(2 of 2)
Most of Mydans' work was done for LIFE, which he joined in 1936 as the first issue was going to press. But he took his first pictures of consequence in the preceding year. At the age of 28, he joined the fabled team of photographers for the historical section of the U.S. Farm Security Administration, a group that included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn. Examining an impoverished rural America, they made some of photography's most trenchant and memorable images. In the FSA, Mydans learned the moral dimension of photography. No eye cast upon the hardships of those years could afterward decline into a tool for pretty picturemaking. A natural storyteller, he also learned with the FSA to look for his story in faces, in the unsettled gaze of transient cotton choppers and the cocksure grins of oilfield roustabouts.
At LIFE, Mydans met his wife Shelley. They became a reporter-photographer team, covering Mussolini's Italy, the fall of France and wartime London. By 1941 Mydans was in Chungking to record China as it was devoured by Japan. The next year he and his wife were captured by the Japanese in Manila. They spent nearly two years in prison camps in the Philippines and China, fending off malnutrition and chafing at the thought of the stories they were missing on the outside.
Mydans was released in time to cover the fighting in Italy and France, then accompanied General Douglas MacArthur's campaign in the Philippines, where he took one of the war's best-known shots: Mac Arthur sloshing onto the beach at Luzon. For a home front with fresh memories of the war's bleak beginnings, it was more than a picture; it was an encapsulation of every hope. Forty years later, we see not just the redoubtable general but also the canny military showman who knows that victory is the ultimate photo opportunity.
Life as theater, even as a theater of war, is a notion that emerges unexpectedly from many of these pictures, where the war sometimes seems a bizarre welter of chaos and formality, anarchy and self-conscious ceremony. The accumulated effect is not to mock human behavior as in-authentic but to acknowledge a yearning for dignity and order. Mydans' work springs from that same benign instinct. Through decades when each year put forward new varieties of suffering, he recorded the world's dislocations and helped to shape the heart's reply. --By Richard Lacayo