I call them “almosts.” It’s when you think you may have shot a pretty good image, even get a little excited about it, only to discover that it didn’t quite turn out the way you hoped. Almost, but not quite. I thought of this as an “almost” after I made it, still do today, but I was overruled by my editor, The Bakersfield Californian readers and even some contests judges. They all loved it, and I guess that in a way is the beauty of photography.
I was working a routine prep baseball game, Stockdale High at North High, probably around 1999 or 2000 – we had not yet switched to digital cameras and were shooting negatives, then converting to digital via Photoshop – when I saw this scene of the Stockdale pitcher resting on the bench, juxtaposed against the shadows of his teammates standing on the dugout steps. I thought it looked nice and shot a few frames. When I processed the film, I looked at the image and was a little disappointed. The shadows just didn’t fall the way I thought they had when I shot it. I went ahead and prepared four or five action photos from the game and delivered them to sports editor John Millman. Then, strictly as an afterthought, I prepared this photo, made a proof and dropped it on Millman’s desk. “I don’t really like this one,” I said, “but I guess it could make an OK inside black and white if you need one.”
In my 28 years at The Bakersfield Californian, I worked with dozens of page designers. Some were very good. Some were just plain awful. Some were good when they had time to design a page, but would not show much interest in doing a good photo justice if it arrived after the page had already been designed. A newsroom is, of course, full of personalities. Some were easygoing and pleasant; oh, how I miss my good friend Tim Heinrichs and his slow drawl saying, “Well, John, which one do you like?” whenever I dropped my photos on his desk. Some, thankfully not too many, but a few, treated you like a lesser human being when you dropped your photos on a desk. “OK, go away now, you’ve done your job, I’m not interested in your opinion.” Yes, there were a few like that over the years, which made for some epic clashes. As you might imagine, photojournalists don’t take well to being dismissed as “service workers.”
John Millman was the best I ever worked with. As sports editor, he was also the section’s primary page designer. We hit it off right from the start. He was a fantastic designer, but there was something else. He recognized good photography and always involved the photographer in the selection process. He didn’t just want you to drop the photos on his desk, he wanted to know about them. What’s happening in this shot? How about this one? Do you think this one would hold up well large, or is it better as a secondary? (Contrary to the belief of many a page designer, all photographers do not believe their pictures should be played huge.) We didn’t always agree, but we never fought. We would make deals, “OK, but you owe me one.” We even gave each other the same nickname, “Remy,” after Remy Belvaux, the director, writer and a
character in the cult film “Man Bites Dog,” a particularly strange film that amused us. If you’re now going to watch that film, you need to understand that journalists have extremely warped senses of humor. What set Millman apart from all the other page designers I worked with was his willingness to completely break down and redesign a page, literally minutes before deadline, if you delivered a photo that he liked. And man, was he fast!
Millman looked up at me when I dropped that picture of the baseball player and the shadows on his desk. “That’s a great picture,” he said. “what don’t you like about it?” I explained that the shadows didn’t come together the way I wanted them to. He didn’t agree, probably said something like, “Remy, you’re crazy,” and said he was going to run it huge on the sports cover. Well, even a photographer who is not thrilled about a photo is not going to argue too hard against a five or six-column photo across the top of a page. “OK, Remy,” I said, “but you owe me one.”
The picture would win a National Press Photographers Association monthly regional award, then go on to win on the national level, the only one of my career. The Californian would enter it in the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association year-end photo competition, and it would win there, too, second best sports photo in the state.
It’s common for photographers to shoot a picture that they really like, I’ve had more than a few, only to find that it doesn’t click (oh, bad pun!) with others. I don’t recall too many photos that a photographer never really liked, only to be overruled by a whole mess of other people. But this was one of them. I still look at it and think it’s almost a good picture. Almost.