Everyone needs a mentor. Mine was Dirck Halstead. His was Robert Capa. Dirck never met Capa, but he was able to bid him farewell.
Halstead had just graduated from high school in 1954 when he heard that photographer Robert Capa had been killed covering the Vietnam War. Dirck wrote about it in his book, “Moments in Time.” “Robert Capa dead? Couldn’t be. Robert Capa was my hero. To me he was the epitome of a war photographer: handsome, brave, had an affair with Ingrid Bergman . . . I heard that Capa was being brought to the United States for burial in Amawalk, New York . . . On the day of the ceremony I arrived at the Quaker cemetery early . . . A few minutes before the burial was supposed to take place, John Morris who was then the head of Magnum Photos, came up and asked me to leave. At this point, a rough wooden casket, almost like a shipping box, was ushered into the cemetery . . . I began to cry. John Morris suddenly looked stricken, and he asked me to wait. A moment later he came back and said, ‘You know, you are a photographer, he would have wanted you here.’ So I photographed the burial and wrote a story for the Patent Trader about what Capa meant to me.”
A week later Dirck gave John Morris a set of the funeral prints. He told Dirck that there was a story that might interest him about a group of American students going to Guatemala to build a school. Dirck had also heard about a possible war brewing there. “I thought this was my big chance,” he said. Dirck approached LIFE Magazine about the school-building assignment, and they liked it. The editors said they would give him $1,000 and free film. “That was a goldmine to a kid who had been getting ten dollars a picture!” The LIFE editors didn’t know that they were sending a 17-year-old kid into danger.
Before Dirck left the states he visited his hero’s grave. “As I walked to Capa’s tombstone the wind started to kick up. A clap of thunder echoed through the cemetery as rain started to pour down. I stood over his grave as the rain ran down my face.
For a moment I thought I could feel the great photographer’s presence. Whatever it was, I allowed it to mingle with mine. I was convinced that I had taken on Robert Capa’s spirit and that I was going to be covering my first war.”
And he did. It was a short one, but Dirck made some good action photos of the combat. LIFE wrote in their contents page about Dirck and a letter to his parents: “Dear Folks—as I sit here at my typewriter pounding out this letter I can hear gunfire in the distance . . . You guessed it—I’VE COVERED MY FIRST BATTLE!”
Dirck’s final wish was that his ashes be left at Robert Capa’s grave. I put some in a small Canon battery case and placed it at the tombstone. it was a full-circle moment that honored Dirck’s love of Canons and Capa. The spirit and presence of one great photographer was joined with another.
Capa had to be smiling.
Dirck’s ashes in a Canon battery case that I left at Capa's grave (Photos by Rick Smolan)