SEATTLE — Jack Smith, an Associated Press photographer who captured unforgettable shots of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, boxer Mike Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear, and weeping figure skater Tonya Harding at the Olympics during a 35-year career with the news organization, has died. He was 80.
Smith passed away on Jan. 4 at his home in La Mesa, California. He had cancer and had been in hospice care, said his wife, Judy Smith.
“People use the word legendary way too often, but in Jack’s case it might be an understatement,” said David Ake, the AP’s director of photography. “He could make pictures and friends faster than anyone I have ever met. If there was a big story in the West, there would be Jack — with his huge smile, beating you to the scene and making pictures you only wish you could have made.”
Smith joined the AP in Chicago as a photographer in 1966, after serving in the military in Vietnam, and spent a decade working there and in Washington, D.C. Then, in a bid to improve coverage in Oregon and lure some of the state’s newspapers away from rival United Press International, the AP made him its first staff photographer in Portland in 1977, said Steve Graham, who was the bureau’s news editor at the time.
Smith immediately improved the photo operation not just with his keen eye and knack for getting a definitive shot, but through his exceptional organizational skills — maintaining a stable of freelancers and developing relationships with photographers at AP member newspapers around the state, Graham said.
Smith arranged assignments for the many out-of-town photographers who arrived when Mount St. Helens, in southwestern Washington state, began rumbling in 1980. He was among the first to capture images of the volcano when it blew on May 18 that year, and he produced indelible pictures of oil-soaked wildlife following the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
Smith had a big personality to match his 6-foot-4 frame, and was known as “Chainsaw” for his resemblance to a stereotypical lumberjack. He was among a breed of hard-charging, competitive and sharp-elbowed wire service photographers who sought to get a good image at whatever cost and in whatever conditions, several colleagues recalled.
In 1988, he traveled to Barrow, Alaska, where several California gray whales had become trapped in Arctic Ocean ice. Alaska Native whalers had chopped holes where the animals could surface and breathe in an effort to save them.
Knowing he was going to be on that remote assignment for days or weeks, he persuaded the AP to let him rent a snowmobile so he could reach the icebound scene whenever he needed to, recalled Don Ryan, a former AP photographer in Portland who worked with Smith for about 25 years.
Furthermore, Ryan said, Smith convinced the company to buy him a shotgun, telling his bosses he needed it for protection against “rabid snow wolves.”
Smith was also a talented sports photographer, staffing several Olympics and Super Bowls for the AP. He captured a famous photo of figure skater Tonya Harding at the Winter Games in Norway in 1994, with her leg up on the judges’ stand, pleading tearfully to be allowed to replace a broken lace, soon after her ex-husband and bodyguard had been implicated in an attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan.
Another of his famous sports shots came in 1997, when boxer Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a fight in Las Vegas.
Smith also loved to sail, frequently taking friends out on the Columbia River, traveling to the San Juan Islands in Washington state, and maintaining a 35-foot sailboat in retirement. Among his favorite assignments was the America’s Cup yacht race, Ryan said.
“When you went sailing with Jack you weren’t there for a pleasure cruise; you were working, pulling the ropes,” Ryan said. “He went through life that way: He was the captain, and you were the crew.”
Smith was exacting when it came to managing freelancers and cranky with any who failed to come back from an assignment with what he believed would have been the key shot. But those who worked with him said his high standards made them better.
“He was a taskmaster, but that’s how I learned,” said Eric Risberg, who has been an AP staff photographer since 1982 and credits Smith with launching his career by hiring him as a freelancer while Risberg was in college.
Greg Wahl-Stephens, a longtime freelancer for the AP who became close friends with Smith, recalled being assigned to a U.S. Olympic Committee awards ceremony in Portland in 1989.
Smith wanted him to get one photo featuring the two honorees, sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner and swimmer Matt Biondi. But the two did not appear onstage together, and Wahl-Stephens failed to get the shot.
“He fired me — again — on that particular occasion,” Wahl-Stephens said. “But he always let me back in whenever he fired me, and he took a guy who wanted to be (the famous French photographer Henri) Cartier-Bresson and turned me into a photojournalist.”
Smith grew up in Salt Lake City and first became interested in journalism as a boy, when he had a paper route and would stop by the newsroom to perform other tasks, Judy Smith said.
The couple were together for 34 years, after friends set them up on a blind date in Alaska, where Smith was covering a college basketball tournament.
“He just loved the excitement of the job,” she said. “He loved the travel. He liked being good at something, and he was really good at what he did.”
Smith leaves behind his wife; two children, Melissa and Matthew; and a granddaughter, Alexis.