A French photographer, a wet t-shirt contest and one seriously pissed off town

Frank Fornier’s photo in “A Day in the Life of America” was not well received in Bakersfield.

In May, 1986, I was invited to work on “A Day in the Life of America,” an ambitious photo project that generated world-wide attention and launched a series of best-selling books and followup projects. “A Day in the Life of America” was the brainchild of TIME, LIFE and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, in which 200 of the world’s best photographers would fan out across America and capture on film a record of a single day of American life. Bakersfield was chosen as one of the 200 locations and I was asked to serve as the host and guide for the assigned photographer. That photographer was Frank Fournier, a French photographer for the prestigious Contact Press Images agency who had just won the World Press Photo Award for his heartbreaking, haunting and now iconic photo of Omayra Sanchez, a 13-year-old Colombian girl trapped by debris from her house following a volcano as workers desperately worked to free her before rising waters would drown her. They were unsuccessful, Omayra died, and Fournier’s image broke the world’s heart. It also sparked outrage that it was shot and published, giving Frank and I something in common that we spent quite a bit of time talking about during our three days together. I have no idea if the “Day in the Life” assignment editors teamed us up because of that or if it was just coincidence. My guess would be coincidence.

This is a frame grab of Fournier's World Press Photo winning picture of Omayra Sanchez.
This is a frame grab of Fournier’s World Press Photo winning picture of Omayra Sanchez.

Fournier and I spent lots of time discussing the make up of the town, what was interesting, what was not. We drove around together, he drove around some on his own, scouting and searching for what would make a good photo. He was also in a competition. The project involved 200 photographers, but only 300 photos would be selected for the book. There was a chance he, or any of the other world-class shooters, would not make the cut. The picture had to be good, it had to capture something unique and representative of the part of the country he had been assigned. At the time, the Bakersfield honky tonk scene was thriving. There was the Funny Farm and Wild Bill’s Saloon off of Union Avenue, complete with country line dancing, cowboys and cowgirls and occasionally a heck of a brawl. It was pure country, and hopping on weekend nights. There was Trout’s on North Chester, and Oildale, home to generations of Dust Bowl migrants. I told him about Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and The Bakersfield Sound and how those streets and bars in the northern section of town were part of Bakersfield’s identity and culture. We talked about The Bakersfield Inn, the Kern River, the thriving and seedy prostitution underworld on Union Avenue. Felix Adamo mentioned the old Highland Inn on South Union, and how they held a weekly wet t-shirt contest. That got his attention, he thought that could make a cool photo.

On Friday, May 2, 1986, Fournier and 199 other photographers began their day recording life in America. He would start with a trip to the San Andreas earthquake fault in Parkfield, then return to Bakersfield. He drove around, found houses and shacks juxtaposed against acres and acres of farmland that interested him. He found some people, and photographed them. Then evening came, and we headed out to what really piqued his interest, the Highland Inn and the wet t-shirt contest. Not just me and him. We had a small entourage that included most of The Californian photo staff and a reporter from the Los Angeles Times.

Bakersfield was excited to learn, through a Los Angeles Times article, that it would be included in the project, which by then had gathered massive media attention. And then the book came out. Bakersfield was no longer excited. The shit not only hit the fan, it splattered across every square inch of the city. A wet t-shirt contest? Bakersfield was represented in one of the most ambitious photo projects ever, and one of the best-selling photography books of all time, by a wet t-shirt contest? The mayor was pissed off. The city council was pissed off. The Chamber of Commerce was pissed off. Ditto for the Board of Trade and every civic group and church in town. Letters and phone calls poured into the newspaper, so of course, the editors were pissed off. Why didn’t I show Fournier the Kern County Museum, one letter writer asked? How about the statue of Father Garces at the circle on Chester Avenue? The Bakersfield Museum of Art would make a fine photo, somebody suggested. The editors demanded to know why didn’t I get permission from them to work on the project. Um, because I didn’t need their permission, maybe? Anyway, it all blew over, as these things do.

And Bakersfield got off lucky. Our photo technician, Scott Rice, was getting married, and that night, after the Highland Inn shoot, we held his bachelor party at my house. Fournier shot that, too. What Fournier shot at the Highland Inn was G-rated compared to what went on at that bachelor party. And with that, I think I’ll end this little story, you don’t need to know any more.


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