Photojournalist and author Tim Page created some of the most iconic and memorable images of the Vietnam War and captured the bubbling counter culture of the 1960s and 70s at seemingly every turn. Wounded in battle four times, Page’s thrill seeking was never ending, and his eccentric personality would serve as the influence for Dennis Hopper‘s character in the landmark film Apocalypse Now. He would go on to be the subject of several documentaries, two films, and the author of ten books. For two years he was the Photographic Peace Ambassador for the UN in Afghanistan and was recently named one of the ‘100 Most Influential Photographers Of All Time’.
Page joins us for Bicycle Day with 4 new editions taken throughout his expansive career, two captured in Vietnam, more than 25 years apart, the first taken at second Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968 and the second in 1994 as Page returned to the tunnels of Cu Chi to find a Huey helicopter with Charlie Don’t Surf. After recovering and returning home from Vietnam, Page began taking photos for music magazines like Rolling Stone and Crawwdaddy among others, with editions featuring the infamous arrest of the Doors’ Jim Morrison with “Say Your Thing Man” and on a shoot with the Clash as they prepared to release their opus Combat Rock. Read on as Page gives us the story behind some of these iconic photos . . .
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about these Bicycle Day print editions, is there anything immediate you would like us to highlight about each of these 4 images?
Tim Page: So the first is the hippie on the tank. It was on about the 4th day of the second Tet Offensive, that was in May of 1968. Things got really bad, so they brought American troops in the 9th Division from the Northern delta of Vietnam to try to contain the fighting. The North Vietnamese had infiltrated the southern suburbs of the city. Most of these dudes were draftees, so they didn’t really fucking care about the war I guess. You know what I mean? They just wanted to survive their year and get out.
I mean who knows who wrote hippie on the hat? It’s one of those things you see and say ‘oh, that’s a great picture. I better take more of that.’ I never thought more about it until l was doing my book back in 1981, and somebody said, ‘have you seen this picture? Look at the detail!’ It’s one of those images I wouldn’t have thrown in the bin, but that I just would have missed it. I saw it at the time, I shot it, but it didn’t register at the time as a big deal, you know what I’m saying, it was only discovered years later.
And…it wasn’t a very good day, that was a week that we lost 9 people. 9 correspondents were killed in one week. The fighting went on in the streets for about 5-6 days. It wasn’t a good time, but then immediately after that the war just stopped and everybody kinda took a breather. At that point armored vehicles and tanks that were going through the suburbs. I’m trying to think of a suburb to compare it to…it was like Watts back before it burned down in the late 60s. There was a lot of 1 and 2 story buildings and shop fronts. Then suddenly it didn’t exist because you put an armored battalion through the place with air support, then bye bye suburb. It was just a total fucking rubble after they went through there. That area now you an go through it and it’s all fancy studios and flats. It’s tarted up. Back then it right on the edges of the city. It was the first built up suburb.
1x: So what were you shooting for at the time? How were you developing film? How did that all work?
Page: I was on assignment at the time for Life. So I had just gotten back, maybe 12 days earlier. Penniless. I didn’t have a visa. I was arrested at the airport, and a big party of all these journalists came out to pick me up. Then in the first week I was back I had 5 pages in Life magazine, so suddenly I had money in the bank again. I would guess that picture was probably shot on a 200mm Nikon F4. All the color film was shipped back to New York. You couldn’t process until much later in the game, and you couldn’t process color film in Vietnam, so there was a Pan Am flight every day, which went right round the planet. It just circled the planet and got back to New York, so it would take 24 hours and then they would be able to develop it and go to press. Black and white film you could develop in Saigon, but that was sent with a radio transmission. You color you couldn’t send color by radio until 1970, and this was shot it May of 1968.
1x: How many rolls would you shoot in a day? What was a typical day like? How long would it be for when you would go out and come back?
Page: Where that fighting was, that was maybe a 20 minute bike ride from where all the hotels were, it wasn’t that far outside of town. Saigon wasn’t really that big then, it was big, but it wasn’t enormous with 12 million people like it is now. So you could be at the scene of the fighting in 10-15 minutes bike riding because the streets were deserted. You could go out and shoot for maybe an hour or two, maybe three depending how bad it was, how difficult it was to move about.
Then you’d come back to the office, get some new clean film, have a drink, have a bit of smoke. You could process the film if it was black and white, but you could literally come back and then go back to the fighting, it was a very weird kind of life. It happens when you have massive street riots. It happens still in Syria, you can take a taxi to the office and photograph a war. But it’s not often that the war comes to the city like it did in Vietnam. It didn’t happen that often. The cities were usually pretty safe. Occasionally there would be a bomb or grenade or something, but generally the cities were safe. You could ride around all night long on your bike, you could go to brothels and opium dens and all kinds of shit without having to worry about these trigger happy people. There were guards and MP (military police) and shit. But you were fairly safe unless the VC came into town and made it a hornet’s nest.
1x: What were things like at this point in terms of the war, how long had you been there at this point?
Page: I had been back in town 10 days, so I came back in mid April of 1968, and that was the first week of May 1968. That fighting, that spasm of madness went on for maybe two weeks, and then it calmed right down and nothing happened for a few months, in terms of big battles and action. Both sides had kind exhausted after the Tet Offensive, and the second Tet Offensive in April/May. Both the South Vietnamese (VC) and the Allied forces were exhausted. It was the highest casualties of the war. The enemy, the VC probably lost 12,000 people in that offensive. All their infrastructure was blown away. Then the war took on a different shape in ’68. There were big sweeps and big operations through areas that the VC had controlled. They went through and occupied then, but then as soon as they moved out the area went right back to the VC again. But the war changed pace in ’68. Now that I think about it, the Morrison picture was actually before this. That was in 1967.
1x: Ok, let’s talk about that photo with Jim Morrison being arrested on stage.
Page: I was taking a break from the war and I had arrived in New York just as the anti-war movement surged across the nation. An assignment for Life found me heading for New Haven, Connecticut with writer Fred Powledge who was “in-sighting” the current psychedelically edged music through the eyes of his teen daughter for the magazine.
On arrival we saw a squad of New Haven’s finest sentries posted to prevent their daughters from groping the man in the taut black. Pre-concert Jim was supposedly caught receiving oral sex in his dressing room, the police overreacted and maced Morrison backstage just before he went on. When he came out onstage he was charged with what the Vietnamese would call ‘revolutionary zeal.’
The police surged onstage as the power was cut. Morrison had enough power left to parry the mic at Lt. Kelly’s face with a ‘say your thing man’ before the whole hot moment was stunned briefly into ill-lit silence. As the cops dragged the protesting performer off stage, a riot erupted. Five thousand erstwhile peaceful fans went ballistic. I danced about with my camera shooting the punch out. An officer grabbed me and began beating me and told me to move on. I protested to the Lieutenant in charger. Instant arrest. I was shoved into a squad car back seat. An hour of cruising and collecting knife-flicking drunks, we arrived at the New Haven central tank in time to share central holding with the star himself. We presented a motley spectrum for the night’s catch. It was only then that they wanted my cameras, shoelaces and all the other good stuff to prevent me from suiciding.
Jim Morrison was recently exonerated from his crime in New Haven. As for me, I am still a wanted man in Connecticut, having skipped the $350 bail Life deducted from my fees. though the magazine ran the story with give pages of black and white photos they promptly lost the negatives.
1x:Let’s talk about this image of the Clash. When was this taken?
Page: What do you say about The Clash? This was in 1982. Such is my exposure to music. These are my offerings about music. I got a call out of nowhere to come to their practice studio when they were doing Combat Rock. They were had a manager called Kosmos Vinyl. I met them at this pub, and we went over to their studio and Joe Strummer just gave me a big shopping bag — I hadn’t heard their music — a full shopping bag of all their EPs and their LPs, and a biiiiiiiig, big lump of hash. Then they played about 4-5 numbers from Combat Rock and said, ‘Can you come on tour with us?” and I said, ‘I’d love to.’ I didn’t know really know who they were. Then they said, ‘we’d also want to buy a bunch of your images to project onstage during the tour.’ So I went ‘oh fuck. yea.’ and then the till was ringing again. No idea who wrote that. That was just at underpass, Notting Hill was the first part of London that became reggae central. Now it’s very swish and street market, now it’s a very hip part of London, but that’s where the fly over and motorway goes out of town. Three of them lived in Notting Hill, then their practice studio was on Victoria Road right down the river. It was maybe 4 different venues that they would do. It was mostly just hanging out. Fucking about. Doing lots of fucking drugs. That was the time you know what I mean?
So I went on tour with them through France to begin, and it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was pure fucking insanity. It was all a lot of fun. Then I did two or three concerts in the UK. If you’re not quite sure what fucking day it is because you’re so fucked up. You’re back on the coke just to do another performance, then you’ve gotten so involved since you’re backstage. I’m looking after bimbos, I plan on taking pictures, but I’m struggling to make sense of my life because of drugs and alcohol. It was a great time, but it was a totally gonzo tour. I had no idea who the Clash were. Then at the time they had just launched this incredible album Combat Rock. So it was a real treat to go on tour and shoot pictures for them, and have my pictures projected. Jesus. What more could you want?
1x: How big of venues were they playing at this point? How big were they?
Page: In France we played the Hippodrome, that must have been 15-20,000. We played a football stadium in, we played Wembley Arena, which is not as a big as the stadium, but that was still maybe 25,000? They were playing big audiences. They were major venues, let’s put it . They were big. They were selling lots and lots of albums. They weren’t necessarily recognized on the street like the Rolling Stones or something. I mean we would take pictures of them eating baked beans and toast in Notting Hill, and there would be few locals knew who they were and they weren’t household faces. But in terms of pulling crowds they were big, and Combat Rock was the last album that they put out before they started breaking up.
1x: What were you shooting on the tour, would you shoot the live show, or backstage or just a bit of everything?
Page: I would shoot everything. Being on tour with any rock group you want to shoot everything. You shoot backstage in the bus, you shoot the performance. The advantage is that you can shoot through the stage and get the audience in there. If you know the venue you can wander out to the back end of the audience and shoot the whole performance of the stage, when you’re really free to do that it is really a nice trip. It’s the advantage of being part of the crew in a sense.
1x: To wrap it up, tell us about this last image, Charlie Don’t Surf.
Page: I went back with Ryan Adams in 1994, who was the first rock and roll performer to go to the Vietnam since the war, and he wanted me to go along with him as a companion and a guide. We went out to the tunnels of Cu Chi, there’s a big complex and museum and all this kinda shit. In the middle of the museum complex they’ve got a Huey helicopter sitting on a slab of fucking concrete, and some French tourist, I was told, put that “Charlie Don’t Surf” on the windscreen of the helicopter and outside of the Cu Chi tunnels, which has just turned into this massive tourist compound that is maybe 40 clicks from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, so it was right on Cambodian border.
1xRUN: Where else can people find you?
Tim Page: Website – Facebook – Instagram @timpagephoto