Catherine Leroy, 60; War Photographer

Times Staff Writer

Catherine Leroy arrived in Saigon at 21, armed with a Leica camera and a resolve to capture the human side of the Vietnam War. She crawled through rice paddies while hiding from the fighting, jumped into a combat zone with American paratroopers and was briefly held captive by the North Vietnamese. When she and her cameras were hit by shrapnel, only Leroy survived.

Her stark images -- extreme close-ups of the bloody reality of ground combat -- accomplished what the daring photojournalist intended: They pulled the viewer into the middle of the conflict. Widely published, the photos brought her a number of honors, including the George Polk Award for news photography in 1967.

Leroy, a native of France who lived in Los Angeles, died of cancer Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, according to Dr. Jerome Helman, the attending physician. She was reported to be 60, but her age could not be confirmed.

As one of the few female photojournalists during the Vietnam era, Leroy "brought a sensitivity to the war and to the brutality," said Ken Light, director of UC Berkeley's Center for Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism. "I hate to say it, but it's a woman's eye. It was very different than what the men were doing at the time.

"The work itself had an incredible power that just drew you in," said Light, who curated a university exhibit of Leroy's work last year.

Her work was part of a movement in the 1960s away from photographs of iconic moments, such as the raising of the flag by Marines on Iwo Jima during World War II. Instead, Leroy and others championed "what might be called random moments that somehow capture reality better," said Susan D. Moeller, director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland.

"It's like only remembering your child when she finishes her piano recital, not when she's throwing tantrums at the dinner table. With Catherine Leroy, we got the tantrums at the dinner table.... She was interested in having you confront what she saw in a way that would make you aware of the meaning of the event," Moeller said.

In 1968, Look magazine printed a series of Leroy's full-page images, which Moeller called the most visually striking of all of the photo essays printed during the war. In one close-up, a wounded American soldier is dripping a puddle of bright blood onto the floor as a medic tends his wounds. Leroy captioned the photo, " 'I lose men,' the commander said. 'I lose so many men.' "

"You are so close that it's slightly out of focus, just like you would be if you were right next to this person. You also realize that one or two other people are peering in, maybe medics trying to help. It places you in the middle of this group," Moeller said. "You weren't seeing it through a window frame. You were there, emotionally and physically."

One of Leroy's most famous photographs, "Corpsman in Anguish, 1967" has "incredible passion to it," Light said. Framed by an otherworldly landscape, a Marine's face is wrenched in torment as he is hunched over the body of his dead comrade.

After covering the war for slightly more than two years, Leroy described herself as "extremely shell-shocked" when she left.

"It took years to get my head back together because I was filled with the sound of death, and the smell of death.... I was extremely cool under fire. I didn't show anything. But when I went back to Saigon ... the horror of it would hit me," Leroy said in "Shooting Under Fire," a 2002 book by Peter Howe.

An active freelancer, she went on to shoot battles in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Lebanon, winning the Robert Capa Award for photography in 1976 for her work there. She also was the director and cinematographer of "Operation Last Patrol," a 1972 film about Ron Kovic and other antiwar Vietnam veterans. In 1983, she collaborated with Newsweek correspondent Tony Clifton on "God Cried," a book about the civil war in Lebanon.

More recently, she had been involved in several online ventures, including a gallery, www.pieceuniquegallery.com of photographs called "Under Fire: Images From Vietnam." The gallery sells museum-quality prints by a group of top war photographers, several of whom were killed in Vietnam. Her book, "Under Fire," featuring many of those images, was published last year.

Known for dressing with flair, Leroy also ran Piece Unique, www.pieceunique.com, a consignment business that sells vintage haute couture.

Her throaty "bonjour" made her sound as if she had never left her childhood home in Paris. Growing up, she attended a Catholic boarding school and trained to be a classical pianist. Every week, she read Paris Match and viewed as heroes the photojournalists it showcased, she repeatedly said.

The diminutive Leroy -- 5 feet tall and 85 pounds -- was the only accredited journalist to jump with the 173rd Airborne during a combat operation in early 1967. Influenced by a boyfriend, she had arrived in the war zone as a licensed parachutist.

Later that year, she went on patrol with a Marine unit in the demilitarized zone and was hit by mortar fire. Dozens of pieces of shrapnel pierced her body, breaking her jaw and destroying her cameras. She believed that a camera hanging from her neck saved her life. Six weeks later, she was back in the field.

On vacation at China Beach when the Tet Offensive began in early 1968, she made her way to Hue, South Vietnam, with a French journalist. They spent the night in a cathedral full of refugees but moved on the next morning, knowing they would be captured.

Taken to an occupied colonial home, they were held in servants' quarters but released after the North Vietnamese realized they were French reporters. When her camera was returned, Leroy began to shoot pictures and interview her former captors.

The soldiers were posing, Leroy recalled in 2002, "but to me this was a big shock. It was the first time I saw the other side as normal human beings."

The photos she took that day wound up as a cover story in Life magazine in 1968. The color photo showed two North Vietnamese soldiers clutching their assault rifles and staring into the lens. The headline said: "A remarkable day in Hue: The enemy lets me take his picture."

Leroy is survived by her 91-year-old mother, who lives in France. The French Embassy is arranging to return Leroy's body to France.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°