘For the next twelve years my mind dwelt on the enormity of having been there . . . there had been no reality, only a strained sense of nostalgia and fantasy.’

In 1970, he moved to Rome, then to the US, then back to England, then to Los Angeles. He’s been back to Vietnam. He now lives in Australia.

© Peter Silverton 2021

Image: Tim Page (right) under fire alongside Martin Stuart Fox in the central highlands of Vietnam, March 30 1966. Copyright: Steve Northup

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