Sea Discovery

Obituary: Jack Birns

Jack Birns, founder of BIRNS, Inc. and one of the pioneers in our industry, has died.
Birns (89) died on Sunday Feb. 10, 2008 from various ailments including kidney failure. He was well known in photographic circles as an award-winning foreign correspondent for LIFE magazine, and in the commercial diving world as President of BIRNS Incorporated.
Jack Birns was born to Russian immigrants in Cleveland, Ohio in 1919. After graduating from Ohio Northern University in 1941 with a degree in English Literature and Journalism, he entered the newspaper business as a cub reporter working for the Scripps-Howard feature service (NEA), United Press, and the International News Service, all in Cleveland. After a brief departure from journalism to manage newsreel theaters in Cleveland and Buffalo, Jack returned as a photographer-writer for NEA-ACME (Scripps-Howard photo service) and became the bureau chief of the five-state Acme photo bureau headquartered in Cleveland.
In 1946 Jack moved to Los Angeles, Calif., and freelanced as a magazine photographer for a year, during which time he set a record for freelancers working for LIFE: 30 pages and a cover in 6-months’ work. LIFE, impressed, hired Jack to cover the Civil war in China and during 1947 he set another record for LIFE staff photographers for pictures and pages, as he captured on film a vast country undergoing fundamental changes, and a society characterized by poverty, petty crime, homelessness and military rule. This energetic war coverage (China, Burma, India, Philippines, and Malaysia) won for Jack a coveted recognition from the prestigious Overseas Press Club of America. For the first time in its history the OPC established a special award for photographers to honor Jack’s work, and the award was given to Jack by General George C. Marshall, chief of staff during WWII and, later, Secretary of State.
After returning to the U.S., Jack established the motion picture firm of Birns & Sawyer. In 1954 he built the first underwater motion picture camera housings for the U.S. Navy and, in 1961, the Navy’s first underwater lights. Jack supplied the underwater lighting for the U.S. Man-in-the-Sea program, and for Sea Labs I, II, and III. Jack also established a separate Birns & Sawyer lens grinding facility in Riverside County to make telephoto lenses for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. In 1979 Jack left Birns & Sawyer to start BIRNS, Inc., devoted to all types of energy-related underwater and high-performance lighting. Jack’s lights are now used by the navies of more than 23 countries, 83% of U.S.-based commercial nuclear power stations, NASA at KSC, and many others. In 1985 the oldest shipwreck ever found (approximately 3,500 years old!) was excavated using Jack’s lights; among other underwater archaeological finds he illuminated were the Civil War Ironclad "Monitor", the "Hamilton", the "Scourge", the "Andrea Doria", and the "Titanic". In March 1984 the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution honoring Jack’s 30 years of work there, and in October 1984 Jack’s photos hung in New York and Washington as part of a LIFE magazine exhibit of the best pictures of the 1950-1960 decade.
Jack retired from active involvement in business in 1987, to spend more time with his family. He continued to be a guest speaker on pre-revolutionary China and artistic photography. He published a book, Assignment: Shanghai; Pictures on the Eve of Revolution (available on, a picture-chronicle of life in Pre-Communist China showing an increasingly desperate population falling prey to the miseries of civil war), and he donated his services to teach adult swimming at the YMCA and, later, to teach photography to the blind and sight-impaired at the Braille Institute.
Jack Birns was buried on February 13, 2008 during a private ceremony. He is survived by six children, 18 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. His family desires only your kind thoughts, and respectfully requests that in lieu of flowers any memorial gifts be made to the American Heart Association , The Braille Institute , or the International Myeloma Foundation .

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