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The Hardest Working Photographer in Vietnam: Rare Photos

Across five tours, Terry Fincher covered the defining conflict of his time.

Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Terry Fincher (1931 - 2008) was one of the premier daily press photographers of the 20th century. But because so much of his career was spent shooting on deadline for newspapers in London — the Daily Express, in particular — he remains far less well-known than many of his globetrotting peers, whose pictures routinely appeared in glossy weekly or monthly magazines in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Nevertheless, in his day — and especially among his rivals in London's Fleet Street, where an intensely competitive, bare-knuckled brand of journalism held sway — Fincher was a legend. The British press photographer of the year in 1957, 1959, 1964, and 1967, and runner-up in 1968, he did five tours in Vietnam, covering the defining conflict of the age as masterfully and tenaciously as any of his more celebrated colleagues. Here, on the 45th anniversary of the last U.S. troops leaving Vietnam on March 29, 1973, FOTO features a number of Fincher's rarely seen pictures from the war, along with several of his classics.

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD Terry Fincher/Getty Images THE LIVING AND THE DEAD In one of Fincher's best-known photos from Vietnam, U.S. troops rest in a tent, a human skull displayed before them, October 1968.

"Terry had a different job, in a way, than many of the other photographers covering Vietnam," Fincher's longtime friend and fellow Fleet Street photographer, Bob Aylott, told FOTO. "The daily press photographer is always looking for that one picture. Guys like Don McCullin of the [London] Sunday Times, or [LIFE magazine’s legendary photographer] Larry Burrows, might get a spread with a half-dozen pictures to tell a story. And that's fine. They were great photographers. But Terry had to tell his story with a single shot — two, at most. What's amazing is that he did it again and again, year after year."
HILL TIMOTHY Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images HILL TIMOTHY Rarely seen: U.S. troops on Hill Timothy in April 1968, during an operation against the Viet Cong.

In a tribute published in the Guardian newspaper in 2008, Aylott wrote about Fincher's experience, alongside Larry Burrows, during fighting on Hill Timothy in April 1968.

"After a night when several soldiers were killed by incoming artillery fire … the two photographers decided to dig a trench near the command bunker. Another uncomfortable night ensued as they realized, amid the shelling and rain, that the trench was too short, narrow, and shallow. When they awoke, there were dead bodies all around, waiting to be lifted out for burial. Terry wanted to be at home with his family, and deliberated, as the helicopters came in, whether it was time to get out, but he did not move. That day he and Burrows dug the trench deeper, longer, and wider, put up shelves for their cameras, pulled ground sheets across the trench to keep out the rain and put up a sign: 'Hotel Timothy Press Centre.'"
BROTHERS IN ARMS Terry Fincher/Getty Images BROTHERS IN ARMS American soldiers, one wounded and carried by a comrade, descend Hill Timothy in Vietnam, April 1968. CHOPPER SUPPORT Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images CHOPPER SUPPORT Rarely seen: American troops and supply helicopters on Hill Timothy, Vietnam, April 1968.

Fincher was several decades older than Aylott, but the two were good friends for many years. "I spent a lot of time talking with Terry about his work and about other photographers," Aylott told FOTO. "When he was in Vietnam, he would see others getting these huge, multi-page spreads, while he got one photo in the paper. That photo might be printed large — but it was just one picture. And the next day, it was forgotten. He didn't get pissed off or upset about it, but he would say, 'Well, it's all right for them. They can spend a few months taking pictures, and get 10 pages. I have to do a picture a day.' He had to feed a different sort of beast on Fleet Street with his photos."
UP FRONT Terry Fincher/Getty Images UP FRONT United States Marines at the Forward Command Post in Hue, Vietnam, February 1968. ALWAYS WATCHING Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images ALWAYS WATCHING Rarely seen: American troops in Hue, Vietnam, February 1968. AT THE WIRE Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images AT THE WIRE Rarely seen: Civilians seek safety in Hue, Vietnam, 1968.

Troops from the Vietnamese People's Army and People’s Liberation Armed Forces held Hue for 25 days after the Tet Offensive, until U.S. and South Vietnamese troops drove them out. But in those three and a half weeks, in the largest massacre of civilians of the Vietnam War, PAVN and PLAF soldiers shot, bludgeoned, and strangled thousands of men, women, and children, dumping most in mass graves. The true number of those killed remains unknown. But the Republic of Vietnam has named more than 4,000 people — ranging from infants to people in their 80s and 90s — murdered or abducted by the PAVN and PLAF in and around Hue in early 1968.
SMALL BURDENS Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images SMALL BURDENS Rarely seen: Civilians on the streets of Hue, Vietnam, February 1968.

"I got my first job as a Fleet Street photographer in the late 1960s," Aylott recalled, "when I was just 17 or 18. Terry was already well-established by then. Every young photographer coming into Fleet Street at that time, every single one, wanted to be like Terry."
AIRLIFT Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images AIRLIFT Rarely seen: A wounded American in Hue, Vietnam, 1968. A BIT OF HOME Express Newspapers/Getty Images A BIT OF HOME American Marines with their pet dog in Hue, Vietnam, 1968.

Fincher's first foray into Fleet Street was when he was a teenager and got a job as a messenger, "running miles every day in all weather," Aylott recalled in his 2008 tribute to his friend, "delivering photographs to newspaper offices." But delivering pictures wasn't enough; soon Fincher was taking them and, more and more often, selling his photos to the newspapers.

One day in 1947, for example, Fincher "spotted a policeman holding up traffic and shepherding a swan across Putney Bridge," Aylott wrote. "He leapt off the No. 14 bus, photographed the scene, and developed the plate at work. The picture was published in all three London evening papers — the Star, the Evening News, and the Evening Standard." Heady stuff for a 16-year-old — but just a glimpse of what was to come from a photographer who infallibly found the right shot in the unlikeliest of places.
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Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

R & RA contact sheet of Terry Fincher's photos, and the reverse side of one print, referencing the picture on the top row, second from right, of U.S. troops relaxing at a makeshift bar in the village of Nui Kinson, 1968.

BRIDGE DOWN Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images BRIDGE DOWN Rarely seen: Vietnamese refugees cross the Perfume River beside a bridge destroyed by bombs, balancing on a series of boats as they seek safety near the city of Hue, February 1968. TROUBLED WATER Terry Fincher/Getty Images TROUBLED WATER Refugees cross the Perfume River to safety during the Battle of Hue, Vietnam, February 1968.

One indication of how valued Fincher was as a photographer at the height of his career was a singular honor offered him by his editors in London. "There was a time when Terry was so massive that they gave him his own page in the paper, called the Fincher File," Aylott told FOTO, with a laugh. "That was unheard of, for one photographer to get that sort of spotlight. But that's how highly regarded he was. Just a very, very special journalist."
THE OTHER SIDE Terry Fincher/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images THE OTHER SIDE Rarely seen: Refugees cross the Perfume River to safety during the Battle of Hue, Vietnam, February 1968. PAIR OF ACES Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images PAIR OF ACES Terry Fincher (left) with his friend and fellow Englishman, Larry Burrows, on Hill Timothy, Vietnam, April 1968. Burrows died on February 10, 1971, along with fellow journalists Kent Potter, Keisaburo Shimamoto, and Henri Huet, when their helicopter was shot down over Laos. Potter was 23 years old. Shimamoto was 34. Huet was 43. Larry Burrows, the oldest, was just 44.

Like Burrows, like Huet, like all great photojournalists, Fincher seemed born to take pictures. It's all he ever wanted to do.

"Terry was a workaholic," Bob Aylott told FOTO. "Every waking minute was another chance to get a picture. He was completely passionate about the job. All he talked about was photography. But I'll bet there's not a young photographer working in England now who knows who Terry Fincher was. And that's a shame. For my money, he was the greatest press photographer of his day, bar none."
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