Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Want to Take Picture by Bill Burke and Twin Palms


Since I just wrote about the American Sports 1970 book which is an allegory of our involvement in the Vietnam War, it would only be appropriate to write about another book which approaches the subject but from a much more personal angle. Bill Burke’s legendary book I Want to Take Picture originally published by Nexus Press in 1987 has been re-issued in a facsimile edition by Twin Palms for 2007.

When Bill Burke was a kid growing up in the 1950’s he says, “Like all American Boys, I was raised to be in a war in Asia.” By the time he was of military age, the Vietnam War had made a deep impression and his childhood image of war heroics turned from fascinating to terrifying. As he states, “I was immensely relieved when, with some effort, I failed my draft physical.”

Burke sat out the war studying Far Eastern Art and Religion, doing drugs and studying photography. Years later, feeling like he had missed out on an experience that affected so many others, (and fuelled by films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now), Burke set off in 1982 to have “my own Southeast Asia experience.”

The resulting adventure starts with Burke finding his Asian sea legs with drunken ex-pats and bar girls in Thailand before setting off into darker territory by crossing into Cambodia with the International Rescue Committee and getting access to remaining pockets of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime.

Relaying his story through collages of photographs, ephemera and hand written diary entries, the book reads as if he is testing himself to find a situation that might mimic the uncomfortable situations he would have experienced had he done a tour of duty. The only situation that may have come close, a firefight between Khmer soldiers and refugee camp guards, destroys any lingering fantasy he had of being a combat photographer.

This is not a photojournalist’s look at a ‘story’ but a personal tale that involves a search for something less definable. Along the way he discovers new cultures, learns of his father’s death, finds himself in unexpected situations and finally breaks his neck, literally, in a car accident on the way back to Bangkok.

Beyond the photography which is good, it was how Burke put this book together that was a new shift to bookmaking. By employing the use of three-dimensional ephemera re-photographed and stripped into the layout, he expands the typical page into the illusion of a full sensory experience. Newspaper clippings, product wrappers, duct tape, postcards, cigarette packs, bottle caps, prayer necklaces, diary pages, local currency and his stitches from the accident all sit alongside his 35mm and rough edged Polaroid photographs with their hand scrawled captions.

The production of the original book was almost as difficult as his trip may have been. As Burke tells in a letter that accompanies one of his final copies of the original 1987 Nexus Press edition: “This book was made without use of computers. Many of the pages, which look like collages, were never seen until they came off the printing press. Most of the pictures in the book were from my original negatives printed onto duotone film from which positive plates were burned. The other elements which comprise each page were assembled in the stripping process from film that was made in the copy camera. I did all the film work myself. Clifton Meador and JoAnne Paschall oversaw the stripping and assembling of the diverse elements onto the printing plates. Clifton then printed the book over the course of several months on a Heidelberg CORD single color press. Some pieces of paper in this book went through the press as many as seven times.”

So how does the new Twin Palms edition stack up to the twenty year old Nexus edition? It is a facsimile but there are a few interesting differences. All of the content is the same but in the new edition there are color shifts to some of the ephemera elements that are drastically different. Sometimes the colors are more saturated, sometimes less. In an element of an appropriated sequence of images of a car crash test dummy mid collision, in the original edition the dummy’s jumpsuit is bright yellow where in this new edition it is bright red. Another appropriated image of a crashed truck shows up purple in the original edition and here it has turned blue. These are minor differences that would only be noticed if comparing the two editions side by side which I did to appease my OCD.

There is a bit of a trade off in the printing of the black and white photographs that varies from edition to edition. Some images in the original appear richer than in the new edition and vice versa (this is especially noticeable in the 35mm photograph of the ‘no-mans land’ between the Thai and Cambodia border). So between the two editions, they make one perfect book.

The biggest difference that bothered even Burke was the matte finish to the cover boards. The dullness diminished the punch of the black-tones of the cover image. For some books supplied directly from Burke, he went as far as to experiment with hand-lacquering the cover photograph to restore the tonalities to their appropriate richness. To do the job on my copy he used one of those Polaroid print coater bars (AKA: a stink rod) that come with black and white Polaroid packs. So for those of you not squeamish about potentially screwing up your book, I advise you to break one of those gooey, foul smelling coaters out of its black tube and bring your copy up to code.

I applaud Twin Palms for re-issuing this important book for new generations of photographers. The last time I had a chance to afford a copy of this book was over a decade ago and it was priced at $300.00. Now it is a couple grand for the original edition.


This is not a photography book but since I am stuck in Vietnam mode I thought I would just mention this small and entertaining book called How to Stay Alive in Vietnam. Written by a Colonel Robert B. Rigg and published by Stackpole Books in 1966, it is a book of advice on how to increase your odds of survival during a tour of duty in the Vietnam conflict. I originally picked this up simply because the first chapter is titled ‘Zap Me Not.’

Rigg gives his advice in the parlance of the time and with stories that are often gory and horrifying in detail. For instance he starts a paragraph about what to do after getting wounded with the following less than comforting scenario: “More people get wounded in a war than killed. But it is no comfort in this statistic when you reach for your guts and end up holding a handful when hit with a belly wound. This happens in all wars and it is nasty and nauseating to be holding onto one’s warm entrails when they are spilling out amid a lot of blood.”

He even mentions a very timely torture technique: “The Vietnamese unit in Kien Hoa Province had captured a nasty VC prisoner; this one talked quickly under interrogation. Prisoners often do when prone and water is forced down their nostrils – the Vietnamese on both sides can play it tough. These are not American rules, but Vietnamese rules of no holds barred.” He continues, “But this prisoner was not tortured except by his own guilty conscience.” (Yeah Colonel…that guilty conscience will torture you every time. Whenever I feel guilty I feel like I’m drowning. I’m working that out with my shrink.)

Rigg offers advice on clearing VC tunnels, profiling the enemy, how to handle panicking, body-armor, getting ambushed, and the weapons used in modern guerilla-style warfare. Rigg comes across as part cigar-chewing, seen-it-all, tough guy and part Ann Landers. Appropriately, he does not gloss over the important fact that you may die and do so with great pain and suffering.

Buy from Twin Palms

Book Available Here (I Want to Take Picture)

I also wanted to mention that The Eye Studio Gallery has a copy of the original 1987 Nexus Press editions of Burke's I Want to Take Picture that is signed and accompanied by a letter of authenticity. This book is being offered for sale to help cover the costs of studio operations. Inquiries to price can be made by calling 212 242-1593. I can say that this is by far the cheapest copy available through any dealer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice review.