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George Silk, photographer for Life, dies

A Papuan native helps a wounded Australian infantryman along a road away from the Buna battlefront in New Guinea in a 1943 image by Life magazine photographer George Silk. 
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A Papuan native helps a wounded Australian infantryman along a road away from the Buna battlefront in New Guinea in a 1943 image by Life magazine photographer George Silk. (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

George Silk, a veteran Life magazine photojournalist who recorded World War II combat ranging from New Guinea to Europe’s Battle of the Bulge and later adapted the racetrack photo-finish camera to capture athletes in motion, has died. He was 87.

Silk died Oct. 24 in a Norwalk, Conn., hospital of congestive heart failure after several years of declining health.

Less known than many of his Life contemporaries such as Carl Mydans, who died in August, Silk nonetheless was respected for his versatility, persistence, courage and doing whatever it took to “get the picture.” A retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra four years ago was aptly titled “Going to Extremes.”

Included in that exhibit was the shot that convinced Life photography editor Wilson Hicks to hire Silk in 1943. That iconic image, still revered in Australia and reproduced there in a bronze statue, depicts a blinded Australian soldier being led to a New Guinea field hospital by a local native.

Silk, who later published a book, “War in New Guinea,” had snapped the photo during a 300-mile trek with Aussie forces in 1942 over New Guinea’s Kokoda Trail, dodging Japanese bullets and enduring malaria.

The photographer was captured with Aussies in Tobruk, Libya, by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. He escaped 10 days later.

Following U.S. troops through Europe, he became the sole survivor of a glider crash in southern France and was wounded by a grenade in a river crossing in Germany.

Later, risking radiation exposure, he shot some of the first pictures of the Japanese city of Nagasaki after an atom bomb was dropped on it.

On a purportedly easier civilian assignment for Life in 1952, Silk was the only photographer with an Air Force expedition setting up a weather station 100 miles from the North Pole. To get the shot, he had to overcome minus-60-degree cold, which froze his 12 cameras one by one.

Later, although his wife, Margery, said he disliked baseball and football, he applied his ingenuity to sports photography.

He worked with a prototype motor-driven sequence camera in the 1950s but was best-known for adapting a racetrack finish-line “slit” camera for sports.

The slit camera, which he first used prominently during the 1960 Olympics, moves film past a stationary shutter, rather than the usual method of exposing stationary film by opening and closing the shutter.

Silk, who preferred the term “outdoor photographer” to “sports photographer,” put cameras on skis and surfboards and used his motion-capturing techniques for the America’s Cup yacht races, track and many other sports events.

Born in Levin, New Zealand, and brought up in Auckland, Silk learned photography while working in a camera store.

In 1939, at the outset of the war, he talked himself into a job as a combat photographer for the Australian army and followed the army to Greece, North Africa and New Guinea. Life hired him in 1943 to accompany Allied forces through Europe, and later sent him to the Pacific.

Silk, who became a U.S. citizen in 1947, remained with Life until it folded in 1972. (Later, the magazine was revived.) He was photographing Himalayan game parks in Nepal when he received notice of the magazine’s demise. Known for his wit, including bursting into impromptu verses of “Waltzing Matilda,” Silk promptly shot back: “Your message … badly garbled. Please send one-half million dollars additional expenses.”

Silk’s work was exhibited in museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and featured in several books, usually along with photos by other Life photographers.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children.


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