In the primordial days of search engines such as Google, I typed in the name "George Lacks" to see what might turn up. That search yielded exactly one verbal reference—and no photographs. (But consider that in those days I was constrained to using a dial-up connection to a server at the college where I taught.) Today, at the centennial of my father's birth, one can find approximately 400 of his photos posted on Google Images, which retains a vast repository of images from LIFE Magazine. An even larger collection containing nearly 700 photos by George Lacks can be found on Getty Images.
The extraordinary breadth and depth of these collections belie this astonishing fact: nearly all of these images were produced during a most propitious and fecund period in George's life that lasted about one year. In 1945 and 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, he was assigned to several posts in Asia to collect photos as a war correspondent for LIFE Magazine. During that time he also shuttled to and from his home base in Los Angeles to capture a number of choice photos from movie sets in Hollywood. On the home front he photographed the likes of Howard Hughes, Richard M. Nixon, Danny Kaye, Angela Lansbury, Mickey Rooney, Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Humphrey Bogart, Bron Clifford, Jane Russell, and movie mogul Jack Warner. In China, Japan, and the Philippines he preserved the images of such dignitaries as General Douglas MacArthur, General George C. Marshall, General Chou En-lai, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. However, as a photographer he also favored "the salt of the earth," the grittiness of common people often situated in most uncommon circumstances. He took innumerable pictures of Japanese citizens in Chinese internment camps, wounded soldiers in Chinese hospitals, and Mongolian peoples on city streets and rural landscapes. I'm confident that you'll find all of these images to be deeply impressive, each one conveying a startling—and sometimes unnerving—immediacy and intimacy with the subject.
It is no exaggeration to say that this brief period marked the apogee of my father's career. If a similar set of images can be found by sifting through the final decade of his life, that set has not been discovered—at least not yet. Only time will tell whether the Getty Museum—which purchased a substantial portion of the more than two million photographs housed and maintained by George's much-beloved colleague, Delmar Watson—will unearth a likewise repository of George Lacks' photographic take on the city of Los Angeles, which may be sitting quietly among the many thousands of photos now in the Getty's possession, many of which were shot anonymously.
On this page I've attempted to collect 60 of the most arresting photos to be found within the Google Images/LIFE Magazine collection. The 60 are arranged firstly in rough chronological order, then according to location and theme, in order to approximate the actual sequence in which George produced them. You will see shots of General George C. Marshall as he negotiates a truce with Generals Chou En-lai and Chang Chun to forestall civil war in China; a series of amazing photos showing hundreds of soldiers marching in lockstep as part of the newly emerging Red Chinese Army; an equally amazing set showing a number of Chinese commoners grasping for a bit of pleasure in the opium dens of Mukden, while Chinese prostitutes (cheekily referred to as "GIrls" by my father) work the streets of Mukden out of makeshift brothels; compelling shots of the American military presence in the city of Shanghai, where Lacks News Photos set up shop in the Thirties and Forties; a fascinating set of photos depicting Helen Howe, an American monologist (whom we might today call a "performance artist," and a precursor to (next column)
such as Lily Tomlin and Julia Sweeney) who was related by marriage to U.S. president John Quincy Adams; and many others. Among the photos that George shot on Hollywood movie lots, you'll even see a few taken in (gasp!) color (such as it was in the '40s, at any rate).
Following an unsettling series of photos of George W. Bush, one gets to the heart of this collection, which contains nearly 700 photos produced by George Lacks. Many of them are duplicates of the images available at Google Images. On the downside, low marks to Getty for its ungenerously-sized photo enlargements; its watermark, which is more intrusive (and, in my opinion, less handsome) than the LIFE Magazine watermark; and its search engine, which attempts to break the collection down by category but sometimes produces laughable results, as noted above. Cf. George Lacks at Getty Images
George Lacks Posters at AllPosters.com: Contains 27 of the best photos from mid-1940s China, as well as the photo of Richard Nixon resuming his law practice, all available as posters in a wide variety of sizes and photographic media.
USC Digital Library: Contains two photos taken by George on February 26, 1958. Both show Samuel Sansone of the Los Angeles Examiner handing out National Press Photographers Association awards to two Superior Court Judges, Kenneth E. Morrison of Santa Ana, and Stanley Mosk of Los Angeles. From the Los Angeles Examiner Negatives Collection, consisting of approximately 215,000 4x5-inch negatives from the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper, all produced between 1950 and 1961. The USC Digital Library notes that this collection forms part of the Hearst Collection, and was a gift from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Division of the Hearst Corporation in 1978.
Just as for the other categories on this website, the 60 photos are presented here as a slide show with associated thumbnail images. Unlike the other categories, however, when you click on a spyglass icon, you'll be taken directly to an enlargement that is hosted by Google Images, rather than to a page of my own making that is hosted on XGB Design's server. Thus this slide show provides a good intro- duction to the entire suite of Lacks photos posted on Google. While I deeply admire the Google enterprise generally, I do not regard Google Images' user interface to be either the prettiest or the most user-friendly avail- able. Nevertheless, if you expend a bit of effort, and backtrack from each enlarged image posted there, you can often access a set of photos that are related to the one you've just viewed. Another good way to examine the hundreds of Lacks photos not posted on this webpage is to access George Lacks at Google Images directly, and work from there.
On many of the slides I've taken some pains to repair minor defects such as spotting, scratching, edge irregularities, and delamination damage wherever I could (with one notable exception, as this image has extensive damage throughout, especially the irreparable emulsion-smearing behind Chang Chun's head). Any purists out there who decry such attempts at photographic revisionism can view the unretouched photos on Google Images, where all the warts and dung are resplendently displayed to full advantage!