Almost overnight an obscure former White House intern became one of the most famous women in America. When news of the President Clinton sex scandal broke in January 1998, picture editors scrambled to find images of Monica Lewinsky with the president.

Dirck Halstead thought she looked vaguely familiar. One of the United States’ foremost photographers of war zones and political battles, Halstead made his reputation covering the Vietnam conflict and was a White House photographer for Time magazine from 1972 to 2001.

“I have a theory that every time the shutter captures a frame, that image is recorded, at a very low threshold, in the brain of the photographer,” he once wrote. “I knew I had seen that face with the president. I had no idea when, or where.”

The shot seen around the world: Monica Lewinsky embraces Bill Clinton in 1996. Halstead captured the moment two years before their scandal broke.

Halstead hired a researcher to comb through his archives. She examined more than 5,000 slides over four days before finding a single image of Clinton embracing Lewinsky at a fundraiser in October 1996. It was used on a Time cover in 1998 and became one of the defining images of the affair.

The photographer snapped every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Kennedy was dubbed “Jack the Back” by the White House pack. “Whenever he would come into view in the camera he would immediately turn his back to the lens until he had composed himself, until he had his face where he wanted to be, hair where he wanted it to be,” Halstead recalled in a 2010 interview for Binghamton University in New York.

From left, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and wife Jehan accompany Pat and Richard Nixon to see the pyramids at Giza, 1974.

“[Richard] Nixon was my favorite because Nixon was the best subject a photographer could ever have,” he added. “His face was like a living contradiction. His eyes would be delivering one message, his mouth would be delivering another and there would be this moisture above his mouth and his little eyes would be darting around the room. He was nuts, in a word.”

Covering Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 was a career highlight, though exhausting. Fortified by bourbon, Halstead survived on an hour’s sleep each night as he shot images then processed and transmitted the film.

Gorbachev and Reagan at their first summit meeting, in Geneva, 1985.

Some of his greatest photographs captured unscripted drama, such as the bedlam of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. Others were carefully planned. In 1985, a few weeks before Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time, Halstead traveled to Geneva with the White House advance team and shot dummy photographs from a variety of locations and angles to rehearse for the summit.

More lighthearted was his photograph of Lady Diana Spencer giving the Queen a kiss on the cheek before they watched Prince Charles play polo a couple of days before the royal wedding in 1981.

Some of his greatest photographs captured unscripted drama, such as the bedlam of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Dirck Storm Halstead was born in 1936 in Huntington, New York. His father, William, was a telecommunications inventor and pioneer in stereo FM radio broadcasting. His mother, Leslie (née Munro), was an advertising executive.

He became hooked on photography when his parents gave him a Kodak Duaflex camera and darkroom set for Christmas aged 15, and he was soon combining his high school studies with part-time work for local newspapers. “When I was growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy,” he said. “Somewhere in my teens, I decided that being a photojournalist was better.”

Diana Spencer kisses her mother-in-law-to-be before going to watch fiancé Prince Charles play polo.

Halstead covered the burial of his hero, the war photographer Robert Capa, who was killed in the First Indochina War in 1954. Among other awards, Halstead would in 1975 win the Robert Capa Gold Medal for overseas photographic reporting for his work in Vietnam.

After the ceremony, aware that a CIA-orchestrated coup was about to spark violent reprisals in Guatemala, he talked an editor at Life magazine into giving him an assignment in the country, ostensibly to cover students on a charitable expedition.

“Seventeen-year-old Life combat photographer Dirck Halstead was off to war,” he remembered. “Bullets whizzed around me, as I ran across the fields with the attacking troops. My adrenaline was pumping, and I felt absolutely immortal.” He was drafted into the United States military at 19; he went to the Pentagon with his portfolio and persuaded a general to appoint him as an official army photographer. After two years he left to join the United Press International agency.

Halstead and U.P.I. reporter Leon Daniel in Vietnam in 1972.

He was in Vietnam when the first US combat troops arrived in 1965 and witnessed the last airlifts as Saigon fell a decade later. The war, he said, was his “core event. It’s what shaped me.” Despite the carnage, he adored the challenge and the freedom to “hop on a helicopter, fly off a couple of hundred miles and be set down in the middle of a raging battle … when you’d had enough of that, get back on the helicopter, go back to Saigon and have a beer.”

Halstead reflected on the strange thrill of peril in his 2006 memoir, Moments in Time. “How can it be that in a place of war, I find the happiest times I have ever known? How could I possibly explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it how much more alive I feel returning to Saigon at the end of the day, and living and enduring in a place where I’m not even sure I will survive?”

One of the stills Halstead shot on the set of Apocalypse Now.

As a sideline he shot publicity stills for Hollywood movies including Apocalypse Now, Goodfellas, Memphis Belle, Conan the Barbarian and Cliffhanger. The latter, a vertiginous 1993 vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, required a trip to the Italian Alps, where Halstead discovered that Stallone had a fear of heights and had no intention of hanging over any cliffs. Stallone relied on a stunt double and special effects.

Halstead, no climber himself, strapped on a harness and lowered himself a hundred feet down a sheer cliff face with the help of a guide before perching on a tiny outcrop to take test shots. He showed Stallone a spectacular Polaroid image during a lunch break and tried to sweet-talk him into making the dizzying descent on a bluff with a 2,200ft drop. “He bellowed, ‘get the f*** out of my tent!’” Halstead said. “But I just knew there was no way Sylvester Stallone was going to let some wiseass photographer show him up.”

Halstead shot the image for Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 film Cliffhanger.

Later that afternoon Stallone duly buckled up a harness and went over the cliff. Halstead got his picture and the newly confident actor acquired a relish for mountaineering. “Sly had become so pumped over this short but daring adventure that he insisted on rewriting and re-filming almost all the shots he had done before,” Halstead said. “This time, however, he would be on the cliff, not his double.”

Marriages to Patricia Gilmer, Elizabeth Zakroff and Virginia Naumann ended in divorce. He is survived by his sister, Anne. In 1997 he launched an online magazine, the Digital Journalist. He also taught photojournalism at the University of Texas, which holds more than 500,000 of his images. In his last years he moved to the mountains of Panama.

In his Austin classrooms he scanned the faces of his students, hoping to spot potential: “energy, curiosity, wildness, a pulse.” Great photojournalists, he believed, had fire in their eyes. They were, he insisted, “crazy … in a good way.”

Dirck Halstead, photographer, was born on December 24, 1936. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 25, 2022, aged 85