photography and life's lessons
My biggest thrills come from knowing the photographers who have taken iconic photos. Or at least meeting them. It’s not so much about their skills as an artist but that their images changed the world or deeply and greatly affected people.
I’ve been blessed to have met many of these photographers. Nick Ut, John Harte, Dirck Halstead, Brad Graverson, Luis Sinco, Rick Loomis, Bill Eppridge and Boris Yaro, and a guy most have long forgotten, Doug Wilson.
Mom and dad were both journalists in the 1960s Los Angeles and later. They fit the mold of the stereotype: hard to get along with, heavy drinkers and absolute jerks of intolerance for anything not true or accurate. During those uncommon hours when my dad was sober or not obsessed with a story or personal project, he would always say the the best you could hope for as a journalist was to make a contribution to the world.
I take that as a general rule for all people and not just journalists. But the journalists willingly take on an enormous responsibility to get it right and to make sure other people know it.
As a child I would spend hours pouring over the Los Angeles Press Club annuals my parents brought home once each year. IN the front pages were photos of the Boards of Directors. Most were reporters but a few were photographers. I was always drawn to the photographers and would turn the pages until I could match a photo inside to the face in the front. I somehow made a connection between what the photographer looked like and the image that they took.
At times the images were inconsequential to me. Like a basketball shot of a UCLA team perhaps, taken by Wayne Kelly, who had a ridiculous grin in his board portrait. I could still match the two today, though I spent years learning directly from Wayne at Cal State Long beach and am in contact with him still.
But photos by Boris Yaro, Bill Beebe and I think one or two Watson brothers were endless curiosities to me.
I feel a deep connection to many photojournalists but not many photographers. In my mind, photojournalists aren’t great photographers, they are documentaries of history and parlayors of truth.
Photographers on the other hand, create images of fancy and imagination. Some bear hints of reality, like an Ansel Adams and his photos of rocks. Those rocks and trees always look better in hi sprints than they do in person. Others put on paper the thoughts circleing inside their heads. Fantasy and fiction, all of it.
But the news photographers had a front row seat to history and often shaped our knowledge of what truly is. Think Bobby Kennedy laying on a the floor bleeding, a napalmed girl running down a road, a woman in a beret hugging a President in a press line.
Now those are photos that made a contribution to the world, or at least our understanding of the world. Emotional, harsh, terrible and real. With so much awful in the world, who needs TV or fiction?
That didn’t happen until many years later, though. The intervening decades gave me plenty to absorb and consider. As a child of the Sixties I had neighbors who were flower children and hippies. My father was a crime reporter and took me along to some scenes, one of which I remember to be something about the Manson Family.
I ran the halls, stairs and elevators of the Pasadena Star-news to the rhythm of the AP and UPI wires machines, the smell of ink and hot type and the swoosh of vacuum tubes being shot to another region of the building for an editor to work on or reject.
The lore of journalists is astounding. No one leaves a newspaper career without incredible true stories to tell. After my father died I heard a few that he neglected to tell me himself. Like how one time he was drunk in the newsroom at the old Daily Mirror (bought up by the Times years later), had some disagreement with the city editor and jumped on the editors desk and peed all over it.
I don’t recall that he was fired for that. There was something else about yelling the name of Buffy Chandler while committing some other foul act that helped earn him a reputation as a crazy person.
My mother was similar and different. She would complain about her editors, especially the ones who insisted she write a story she thought was stupid. In the 60’s women didn’t get much to write about that wasn’t about clothes, cooking or visiting royalty. She once spent a day with a visiting queen from Siam (what they called it back then).
More than a few times my brother and sister and I were called upon to be photo subjects. Once was for a story about what kids will buy for Christmas presents for other people. My brother bought a hammer, my sister a doilys or something, and I got a toy car for myself.
Another time it was for a fashion story on costumes based on current TV shows. In my case it was Batman, so I appeared across a few pages in the Herald Examiner climbing the kitchen doorway arch in a batman suit, and swinging on a rope in the back yard as Robin.
Doug Wilson was the photographer for both of those stories. I never knew him well enough to know if he was my mom’s age or younger, but I always suspected they may have been more than peers. My parents divorced by then and any older male in the house could have had many different roles to play.
Later in her career, in the early 1980’s in fact, she covered a criminal trial in a small town called Signal Hill. The city was geographically enclosed by Long beach and most people probably never knew it was its own municipality.
The story was that of Ron Settles, a Cal State Long beach football player who had died in the custody of the Signal Hill police department. It was a big, racially charged story about police brutality and cover ups. (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). A key issue was the manner of death in which Settles died. Police did not make it public and an inquest was launched by an angry attorney named Johnnie Cochran, who went on to great fame for getting OJ Simpson off the hook.
The jury ultimately decided that Settles died “at the hands of another,” but no one was ever fingered or prosecuted for it. Trouble was, my mom knew who did it. She had a source inside the police department who told here that one of the arresting officers, whose name I’ve never known, was roughing up Settles, who was hands were cuffed behind his back.
Settles fought back the only way he could, by grabbing the crotch of the officers abusing him. Presumably unknown to Settles, the officer had previously had a testicle surgically removed and went ballistic at what he took to be a challenge to his manhood from some black guy that shouldn’t be allowed on the street.
Racial challenges always troubled me as a child because I didn’t understand it. People looked different so why was it wrong to ask about it or talk about it? I was scared of some black people because, well, I don’t know. I just was.
But the Settles case helped me see the stupidity of racism. I was starting college then and any social injustice needed to be front page news.
Around that same time one my mom’s closest friend, Claudia Luther, also a Time reporter, had come across a 16-year-old girl who confessed to having sex with a state legislator. Laurie Terwilliger became big news quickly and Claudia became the target of the District Attorney’s office who wanted her to testify in court.
The Times back then went to great lengths to keep reporters and photographers out of the new stories they covered and sent Claudia packing to live anywhere she couldn’t be found. That meant our house for some long stretches. Back then I didn’t understand it so much, but I knew it was about doing the right thing.
My parents and I had some horrible and distressed years in our relationships and many personal things never got resolved. But many of these memories have shaped me. I dont reacct emotionally to a lot of things that devastate other people. I make distasteful jokes about people who may have died, committed terrible crimes or have been the victims of horrific actions. I get it, I’ve seen it, I’ve heard about it in depth since I was a child. My hard exterior for that stuff is offensive and disturbing to many people I know, but you know what, that’s life, in all of its ugly reality. It’s never not been there, and pretending it doesn’t exist won’t ever make it go away.
That’s why it’s important to look at the images of a dead child who washed ashore, or a family’s grief as they love their son during his final hours of life as an AIDS patient.
I have photograph on my hallway wall of two children standing arm in arm. One is white, one is black. It has been in my possession since my mother passed, and she owned it ever since the photographer, Doug Wilson, took it.
The photo shows up in magazines every now and then because of its historical importance. The image was taken at Disneyland during an event for the Foundation for the Junior Blind. It’s title is “The Blind are also Color Blind.”
At the height of the civil rights movement, it became a symbol of our similarities and not our differences. So much though that President Lyndon Johnson requested a framed print of it for the White House.
Photographs and photographers make a difference in our lives, just as journalists do. The truth always wins, even when it is ugly and offensive to some. But what is our alternative? To ignore it is to repeat it or worse.