Q&A with John Garofolo, author of "Dickey Chapelle Under Fire”
Why did you decide to write "Dickey Chapelle Under Fire?”
I’d been working on a Chapelle screenplay for a number of years and it finally dawned on me a few years back that while Chapelle had written an autobiography and there was a 1992 biography, there wasn’t anything that really showcased her photography. I felt that was a missing component of Dickey’s narrative. Her autobiography hit the key points of her life, although I doubt it is a completely truthful, and the Ostroff biography did a deep dive into the minutia of her life, possibly to a fault and neither showed much of her work as a photographer.
Did you focus on a particular event in Dickey’s life while writing the book?
In this case, the focus of the book is on her body of work as a photographer. Since she started out as a writer, I think people tended to overlook her photography, especially since she led such a fascinating life as Roberta Ostroff tried to uncover in her biography. It’s hard for me to pick one particular event as more important than any other since I was looking to paint a picture of her life by representing the totality of her work across multiple periods of her life.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope readers will appreciate her work as a photographer, but also gain a sense of what mattered most to her, which was to reveal the horror of war [and] reveal the bravery, compassion and dedication of the people who fight wars and the consequences that they often suffer. Dickey Chapelle deserves to be recognized as a significant figure in American history.
What did you find most fascinating about Dickey Chapelle?
I’m impressed with the fact that Dickey overcame a number of challenges just to do her job. Her husband, Tony, who taught her photography in the first place was understandably less than thrilled with Dickey pushing so hard to get herself into combat during World War II. She competed for stories and opportunities with men who were not about to let her get an advantage. She earned the respect and trust of the Marines who fought in two of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific during World War II. By the time she got to Vietnam, she was fighting age and injuries and had been reporting on wars for more than twenty years and still competing for assignments with men. She knew the job was dangerous yet kept at it despite knowing the possible consequences of doing so. She worked hard and never gave up on telling the story she wanted to tell until the very day she died.
How can this book serve as a guide to Chapelle’s work?
Fortunately, this book serves as a great guide to Dickey Chapelle’s work since it shows you what her work actually looked like. Even though the book doesn’t go very deep into her life story by design, each chapter essay reveals something about who Dickey Chapelle was and what was going on in her life at the time. Her photos reveal what was important to her by showing where she was at in a given moment, what was going on while she was there and, most importantly, what she chose to focus her camera on.
What were some of the most interesting or surprising things you learned from writing this book?
I was pretty familiar with Dickey’s life and story from working on a screenplay over a number of years, but what was interesting to me, as far as the process for the book was concerned, was I had been distancing myself from the actuality of Dickey’s life in order to serve the narrative for a feature film. In order for the book to really work, I had to reconnect with the real Dickey Chapelle, not the idealized version needed for a screenplay. What was kind of surprising to me were the number of inaccurate or sort-of-close-to-accurate pieces of information that had been floating around for a number of years. One of which was that she was "barely five feet tall in combat boots.” She was actually five feet four and a half. Another was that she covered the Korean War, which is incorrect. She lost her military press accreditation after the battle of Okinawa and was working for relief agencies in the early 1950’s. She did go to Korea in the late 1950’s, but well after the end of hostilities in 1953. Like all of us, Dickey was less than perfect, but she was absolutely devoted to her craft and telling the stories of those who fight wars, or those who suffer the consequences of war.
In what ways is "Dickey Chapelle Under Fire” a uniquely Wisconsin story?
Dickey’s story is a great Wisconsin story. She was born in Milwaukee to German-American parents and was influenced by her midwestern upbringing before leaving to go to MIT. Even though she lived in Milwaukee infrequently after she moved to Florida and then to New York, which was her professional home base, she always had her family ties to the state. Her brother Robert Meyer and sister-in-law Marion were both professors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and after she was killed in Vietnam, she was returned to her family in Wisconsin and buried in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Historical Society houses the Dickey Chapelle Archives, which includes more than 20,000 of her photographic images and their sister press division is publishing this book.
Were there some photos not featured in the book that you wish you could have included?
With more than 20,000 images and a limited number that could be fit in the book, there were countless photos that were contenders that couldn’t be included. I still agonize over the considerable number that had to left aside, or were a coin toss away from making the final cut. Of course, there are photos that may have won the coin toss that I can second-guess forever.
How was this a personal experience?
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on the Chapelle story for a long time and being able to reconnect with her work in hopes of finding the fundamental essence of Dickey Chapelle was a rewarding experience. I think the more I work on Chapelle’s story, the more I’m convinced that I haven’t even scratched the surface of who she was.
Do you have one image that really speaks to you and captures the experience?
To me, all the photos collectively tell a story about who Dickey Chapelle was, but I do have a favorite image of sorts that gives a hint as to what was important to Dickey. There’s a picture Dickey took of an Army Captain from the 82nd Airborne Division in the Dominican Republic in 1965. It shows him dancing with a group of school-girls and I like the juxtaposition of the soldier in a combat situation that reveals his humanity and concern for the girls. At the same time, it reveals Dickey’s sense of drama and her experience as a photographer documenting the plight of the innocents often most affected by war.