Jack Bradley has spent his entire life through the eye of a lens, capturing the beauty and truth of the Midwest region to the harsh reality of war.
From spending his time hovering in a press helicopter while a train crash explosion nearly engulfed his vehicle with a mushroom of flames, to shooting the battle fields of the Korean War, Bradley spent his life in middle of the action documenting every second.
Now Bradley, 82, reminisces about his life behind the camera as he spends his days at Illinois Veterans Home in La Salle, living out the final chapter of his life — a life largely lived.
It Began with War
Bradley’s adventures started when he was assigned by chance as a combat photographer in the Army during the Korean War. Before the war, Bradley worked as a film projector in Chillicothe, but never before experienced the power of photography.
“I started in the Army not knowing anything about photography,” he said. “I did not even own a camera.”
Serving in the army from 1951 to 1953, Bradley documented the battles of the war from his camera, and even witnessed the signing of the armistice that ended the war.
Bradley also helped with war films such as “Pork Chop Hill” which were shown mainly in Korea during the war.
His most tender moment in Korea was when he watched as his general, Mark Clark, unwillingly sign the armistice.
The photograph, which documented the army’s feelings at the time, highlightened the tears down the general’s face as he signed, and his bitterness as he took the pen to paper.
For his time in Korea, Bradley was awarded the Bronze Star for combat photography and the Korean Freedom Medal.
From his recognition and honors, Bradley decided to continue using his new-found talent as a photographer and start a family with his high school sweetheart.
As television began to enter the homes of Americans across the country, Bradley came back to the states and started working for stations in Illinois, but left to start his 27 year-career as a photographer at the Journal Star in Peoria.
Taverns and Cemeteries
Unlike others, Bradley would never let stories come to him instead he would travel to find a story. “Good stories do not come easy, you have to dig them out,” he said.
Throughout his career, he would adventure to small towns across Illinois with fellow photographers.
“We did not know where the hell we are going,” he said. “We had a company car full of gas and away we went.”
Bradley never started at city hall when he wanted to learn about a town; instead he would grab a couple of beers and chat with the owner where he learned everything he wanted to know and more.
After chatting with the bar owner, he would travel to the local cemetery, and check out the art in the cemetery.
Throughout his adventures, Bradley captured the Midwest from poverty, church revivals to the rural beauty of the Illinois landscape. Some of his photo assignments included chatting with retired miners of the Cherry mine or capturing famous politicians such as Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy and many other politicians.
His most decorated and honored photo is of a deaf child, Rusty Whittles, who hears for the first time because of a hearing aid.
Whittles was in the first class of a State Division of Special Education and a HEAR organization sponsored program. The photo was taken at Bartonville Grade School in September 1963.
The photo appeared in many national papers in the world and recognized for the top 100 photographs of the past 100 years by the Associated Press titled “The Instant It Happened.” It is also recognized at No. 5 as one of the 10 most shocking black and white photos, and was displayed at Grand Central Station in New York.
While most of the time Bradley was out taking photos, he also fought for the rights of fellow photographers, when the CIA wanted to confiscate all the crowd negatives of photographers attending speeches by presidential candidates.
As the president of the National Photographer Press Association in 1971, he stood up, in his polyester suit, and told the members of Congress why they should not take the negatives, but Bradley did not only speak against the CIA and Congress.
“I told the photographers to get their negatives of the crowds and punch holes in them,” Bradley said.
Looking back, Bradley said he was glad they punched the holes because now photographers today can take as many photos of crowds as they want.
The Final Chapter
Sitting in the veterans home, Bradley said he is surprised to see his documentaries and footage when he turns on the history channel.
After his years as a photographer, Bradley has four published books left as his legacy as a photographer. He also has three children, his daughter following in his footsteps.
Though, Bradley does not know what his final chapter has in store, he said he loves his work and photography, and has enjoyed his life.
“It was a hell of a ride …,” he said.
Elizabeth Edwards can be reached at (815) 220-6933 or email@example.com.