Jack Birns with camera. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Jack Birns with camera. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

In 1947, Cleveland native Jack Birns (1919-2008) embraced a childhood dream when he sailed across the Pacific with a LIFE contract and three cameras. He shot in several countries but most importantly in China, where he documented poverty and social chaos in Shanghai during the long battle between the ruling Nationalist Party and the communists. Interestingly, Birns’ Chinese images often clashed with the ardent anti-communist views of publisher Henry Luce. As a consequence, many of his pictures didn’t receive a wide audience until 2003 when Assignment: Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution was published to critical acclaim. Birns also had a good eye for business: in 1954 he co-launched the Birns & Sawyer, a firm that imported Arriflex cameras and manufactured the Omnitar telephoto lens, which was frequently used at rocket launches.

Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers

Women transferring coal from a hillside to mine cars in Taipeh, China. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Women transferring coal from a hillside to mine cars in Taipeh, China. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Cao Dai religious service in Cambodia. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Cao Dai religious service in Cambodia. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Opium addicts smoking, sleeping, and talking together in a "desintoxication clinic." (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Opium addicts smoking, sleeping, and talking together in a “desintoxication clinic.” (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

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