Time to retire one hell of a camera

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My Canon EOS 1D Mark II N. One hell of a camera.

Well, old friend, the time has come. And what a run it has been. We threw down some serious images these past 10-plus years. I was making so much money when I bought you in 2006, or was it 2005, that I plopped down the $4,000 you cost without a second thought, as easy as spending a couple of bucks on a cup of coffee. It’s a little different now, and it took me three years to pull the trigger on purchasing your replacement. My income is about half of what it was when I bought you, but my happiness is double, so we’re doing fine. Fair trade off. In digital camera time, 10 years is probably a hundred, maybe even more, and you just grew a bit outdated. Not being able to effectively use you indoors or at night sporting events was too much of an obstacle to overcome. And that 8-megapixel CMOS sensor, so groundbreaking for its time, has grown a little long in the tooth. But you were a pioneer, and the stunning cameras we have today would not have been possible had you not come first. You are not my oldest camera, but you are the one I used the most, and by far the best. The good news is you have virtually no resale value, so it makes no sense to sell you. So you get to hang around, enjoy your retirement, and I’m sure you’ll even get a little work as a backup now and then. I’ll even let my photojournalism students feel what it is like to work with a real photo beast. So you’re not done quite yet. You were one awesome photography tool, my friend.

Damacio Diaz of McFarland cross country fame admits to police corruption and drug charges, faces federal prison

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Damacio Diaz, right, shakes hands with Tomas Valles as the team readies for the start of the Southern section championships in the 1987 season.

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

The Bakersfield Californian articles report this story in depth. Click here to read yesterday’s story by Steven Mayer and click here to read today’s by Mayer and Christine Bedell.

The Guardian series declaring Kern County police the country’s deadliest

Twinkies, Hawaii and messages in the sand: The story of Sylvia and Herlinda

The real “McFarland USA” beach scene, from the album of Silvia Diaz

Photos from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

Update: Show the world what has happened to my son

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

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Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015.

 

My last photographs of Merle Haggard

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I photographed Merle Haggard a lot during my 28-year career as a Bakersfield Californian photographer. One of Bakersfield’s native sons and arguably the greatest country musician and song writer of his generation, Haggard performed in Bakersfield often, and also visited frequently from Redding, California, where he lived, for social functions, to visit friends and even for medical treatment.

Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday, and even though he was in failing health, his loss has hit this town and the entertainment industry hard. A cause has not been listed, but he had been battling with double pneumonia since late last year.

Oddly enough, despite the number of times I photographed Haggard, I never really got to know him, unlike Bakersfield’s other giant of country music, Buck Owens, whom I became quite friendly with. I’m sure we said “hello” to each other a time or two, but the circumstances of the various shoots – usually his very busy schedule and the fact that he did not live in Bakersfield – never gave us an opportunity to talk. But he was a great photo subject, friendly and polite, and best of all for a photographer, completely at ease and even oblivious to the camera.

And, of course, I loved his music. I was a fan long before I was a photojournalist, and remember many a night as a teenager in Taft, California, cruising around in my friend Bill Wheeler’s Datsun pickup, listening to Merle Haggard songs for hours.

Some of the Haggard assignments were routine, mostly a few shots of his many concerts he performed at local venues, big and small. But some took on more importance. One, which I wrote about last year on this blog, was “Together Again: Buck and Merle and the Great Country Music Summit of 1995,” a high profile reunion of Owens and Haggard, along with Dwight Yoakam. Another would be the final time I would photograph Haggard as a staff photographer for The Bakersfield Californian. It was Haggard’s first concert after he underwent lung cancer surgery two months earlier. It was Friday, January 2, 2009, two months before I would leave the newspaper, and it was a busy afternoon and evening. It started with Haggard being given a star in front of Bakersfield’s historic Fox Theater, where he played a few times, and concluded with a concert at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, before a packed house, of course. It was not easy for him, and he had to stop a few times, freely talking to the audience about the surgery and his challenging recovery.

These are the pictures I shot for The Californian that day.

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Two months after his lung cancer surgery, it was a big day in his home town for Merle Haggard, who was honored with a star outside the historic Fox Theater and performed his first post-surgery concert at the Crystal Palace.
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Merle Haggard glances toward the crowd that assembled outside the Fox Theater Friday afternoon to watch the unveiling of his star.
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A smiling Merle Haggard acknowledges the crowd that was on hand for the unveiling of his star outside the Fox Theater Friday afternoon.
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Merle Haggard looks at his star outside the Fox Theater after it was unveiled Friday afternoon.
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Merle with his wife, Theresa.
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Several dozen fans turned out for the dedication ceremony.
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Merle Haggard takes the stage at the Crystal Palace for his first performance since undergoing lung cancer surgery. Behind him is his son, Binion.
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Merle Haggard performs for the first time since his lung cancer surgery.
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Merle Haggard and his son, Binion, during Haggard’s first concert following lung cancer surgery two months earlier.
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The Buck Owens Crystal Palace was packed for Merle Haggard’s first concert, on January 2, 2009, following his lung cancer surgery.
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Merle Haggard removed his hat and spoke candidly to the audience at Friday’s show. He talked about the honor of receiving a star outside the Fox Theater and about his recent lung cancer surgery, saying “It still hurts.”

 

Thank you, WordPress editors!

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Just a little note to thank the editors of WordPress for choosing this blog as an “Editors’ Choice” in both the “media” and “photography” categories. That’s quite a nice honor!

Here’s a picture that really doesn’t have much of a story behind it but I thought would be nice to share. It has never been published before. It’s the trail from a missile launch of some kind from Vandenburg Air Force Base on California’s central coast that I saw while driving to the coast along Highway 166 in 1999. Up until that time, we had a pretty nice agreement with the newspaper regarding use of photos that we took on our own time and with our own equipment. They would either pay us or give us some time off in exchange for the photos, and it worked out great for many years. But just a few months before this picture was taken, a new photo editor objected to that agreement, and a rather nasty atmosphere developed, really for the first time, between the photo staff and their photo editor, who demanded that all “own time” photos be given to the newspaper for free. So I decided not to offer the photo to the newspaper, and you are seeing it for the first time. I always thought it was a cool shot. The photographers would eventually prevail, after five long months the editor was fired, but victory was not without cost: we lost a remarkably talented young photographer – who had been harassed mercilessly by the editor – to a Los Angeles newspaper.

Heaven: shooting what I want to shoot

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One of the things I don’t miss at all about working in newspapers is the incredible frustration of not being able to get the time to do a story or project the way you want to. So many times I would convince the editors to give me a day or two to work on something, then when I’d get to work, my all-day project has now become a two-hour project. “Sorry, something came up,” they would say, and I’d spend my shift doing the most routine daily work. One time, when my home town of Taft, California was hit by a devastating downturn in oil prices  – similar to what’s happening now – I proposed doing a project on the impact it was having on families. The editors agreed, I found several families willing to be photographed, and one Thursday afternoon, I headed out to do my first of what would be many shoots in the small oil town. And then, bam!, as I was leaving, the editor says, “By the way, we need this project completed tonight. We’re running it this weekend.” Yep, I don’t miss that at all. (I categorically reject, and always have rejected, the notion that if you really want to do a project, you should do it for free or on your own time. That’s just another way a predatory industry takes advantage of its journalists.)

It looks like we’re going to have a gorgeous spring here in Kern County, California, as the long-awaited rains have brought some relief, though by no means an end to the drought. Wildflowers are a big thing around here, and thousands of people take to the countryside when they are in bloom. They’re just now starting. I found a nice, small field yesterday that was in near full-bloom, and stopped to do a little shooting. I spent three hours shooting a combination of time lapse photography and video and another six hours editing it. Never would have happened as a newspaper assignment. It is so liberating and invigorating to work on what I want at my own leisure.

Spring is almost here, the days are gorgeous and in the 70s and 80s right now, and to all you blog readers back east, don’t worry, you can get even with me this summer, when we will be baking in 100-degree heat!

Click the photo below to view the video, or you can click here, too.

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A visit home and a picture I’ve been meaning to shoot

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Can you point to a time and place that profoundly impacted your life, that you can say with certainty either made, or played, a role in making you the person you are today? I can. It’s this building and sidewalk at the corner of Harrison and Elm streets in Taft, California, the town about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles I spent my teen years in after leaving New York City. In 1976, I was 17 and my mom and stepfather were doing whatever they could to make their fractured marriage work. Complicating matters was the abject poverty we were living in, my dad earning little more than $250 per week and trying to support a family of nine on it. So they took a gamble. My dad quit his job and decided to make a go of it, as a machinist , on his own. He would do the physical work and mom, who had gone to Taft College and earned an AA in business, would handle the finances. They rented out this building from a rather unsavory landlord whose greed and unreasonable demands for payoffs in exchange for promising to provide customers made success a long shot. Work would trickle in and the wait for payment would seem eternal. Every morning, my dad would stand out front, on that corner, waiting for the mailman. Waiting for a check. Any kind of check. My mom would call, every day, with just one question: “Did any checks come?”

I worked for them doing sandblasting, using a high-pressure air hose to clear caked on oil and debris from the natural gas compressor valves that my dad would recondition. And I would watch the daily ritual, my dad standing out front, on cold and foggy mornings, wearing his oil-stained, navy blue sweatshirt and worn jeans, his hands that were permanently the color of oil, tucked into his front pockets. Staring at the ground, shuffling from side to side, waiting for the mailman. I would work the sandblaster bundled like we were in the arctic, as we could not afford to run the large, drafty building’s heater. It is that image, of my father standing in front of that shop, days on end, waiting for the mail, that’s seared into my memory.

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In my first photography class at Taft College in 1977, my inspiring photography teacher, John Christensen, began introducing us to the master photographers of our generation. Then he gave us an assignment: shoot a picture in the style of one of the photographers we were studying. I chose W. Eugene Smith, who to this day is my favorite photographer. I loved his dark tones and the way he highlighted the important parts of his photos. So I shot this picture of my dad, at work in that building, trying as best as I could – at 18 and in my first college photo class – to make it look W. Eugene Smith like.

And then came the time for me to go to college. I did my two years at Taft College, and had applied to Cal State University Northridge. I wanted to be a journalist, and remember the thrill of being accepted. But how could I possibly go? I especially loved the chocolate chip cookies they sold in the cafeteria when I was at Taft High School. They cost a dime, and my mom would cry because she could often not find 10 cents so that I could buy a cookie. (I never saw her cry. She told me this in later years.) There was no way they could send me off to college. But somehow, some way, they decided they would try. Nobody in the history of my family had graduated from a four-year college. I would be the first. I wanted it and more importantly, my mom wanted it. So we made a deal: I would go off to Cal State Northridge with the understanding that it was a month-to-month situation, and if they called me home, I would have to come home. No questions. I went, and as I studied with a sense of purpose, knowing that every class session might be my last, their business gradually picked up. And they were able to keep me in school. While I was at school, they moved out of that building and away from the horrible landlord, who was really taking advantage of them. They moved into a building down the street, and this time found a kindly landlord who recognized their difficulty, did everything he could to help them along and eventually became a beloved family friend who we to this day fondly regard. (Their business, Taft Controls Repair, eventually became successful.)

I’ve always said I would someday stop and photograph this building and tell this story. Today I was in Taft for a good friend’s mom’s funeral, and as I drove by the building – now a feed store – the sky dictated that this was a nice time to take that photo. It was missing my dad standing out front, waiting for the mailman, but I saw. I’ve seen it for 40 years. It’s never gone away. It’s instilled in me my work ethic and my values, my attitude about responsibility and pulling your weight in what can sometimes seem a big, bad world. It’s helped me become the person I am today.

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As we struggled to survive, a kind county worker got us into this Housing and Urban Development complex on Monroe Street in Ford City, a section of Taft. We lived there for two years, in the apartment on the right. We were together, my mom, brother and sister and I. My stepdad would visit frequently, and gradually he and my mom reconciled. We were, believe it or not, extremely happy in that little place.