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Halstead started in photojournalism while in high school. At age 17, he became Life magazine's youngest combat photographer covering the Guatemalan Civil War. After attending Haverford College, he went on to work at UPI for more than 15 years. During the Vietnam War he was UPI's picture bureau chief in Saigon.
Time designated Halstead as their Senior White House Photographer. In 1972 he accepted a contract with them which lasted for the next 29 years. Halstead was one of the six photographers who accompanied Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972. His photographs have appeared on 47 Time covers, more than any other photographer. During this period he also worked as a "Special Photographer" on films to produce photographs used in advertising materials for the major commercial studios. The films he worked on included, Goodfellas, Memphis Belle, Shaft, Black Rain, Dragon, Dune, Conan the Barbarian series, Greystoke, and Cliffhanger.
Halstead is also a senior fellow in photojournalism at the Center For American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which holds his photographic archive.
He has won the NPPA Picture of the Year award twice, the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the fall of Saigon, and two Eisies (). In 2002 he received the lifetime achievement award from the White House News Photographers Association (), and in 2004 he won the Joseph A. Sprague Award () for lifetime achievement and service to photojournalism. The Missouri Honor Medal () from the University of Missouri School of Journalism was given to Halstead in 2007 for superior achievement in journalism.
Halstead's father, William S. Halstead, was an inventor in radio and television development.
His book Moments in Time: Photos and Stories from One of America's Top Photojournalists New York: Harry N. Abrams, was published in December 2006.
- 2006 - "Moments in Time: Photos and Stories from One of America's Top Photojournalists" Dirck Halstead, Harry N. Abrams, ISBN 9780810954410
- The Digital Journalist
- History, Dolph Briscoe Center for American (2014-05-21). "Dirck Halstead - Photojournalism - Strengths - Collections". www.cah.utexas.edu. Retrieved 2018-07-06.
- Guide to the Dirck Halstead Photographic Archive, 1955-2001
- Dolph Briscoe Center for American History - Photojournalism