The first time I interviewed the renowned French photojournalist Catherine Leroy for Stars and Stripes in 1997 she said, “When I photographed war, it went from dying soldiers to dead civilians. In the wars of one little world against another, one sees the senseless violence. It should be about being alive.”
Leroy’s stirring images, many of which appeared in Life and Look magazines, are alive in Mary Cronk Farrell’s new biography, Close-up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam (Amulet Books/Abrams, 320 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).
In this biography for young adults Farrell tells the story of how Leroy had little to no photographic experience—little more than snapping photos of her cats in her Paris apartment—when she arrived in Saigon in 1966 with a one-way ticket, $100, and a Leica camera. Her dream was to capture images like the ones she saw back home in Paris Match magazine.
Her first stop was the Associated Press. “When Catherine walked into the AP office, the men all stopped work and turned to look at her,” Farrell writes. “She pulled herself up to her full height, not quite five feet, took a breath, and asked for Horst Faas.”
Faas, the famed AP war photojournalist, later said that Leroy was “a timid, skinny, very fragile-looking young girl who certainly didn’t look like a press photographer as we were used to arriving for assignment in Vietnam. She looked very young, had a nice pigtail on the back of her head. She came in, introduced herself as a photographer from Paris, and I looked her over like everybody else had in the office, and said, ‘My god, here comes another one.’”
Faas asked the young Frenchwoman if she had experience. Leroy lied and said she did. He then reached into his bottom drawer, she remembered later, and plonked three rolls of black-and-white film in front of her. “If you can get anything I can use,” he said, “I’ll pay you fifteen dollars a picture.”
Catherine Leroy had definitely infiltrated a man’s world in Saigon, and many male journalists resented her presence. Not the soldiers and Marines she photographed, however.
“When I got to Vietnam, I spoke three words of English. I slept in the same shitholes as the GIs,” Leroy told me in 1997. And, as Farrell recounts, she also managed to talk her way into parachuting into combat during Operation Junction City, in early 1967 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
One of the highlights of Farrell’s book is the fact that it also tells the story of the Vietnam War through Cathy Leroy’s story. An additional endearing highlight of the book is the fact that it is graced with English translations of many letters Leroy wrote home to her mother.
One example, from before the jump with the 173rd and before she was briefly captured in Hue by North Vietnamese Army troops when she was covering the 1968 Tet Offensive:
“Chère Maman, Talking about Saigon now. A very pleasant town that you would like. People are insouciant and smiling. Many Americans in civil dress. All this doesn’t give the impression of being in a country at war. You can write to me at the Continental [hotel], I go there every day to pick up my post. Love, Cath’.”
Of course, Vietnam was a country deep at war—a war that Catherine Leroy (who died in 2006) brilliantly captured. Those images and her story are also captured superbly in Close-up on War.
The author’s website is marycronkfarrell.net
–Marc Phillip Yablonka
The reviewer is a military journalist whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film: