From left: George Johnston - James Burke in
From left: George Johnston - James Burke at a
Photos taken by James
Burke for LIFE Magazine
Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their return from Mt. Everest
L-R: John Hunt, Edmund
Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at celebrations in India - 1953
In 1951 James shot a great many glamour
photos of Madhubala - she was a popular Hindi Actress of the
mid-1945 the war in
was no longer headline news in
, this gave George Johnston,
(Australian War Correspondent in
) an excuse to take a break. In what sounds like a plot for a
comic movie, a group of US Cavalry people were taking a
plane-load of Australian slouch hats (hats worn by Australian
soldiers) into the high country of
in order to trade them for hardy Tibetan mountain ponies. The
Tibetan nomads were apparently very partial to digger (slang for
Australian soldier) hats. The colonel in charge of the operation
magazine photographer James Burke, who spoke fluent Chinese,
along for the ride, though it turned out to be somewhat more
testing than they expected.
party flew from Kunming to an airstrip near the town of Yung
Kwan Chai, which was some 3600 metres (12,000 feet) above sea
level, 'the highest airfield in the world', wrote Johnston. As
he stepped from the plane he was breathless, and not just from
the lack of oxygen: Johnston wrote…Here
was a valley of breathtaking colour and beauty ... a valley of a
million flowers glittering in bright warm sunshine ... And
dominating the far end of the valley, in peerless, shimmering
majesty, stood the white, 25,000 ft. peak of Minya Konka,
appearing to cover half the sky ...
was the beauty of this valley, and others like it that inspired
the setting for the novel
never tired of enthusing lyrically about the valleys of
went with a pack train into the higher peaks around Minya Konka,
where blizzards, freezing temperatures and precipitous ledges
made progress extremely hazardous. They camped with Tibetan
nomads, sleeping in their yurts (tents), eating tsamba (a heavy
barley-meal bread) and drinking Tibetan tea with lumps of yak
butter floating in it. One nomad, an extraordinary cowboy (or
yakboy) called T'se Ch'i, accommodated them, along with his
family, for three days and nights. T'se Ch'i had introduced
himself in an auspicious way when
was instructing some lama priests in the use of a rifle:
looked up and saw a tall, slim man watching us, a picturesquely
handsome man with the face and bearing and dignity of a red
Indian chieftain. I handed him the rifle. He took a quick aim -
there was almost no difference in his movement to accept the
weapon and his actual firing - and he plugged the tobacco tin
clean in the centre.
enjoying a strange hospitality,
had his thirty-third birthday. He was one of the very few
Australians, perhaps even the first, to have visited the high
up to that time. He reflected with a hint of nostalgia on how,
beneath the unfamiliar exterior, life in the Tibetan community
was not unlike life on an Australian farm.
were the children',
he wrote, playing at evening, throwing stones at the sheep. There was the constant
stream of neighbours and visitors dropping in for afternoon tea,
or to borrow a cylinder of yak cheese, or to compare jewellery
and babies - I doubt if any people in all the world are more
affectionate towards children than the Tibetans - or just to
gossip as women do at afternoon tea gatherings the world over
... There was T'se Ch'i striding along with us in the afternoons
when we went to shoot rabbits and pheasants ... There was an old
man and his two sons returning with his yak train to the little
nomads' camp, and being welcomed by shouting children and
barking, tail-wagging dogs, and the old man lifting the smallest
boy to the back of his horse for the ride into the horse lines.
There was so much of warm living and kindness and humanity . . .
was during this time that
and Burke had an unforgettable meeting with the leader of the
white sect of lamas known to his followers as the Living Buddha.
It was known that the great man's proudest possession was an old
phonograph, so Johnston and Burke had gone prepared with a gift
recording. It happened that the only one they could lay hands on
was of a popular song called 'It
Must Be Jelly 'Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That', so it was
with some anxiety that they awaited the Living Buddha's
reaction. They need not have feared: 'The tune was received with
tremendous approval, the Living Buddha nodding his head
rhythmically to the beat of the hot jazz, his eyes closed, and a
beatific expression on his face. Then he played for us his two
records. One was Mei Lan Fan singing a Chinese operatic piece.
The other was Noel Coward's
'Don't put your
daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington'!
the entertainment, Johnston and the Living Buddha settled down
to a serious debate on reincarnation and the comparative merits
of Christian and Buddhist beliefs. 'Christianity has a
childish logic that appeals to large groups of simple people',
asserted the sage, 'but to an intelligent man it is
unsatisfactory. Logic in religion should not be easy to find.
Ours is a religion for the individual scholar or thinker, yours
is a good enough religion for the masses.' There could hardly
have been an Australian precedent for such a lofty conference,
nor hardly an Australian less qualified to participate.
had no religious faith at all, and no professed
for Christianity. On the other hand, he had acquired some
appreciation of Eastern philosophical views. He did not,
however, record his own responses to the Living Buddha's
's time in
did nothing for his respect for the general Lama population.
Burke he spent some time in a lamasery called Konka Gomba,
reputedly the setting of Shangri-La, the retreat in James
Hilton's novel Lost Horizons.
found the reality to be far from the ideal refuge of the
fiction, for within the lamasery walls the Lamas showed all the
jealousy and avarice that characterised the war-torn world
final days of the Tibetan interlude came close to being tragic.
As they descended from the higher regions, Burke developed a
severe kidney infection. The pain was such that he grew
delirious, and one night attempted his own life with the colt
.45 they were carrying.
injected him with morphine and nursed him back to a state fit
for travel, although, with Burke continually falling off his
horse, progress was slow and painful.
arrived back at base camp later than had been arranged, only to
find everything cleared away and the DC3 that was to fly them
home standing at the end of the runway revving for take-off. As
it made its run,
's heart sank: they would never get out of such a remote place,
he thought, and would die before anyone found them.
Miraculously, at that moment the aeroplane's starboard engine
cut out, and the pilot was unable to complete the take-off.
fired his revolver, and they were rescued.
Burke recovered and stayed on in
for many years after the war, and he and Johnston managed to
maintain their friendship, although their lives went in widely
is a brief but affectionate sketch of him under his own name in
book A Cartload of Clay,
where the rescue incident is described, and is concluded by a
reference to Burke's fatal fall in the
in the early 1964.
was the right ending for Jim. And a damn sight better than dying
in the squalor and cold and rat-stench and misery and pain
eighteen years earlier.'
was lucky for the Leonard Cohen fans as well as fans of George
Johnston and Charmian Clift that this friendship endured and
James Burke visited Hydra. Nowhere else exists such a collection
of high quality photographs of the Bohemian artist colony of the
50s & 60s on Hydra.
James Burke 1915-1964
Obituary by George P. Hunt
Managing Editor LIFE magazine - October 16, 1964
"Jim was buried under a spreading tree in a
quiet, beautiful little cemetery in New Delhi, following a brief, moving
and entirely appropriate Methodist service - appropriate became Jim
would have approved, and he was a hard man to please in matters such as
this," So began a sadly eloquent cable from Robert Morse, our Far
Eastern Bureau Chief, describing the funeral of our colleague and
friend. LIFE Photographer James Burke.
Jim was a fine photographer, who enriched with his
own warmth and perception the world of people and places he explored. He
was so quiet and self-effacing that it was hard to believe the dangers
he had seen. He was born 49 years ago in
, where his father was a missionary, and he spoke both
and Mandarin Chinese. He worked as a correspondent, shot hit first pictures
for us in 1948, became New Delhi Bureau Chief and switched to the
photographic staff in 1957. Through the years Jim had roamed bleak
and followed in Alexander's ancient footsteps across the
. He was in
when the Chinese Reds moved in. He pursued snow leopards, covered
cholera epidemics, earthquakes and monsoons. Lately he had been
working on a story he called "Great Sights by Moonlight." and
when he died he was completing a major color essay on the
- he was perched on a ledge, his foot slipped and he fell 800 feet.
In his cable, the day of Jim's funeral. Bob Morse
went on in words that speak for all of us at LIFE. 'Only once or twice
in our association did I ever hear Jim raise his voice. With his
incredible background be was at ease in some of the most difficult parts
or the world. He was accustomed to red tape and unraveled it with
patience. Wherever he was, be it
, the African bush,
. Jim ate the local food and drank the local water. He never became ill.
I remember in Luang Prahang Jim scorned the hotel eggs and bacon,
preferring to roam the teeming, fly-infested market, buying a bowl of
noodles at one stall, a local delicacy at another.
"Large numbers of the foreign community
attended the funeral, but more important were the large number of Indian
friends from the government, the armed services and just plain people
from all walks of life who had known and appreciated him. Probably no
had so many devoted Indian friends as Jim. On Sunday night one of them
said something very pertinent 'Jim.' he said, 'had no feeling of racial
difference. This was foreign lo him. But more important. Jim had no
sense of cultural barrier. He was one with the people he was with, no
matter who they were. He was unique."