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.

“McFarland USA” coach Jim White recovering from heart attack

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Jim White at the Bakersfield premiere of “McFarland USA” earlier this year.

Jim White, the legendary cross country coach who was the inspiration for this year’s Disney film “McFarland USA,” sustained a minor heart attack and is recovering, according to several posts on the Facebook account of his wife, Cheryl. Here is one of the posts from today.Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 4.29.29 PM

White was portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film, a fact-based account of how he brought a string of cross country state high school championships to the small California farming community of McFarland. There are several other posts by Cheryl White confirming White’s medical status, thanking supporters for prayers and encouraging others to please be aware of their own family medical histories.

The Face of Hate revisited; unseen photos from the trial of William Robert Tyack

The first time I photographed double murder defendant William Robert Tyack, he glared at me from the defense table. I did not know at the time that the Tyack case would be one of the defining cases in the history of violence against the LBGTQ community in America.
The first time I photographed double murder defendant William Robert Tyack, he glared at me from the defense table. I did not know at the time that the Tyack case would be one of the defining cases in the history of violence against the LBGTQ community in America. This photo was published in The Bakersfield Californian in the spring of 1982.

When I started this blog in December, one of my initial posts was “The Face of Hate,” which showed a couple of pictures from the first murder trial I ever photographed, the sensational double homicide trial of William Robert Tyack, a Bakersfield, California, tire shop owner who shot and killed his two gay neighbors in a Kern County mountain community. The blog had no followers at the time and was receiving virtually no readership – thank you everybody for changing that! – so the post has been largely unseen.

I recently took another journey through the massive collection of images from the 1980s that I have loosely assembled in a giant file cabinet down at The Bakersfield Californian, and found another set of images from the Tyack trial and I’m sharing them here. All but one of them are previously unpublished, and I hope you will find them as fascinating as I do for their historical value.

On April 20, 1982, I was assigned with reporter Michael Trihey to go to Glennville, California, a predominantly second home and vacation home mountain community about 30 miles northeast of Bakersfield. I was a 23-year-old rookie, just seven months into my photojournalism career. I knew that the Tyack trial was a big one, but I didn’t know that I was going to photograph something that virtually no photojournalist working nowadays will ever get to photograph; something rare even for the 1980s and something that I can’t ever imagine even being photographed again, especially with the unrestricted access I had that day. You’ll see what I’m talking about when you look at the pictures.

But I need to start by giving you a little background on the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Moses Wooster and the trial of his killer, William Robert Tyack. It all comes from the extensive media coverage and trial testimony. Tyack was the owner of a Bakersfield tire shop who became angered that two homosexual men, Blankenship, 38, of Big Bear City and Wooster, 26, of Los Angeles, had become his neighbors in Glennville. According to testimony presented by the prosecution, he had openly expressed his anger and stated that if given a chance to kill the men, he would. In August, 1981, Tyack encountered Blankenship and Wooster on one of the isolated roads outside Glennville, and they engaged in a confrontation. The incident ended with Tyack shooting Blankenship once in the chest, and Wooster four times, including twice in the back. Both men died at the scene.

(In 2011, a man name Tom who identified himself as Wooster’s older brother engaged in a lengthy online discussion on the “Adventist Today” web site titled “God Loves Gays and So Should We.” Here’s what Tom wrote about Sidney Wooster’s murder during a particularly heated exchange: ” My younger brother, Sidney was murdered in Bakersfield, CA in August of 1981 along with his boss Jack Blankenship on a dirt road, at about 21:30 hrs., and yes I’ve got the 8 X 10 color glossy’s of the scene – and I can see the path where my brother crawled while the 4 bullets bleed his life out of him. Ok, the murderer, William Robert Tyack shot and killed his boss Jack – as they were going out to talk to a man about listing his property with the realestate firm. Mr. Tyack said: “I aimed to kill those 2 gay guys.” —- How dare you tell me I don’t know anything!!!! Mr. Tyack spent a few days in a half-way house, So would you like a little of my rage directed at YOU????” Here’s the link to the entire Adventist exchange.)

In one of the most closely-followed trials of its time and one that still resonates and is referenced today as violent crimes against LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender and Queer) people remain a major social issue, Tyack, 42, was acquitted in the killing of Blankenship and convicted of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter against Wooster. The case would reinforce a national impression of Bakersfield and Kern County being a place where violence against gays is tolerated, but many courtroom observers pointed out that the verdict was likely more a result of defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi “out-lawyering” prosecutor Joe Beckett, whose slow and plodding courtroom style may have caused him to lose the attention of the jury.

Today, violence against the LBGTQ community is still an important social issue in America, and the Tyack case and trial almost always surfaces as a reminder of what many believe is a tolerance in society of such crime. According to this BuzzFeed article detailing a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, while overall violent crime against LBGTQ people decreased in the past year, homicides rose. And a pair of newer, clearly defined targets have seen in increase in violence: gays and lesbians of color and transgender people.

On that day in April, 1982, I had no idea at the time that I would photograph one of the most remarkable scenes of my career. The trial of William Robert Tyack was being moved to the location of the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster. Bakersfield Californian reporter Michael Trihey and I joined the caravan of court officials, police, defendant Tyack, the jurors and, remarkably, just a few other media members, to the scene outside Glennville. My access was unhindered and unrestricted. I was free to shoot everything, including the jurors (something completely unheard of today), and it wasn’t until I found and looked at these images a few days ago that I realized what a remarkable piece of history had been filed away in that metal cabinet for the past 33 years. Other than the first picture, which will follow this paragraph, all of the pictures from the day the William Robert Tyack trial moved to the murder scene, have never before been seen.

Kern County sheriff's technical investigator Tom Jones details the scene outside Glennville, California where two homosexual men, Sidney Moses Wooster, 26, and Jack Blankenship, 38, where shot and killed by Bakersfield businessman William Robert Tyack, 42. The judge, John Nairn, is to Jones' right.
Kern County sheriff’s technical investigator Tom Jones details the scene outside Glennville, California where two homosexual men, Sidney Moses Wooster, 26, and Jack Blankenship, 38, where shot and killed by Bakersfield businessman William Robert Tyack, 42. The judge, John Nairn, is to Jones’ right.
Jurors watch as Kern County sheriff's technical investigator explains the murder scene. The judge, John Nairn, is to the right nearest Jones, then defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi and prosecutor Joe beckett.
Jurors watch as Kern County sheriff’s technical investigator explains the murder scene. The judge, John Nairn, is to the right nearest Jones, then defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi and prosecutor Joe Beckett.
Prosecutor Joe Beckett (right) and defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi watch testimon at the murder scene. The woman is unidentified, but since she is holding a notebook, is likely one of the jurors.
Prosecutor Joe Beckett (right) and defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi watch testimony at the murder scene. The woman is unidentified, but since she is holding a notebook, is likely one of the jurors.
Double murder defendant William Robert Tyack watches the trial testimony at the location of the killings of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Moses Wooster during his 1982 trial. Tyack was acquitted in the death of Blankenship and convicted of a lesser charge in the killing of Wooster. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Double murder defendant William Robert Tyack watches the trial testimony at the location of the killings of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Moses Wooster during his 1982 trial. Tyack was acquitted in the death of Blankenship and convicted of a lesser charge in the killing of Wooster. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Tyack moved freely about during the trial testimony at the murder scene near Glennville, California, but Kern County sheriff's deputies constantly surrounded him.
Tyack moved freely about during the trial testimony at the murder scene near Glennville, California, but Kern County sheriff’s deputies constantly surrounded and watched him.
Judge John Nairn oversees the testimony in the trial of William Robert Tyack as jurors look on.
Judge John Nairn oversees the testimony in the trial of William Robert Tyack as jurors look on.
Another image of murder defendant William Robert Tyack watching the trial testimony from the murder location on a country road outside Glennville, California.
Another image of murder defendant William Robert Tyack watching the trial testimony from the murder location on a country road outside Glennville, California.
Defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi and his investigator Leonard Winter. The defense argued self defense and won an acquittal in the killing of Jack Blankenship and a conviction on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of Sidney Wooster.
Defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi and his investigator Leonard Winter. The defense argued self defense and won an acquittal in the killing of Jack Blankenship and a conviction on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of Sidney Wooster.
At the scene of the homicides of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster, Kern County sheriff's detective Dwight Pendleton testifies in the trial of William Robert Tyack from the back of a pickup truck. At right is court stenographer Bob Gross and technical investigator Tom Jones is at left.
At the scene of the homicides of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster, Kern County sheriff’s detective Dwight Pendleton listens from the back of a pickup truck as court stenographer Bob Gross records technical investigator Tom Jones’ (left) testimony.
An overview of the scene where the William Robert Tyack trial moved to the murder location on April 20, 1982.
An overview of the scene where the William Robert Tyack trial moved to the murder location on a dirt road outside Glennville, California on April 20, 1982.
Judge John Nairn (center) and jurors listen to testimony from Kern County sheriff's technical investigator Tom Jones at the scene of the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster.
Judge John Nairn (center), attorneys, media members and jurors listen to testimony from Kern County sheriff’s technical investigator Tom Jones at the scene of the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster.
Kern County sheriff's technical investigator Tom Jones testifying at the location where two gay men, Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster, were shot and killed during a confrontation with William Robert Tyack near Glennville, California in August, 1981.
Kern County sheriff’s technical investigator Tom Jones testifying at the location where two gay men, Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster, were shot and killed during a confrontation with William Robert Tyack near Glennville, California in August, 1981.
Two likely jurors at left, Judge John Nairn and prosecutor Joe Beckett and defense attorney watch the testimony of Kern county sheriff's technical investigator Tom Jones.
Two likely jurors at left, Judge John Nairn and prosecutor Joe Beckett and defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi watch the testimony of Kern county sheriff’s technical investigator Tom Jones.
Two vehicles put in place for most likely a visual recreation of their position on the road outside Glennville, California during the shooting deaths of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster by William Robert Tyack.
Two vehicles put in place for most likely a visual recreation of their position on the road outside Glennville, California during the shooting deaths of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster by William Robert Tyack.
KERO-TV bakersfield reporter Carl Schweitzer and cameraman Rob Bishop follow defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi at the murder scene where William Robert Tyack shot and killed two homosexual men near Glennville California. They were among the media on hand the day the trial was moved to the scene.
KERO-TV Bakersfield reporter Karl Schweitzer and cameraman Rob Bishop follow defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi at the murder scene where William Robert Tyack shot and killed two homosexual men near Glennville California. They were among the media on hand the day the trial was moved to the scene.

Prosecutor Joe Beckett spent more than 40 years with the Kern County District Attorney’s office. He died at age 77 in 2010. Defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi is regarded as one of Kern County’s best criminal defense attorneys, and is still practicing law. As a point of disclosure, I should say that I did not know Lemucchi when I covered this trial, or at any point in my photojournalism career, but we have become friendly in recent years and I have provided paid commercial photography services to both he and his wife. William Robert Tyack is still alive, and according to Whitney Weddell, the best known LBGTQ rights advocate and activist in the ultra-conservative Kern County, is still selling tires. She points out that the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Moses Wooster and the Tyack trial are what brought her out of the closet and are the reason why she became a gay rights activist. In 1999, Tyack was arrested and faced revocation of his parole after a Fish and Game warden found him in possession of a gun. A subsequent search of his house disclosed several guns in safes and other locations on his property, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He was charged with five counts of being an ex-felon in possession of firearms. He faced a possible life prison term under California’s “three strikes law.” According to Kern County court records, he pled guilty to one count and the other four counts were dismissed in the “furtherance of justice.” He was sentenced to one year in jail and served 14 days. He was fined $200 and was placed on three years probation.

Note: Some identifications of the individuals at the Glennville scene were provided by former deputies, reporters and court officials. If any are in error and need clarification, please contact me via comment and I will correct them.

After five days of deliberations, the jury rendered its verdict in the case of William Robert Tyack. I positioned myself in front of Tyack's wife and son, and recorded this image as they learned Tyack had been found not guilty of first degree murder and guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
After five days of deliberations, the jury rendered its verdict in the case of William Robert Tyack. I positioned myself in front of Tyack’s wife and son, and recorded this image as they learned Tyack had been found not guilty of first degree murder and guilty of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

November 7, 1991: “Magic Johnson might have AIDS”

John Harte / The Bakersfield Californian On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he was HIV positive and, still in the prime of his career, retiring from the Lakers. In this frame is NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen. Californian reporter Brad Turner and photographer John Harte covered the announcement, racing to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and entering through a kitchen when the main entrance to the press area was inaccessible due to a throng of media and fans who descended to the scene.
On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he was HIV positive and, still in the prime of his career, retiring from the Lakers. In this frame is NBA commissioner David Stern and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Californian reporter Brad Turner and I covered the announcement, racing to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and entering through a kitchen when the main entrance to the press area was inaccessible due to a throng of media and fans who descended on the scene. This is one of my shots from that day.

By the Fall of 1991, I was firmly established as The Bakersfield Californian’s “night photographer,” working the evening shift exclusively. The shift was not popular with the other photographers, almost all of them preferred the morning shifts, so there were no objections when I volunteered to work the night shift permanently, something I did for a good 20 years or so. I loved staying up late, sleeping in, and working with as few editors around as possible. A newsroom takes on a whole different feel when the daysiders head home. More relaxed, less confusion and everybody knowing what their job is and how to do it. It almost runs itself. I always believed your basic American newsroom could run smoothly and more efficiently with about 25 percent of the editors they employed. But most of all, I loved shooting sports, and sports happen in the late afternoon or at night.

My morning routine always started with me heading over to Marie Callender’s for my coffee. On November 7, 1991, a Thursday, I finished my coffee run and noticed the light blinking on my phone’s answering machine. We did not have cell phones at the time. It was a message from my photo editor, Casey Christie, asking if I could come to work early and to call him back. Getting called to work early was not very common back then. We had a decent sized photo staff – nine people – so that indicated something big was going on. Casey answered my call and I remember him saying “Can you come to work early and head down to Los Angeles with Brad Turner? The Lakers are holding a press conference this afternoon. Something about Magic Johnson, but I don’t know what.”

The Californian had not yet been swallowed by the “hyper-local” newspaper craze, and at the time operated as a regional newspaper. We routinely covered professional and major college sports in Los Angeles, and did not hesitate to pack up and head to any major news stories occurring anywhere in California. The Lakers, of course, were NBA royalty and Bakersfield was very much a Lakers town. I had just photographed the season opener a couple of days earlier. Brad Turner – who now covers the Clippers for the Los Angeles Times under his full name, Broderick Turner – was The Californian’s Lakers beat writer. Because of the distance to the Great Western Forum (about two hours) and the lack of easy means of transmitting photos under deadline, we did not shoot all of the Lakers’ games, but we shot a lot of them, and I did most of that work.

By the time I got into the office a few minutes after talking with Casey, more information had filtered in. I’ll never forget Casey’s words when I asked if he knew what was going on. They hit me like a sucker punch. “Magic Johnson might have AIDS.”

Within minutes, Brad and I were on our way to Los Angeles. But it didn’t look good. The press conference was less than two hours from starting, and I didn’t see any possibility of us getting there on time. Not with Los Angeles traffic, and the most brutal LA traffic you’re likely to encounter, the 405 through the San Fernando Valley, over the Sepulveda Pass, then through Los Angeles’ busy westside and on to Inglewood, right into the teeth of Los Angeles International Airport traffic. Nope, we weren’t going to make it, I decided. But Brad had just purchased a brand new Isuzu Trooper. Bakersfield Californian cars were equipped with devices that monitored our driving performance, forcing us to drive the speed limit, which at the time was 55 mph. So we took Brad’s Isuzu instead. Brad did not drive 55 mph. At each glance I took at the speedometer, we were going 90 mph! Seriously, we were flat out flying. I remember Brad saying something about this story being worth a speeding ticket.

We breezed into the San Fernando Valley from Bakersfield, always an easy drive, and now it was time to face the beast. I looked at my watch. Hmmm, maybe we could make it after all. Oh, but the beast. If Satan was a stretch of highway, he would be the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. It’s a relatively short stretch that joins the San Fernando Valley with the Westside, and let me tell you, folks, it is pure evil. Many a trip has been ruined by Sepulveda Pass traffic, at times so brutal that when you finally reach your destination, you’re so pissed off you don’t even want to be there. Well, the traffic gods were on our side, and we flew over the pass. No traffic! And it happened again as we cleared Westwood and headed to the Forum on Supelveda’s evil twin brother, the stretch from Santa Monica to Inglewood, which just happens to include the highways 405 and 10 interchange, the busiest freeway interchange in the United States. We were going to make it in time!

This frame grab from the ESPN documentary
This frame grab from the ESPN documentary “The Announcement” shows the scene Brad Turner and I encountered outside the Forum’s media entrance when we arrived. There was no way we were going to get through that and into the press conference.

We pulled into the Forum’s parking lot and immediately encountered another obstacle. By now, the Los Angeles and national media were reporting the pending announcement and that Johnson had contracted HIV, and hundreds of people had descended upon the Forum. You can see from the above picture there was no way we were going to make it through that crowd. They probably had already sealed off access just to comply with fire codes.

But Brad knew the Forum and the Lakers pretty well. Like in a movie – how does “Broderick Saves the Day” sound – Brad says “follow me,” and the next thing I know, we’re racing around the side of the Forum, into a door and we’re inside a huge kitchen! Then through some hallways and finally we enter the big room where the press conference will be held. Brad knew his way around that building. We were in!

In my 28-year newspaper career, I never saw so much media assembled in one location. “Media crush” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Photographers had already taken all the floor space in front of the podium, and a huge throng – both still and video shooters – assembled in clusters wherever there was room. I nudged and squeezed my way into one of the groups at the rear of the room. It was so packed that I could barely reach down and grab the second camera hanging along my left side. This was where I was going to shoot from, and there would be no possibility of moving around. The room was hot and smelled of perspiration. It was also quiet, something you don’t usually get from journalists in large groups. I was slightly to the right of the podium, and it looked like it would be OK, just as long as security didn’t position themselves to where it blocked the podium.

It may have just been a few minutes, but it felt much longer. And then, a solemn procession filed in – I think from the same door Brad and I entered through a few minutes earlier. Magic entered first, followed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss, general manager Jerry West, NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson’s wife Cookie and his agent Lon Rosen. He smiled that big smile and putting his hand over his eyes, acknowledged the massive throng of media with a simple “whoa.” The cameras clicked and the flashes fired. And with the entire world watching on live television, Magic Johnson said the words that would play a role in changing the face of AIDS in America forever: “Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained, uh, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”

In this frame grab from the ESPN documentary
In this frame grab from the ESPN documentary “The Announcement,” I am somewhere in that room, judging from the angle of my photos, most likely in the throng of photographers in the upper right portion of this photo.

Of all the sports I photographed in my career, noting came close to the thrill of watching, and trying to shoot, Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers running a fast break and taking control of a game. It seemed the Lakers would always be trailing when Magic would take over. With a 180mm or 300 mm lens pointed at him from the opposite baseline, he would grab a rebound or take a pass and head toward me. I could swear he was looking right into my camera, but of course, he wasn’t. Then he would fire the ball. I could swear he was throwing it right at me, but of course, he wasn’t. When I was convinced I was about to get nailed by a Magic Johnson pass, James Worthy or Byron Scott or A.C. Green would swoop into the frame, catch the ball and throw down a slam dunk. Switching cameras to capture both ends of the play was impossible, at least for me, it happened so damn fast. The Forum crowd would roar, the opposing team would call a time out to try and stem the tide. The Laker girls would file onto the floor as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” would blast over the loudspeakers. The Forum was delirium, the game now in hand. I didn’t get to hear it, because I was sitting on the floor, but up above me Chick Hearn was declaring “This ball game is in the refrigerator. The door is closed, the lights are out. The eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the jello’s jiggling.”

And it was all over. This day, the great Western Forum was a crypt. The announcement was brief, and Magic tried to keep it positive, promising that “I’ll still being around bugging you guys.” But everybody in the room, heck, in the world, knew that Magic would soon be gone. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone candidly admitted that he thought Johnson was a “dead man walking” after the announcement.

Magic Johnson delivers his shocking news to the world that he has contracted HIV and would be retiring from the Lakers on November 7, 1991. This is another of my images.
Magic Johnson delivers his news to the world that he has contracted HIV and would be retiring from the Lakers on November 7, 1991. This is another of my images.

After the announcement, most of the media and some of the Lakers staff made their way to the Forum Club, adjacent to the players, media and VIP entrance. I always loved leaving a Lakers game and passing through the media/VIP exit. I had a game I would play. Lots of celebrities attended Lakers games so lots of paparazzi assembled outside the exit, hoping to snap pix of Dyan Cannon or Jack Nicholson or Goldie Hawn or any assortment of Lakers, actors, sports stars or power players who attended the games. So I would wait for a celebrity to leave the Forum, then I would walk out beside them. The flashes would fire from all the paparazzi, and a week or two later I would check all the celebrity gossip magazines to see if I was in any of the pictures. It never worked, but I tried!

As I was leaving the Forum after the announcement, I glanced into the Forum Club and saw a moment that I simply had to capture. Lakers general manager Jerry West was sitting alone at the bar, seemingly staring into nowhere, his face more than anything I had seen telling the story of the day. I fired two shots, having to use flash because it was dark in there, and left it at that.

I don’t remember what Brad and I talked about on the ride back to Bakersfield, and with a ton of work still ahead of me, I don’t think I was really processing what had just happened and what I had just covered. Back in the newsroom, the edit was fairly easy. The two pictures you see here of Magic are the ones we ran. I was pretty excited about the Jerry West photo, but was disappointed when the picture came out of the soup. That’s what we called the processing chemicals back in the day. Something hanging from the bar had blocked the flash and thrown a large shadow across West’s forehead. At the time, we were shooting transparencies and did not have any digital software that could lighten or darken shadows. I declared the picture not publication worthy because of the shadow. But I had told Casey Christie about the photo and he wanted to see it. He overruled me, and I’m glad he did. Sometimes I get too carried away with my obsession over the technical aspects of my photos. I saw a shadow that ruined a picture. Casey saw emotion etched in the face of the man who ran the team that just lost it’s heart and soul, one of the greatest players the NBA had ever produced. He saw historical value, and he saw a picture we were pretty sure nobody else had. So the photo ran.

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West sat alone in the bar at the Great Western Forum in the moments following the announcement on November 7, 1991, by Magic Johnson that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West sat alone in the bar at the Great Western Forum in the moments following the announcement on November 7, 1991, by Magic Johnson that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.

America did not handle the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s well. In fact, from political and religious leadership to media responsibility to public health protocol, everything about America’s handling of AIDS in the early days was a failure. President Ronald Reagan essentially refused to acknowledge the spreading epidemic or even mention the word “AIDS” for several years, and even tried to reduce AIDS funding in the federal budget as the disease was spreading. The media largely ignored the new disease because it was a so called “gay disease” affecting what was considered by Americans at the time to be an unworthy class of citizen. Vile preachers with huge followings like Jerry Falwell (one of the most awful people I ever met and photographed in my career) worked the citizenry into a frenzy, declaring the disease “God’s punishment” for the homosexual lifestyle, self-proclaimed “Men of God” spreading hatred and intolerance when they could have fostered compassion, understanding and education. And this disturbing article from the Journal of Public Health Policy details how the Centers for Disease Control, admittedly stifled by the Reagan Administration, dropped the ball in the early days of the epidemic at a time when funding, education and prevention protocols could have been invaluable.

So Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive transcends sports, and sits as one of the defining moments in the nation’s coming to grips with the disease. I’m not a health journalist, but as a photojournalist whose career started about the same time the AIDS epidemic did, I covered a lot of stories about AIDS and because of the fear and hysteria that pervaded every corner of American society, I followed this story closely. I believe there were six defining moments that helped America come to terms with the epidemic and that forced social, medical and political change. First was the death of actor Rock Hudson from the disease. It wasn’t until a friend of Reagan’s died that he finally decided to address it publicly, doing so at the request of another actor friend, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1987. Next is Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s battle with the Reagan Administration to address the epidemic, concluding with his release of an informational pamphlet in 1988 to every American household. It was the first significant step by the government to educate its citizens, and it was a brutal fight for Koop, who insisted that the pamphlet be free of moral and political statements. He even had to “sneak in” a recommendation advocating the use of condoms, for fear that the White House would not allow it.

Next up is Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who was infected by HIV from a blood transfusion. The boy found himself facing discrimination at every level, including being expelled from school for having the disease. The Ryan White case would lead to passage by Congress of the Ryan White CARE Act which mandates major federal funding for AIDS care, treatment and research. It would also signal that AIDS was not just a “gay disease” or a “druggie disease,” sending a major wake up call to America. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe announced in 1992 that he had contracted AIDS, most likely from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat AIDS which advocated the need for AIDS research and funding as well as sex education and safe sex practices. His celebrity and status as a respected athlete kept AIDS from sliding out of the public consciousness.

In 1993, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington starred in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” the first major studio film to tackle AIDS. The film was a major hit, Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar, and it probably did more to bring attention to HIV/AIDS than all the news stories and political hearings and funding battles ever could, such is the nature of celebrity.

Magic Johnson’s announcement stands with those, maybe even above them, given his stature. He was easily one of the most loved figures in American sports history. He shattered the illusion that only “other people” get HIV/AIDS and he set out to educate others and raise awareness of AIDS and how to prevent it, even serving on President George Bush’s council. (In later years he would admit what was widely suspected, that his sexual promiscuity likely led to his contracting HIV.)¬† And of course, by living with HIV for more than 20 years now, he provides hope for others. He is by far the most famous American to have contracted the disease. The New York Daily News devoted both its front and back covers to Magic’s announcement, which should give an indication of the impact it had.newsWhen I got home that night, I finally began to digest what I had just covered. I got to know Magic Johnson a little bit over the years, and he really was, and I’m sure still is, a very nice guy. He was the guy who would come over and say “hello” when he saw me in the Forum hallway. He was the guy who was always the same, win or lose, upbeat, happy and friendly. One day, in 1988, I was covering a Raiders game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I got up from my shooting position, turned around and found myself staring into the chest of a very large person. I looked up, and it was Magic. He was looking down at me and with a big smile said, “Hey, nice hat.” That summer, the Lakers had won the NBA title for the second year in a row and I had purchased a Lakers “Back-to-Back” championship hat, which I was wearing. I said, “Thanks, I like it, too,” and shuffled off to a new shooting position. I have a rule about autographs. Never, ever, ask for an autograph from someone you are photographing. Ditto for asking to pose for a picture with them. It’s unprofessional in my view. But I got to thinking, “Damn, I sure would like to have Magic autograph this hat.”

But a rule is a rule, right? Never before had I asked for an autograph, and never since, either. Then a thought entered my brilliant head. Earlier that summer, I had photographed “A Mid-Summer Night’s Magic,” Johnson’s fund raising all-star basketball game. During the game, the players cleared the floor and set up a one-on-one showdown, Magic Johnson against his teammate and buddy, Michael Cooper. Johnson tried to put a move on Cooper, and as he fell backward, Cooper threw out his leg, tripping Magic. I got a shot of Magic heading to the floor, a big smile on his face. I bet Magic would like to have that picture, I thought, so I walked up and made the proposition; I’ll trade Magic a copy of the photo for his autograph on the cap. He was all for it. He signed the cap (which I have kept in plastic ever since) and I mailed him the picture. I saw him at another Raiders game later in the season, and asked if he got the picture. “I did, it’s great,” he said. “I hung it up.”

I traded Magic this photo I shot of him and Michael Cooper for an autograph, the only one I ever obtained in my career.
I traded Magic this photo I shot of him and Michael Cooper for an autograph, the only one I ever obtained in my career.

magic_autograph_web Magic_hat_webI thought Magic Johnson was going to die. Everybody did. One of the networks dedicated an hour-long special that night to Magic Johnson. I was exhausted and didn’t want to watch it. So I programmed my VCR and recorded it. I wrote “Magic Johnson -32-” on it and put it away, deciding I would watch it in a few months when Magic passed away. I’ve never watched it. I’m two years older than Magic, so maybe I’ll never watch it. Heck, maybe when our time comes, there will be no way of ever watching a VHS tape!Magic_VHS_webNovember 7, 1991, is a day that will stay with me forever. That wild car ride with Brad, running through the Forum kitchen, being in the largest crush of media I’ve ever experienced. But mostly, realizing the incredible things we get to see as photojournalists. It was one of the most momentous moments in American sports history, and I was in the room that day. I was in the room.Lakersweb

Magic Johnson, teammates and fans celebrated the Lakers 1988 NBA title in downtown Los Angeles.
Magic Johnson, teammates and fans celebrated the Lakers 1988 NBA title in downtown Los Angeles.

Unpublished: Cesar Chavez at home, 1986

chavezwebOn the eve of Cesar Chavez Day and what would be his 88th birthday, I’m sharing a never-before published photo I made of the labor and civil rights leader at his home in Keene, California in the mid 1980s. I’m pretty sure it was 1986. I shot this on assignment for The Boston Globe, which was doing a story on Chavez’ grape boycott protesting the use of pesticides. The Globe sent a reporter out from Boston and hired me to shoot some black and white photos of Chavez, as well as photos of the United Farm Workers’ communication center at the Keene complex.

The interview lasted a long time, around two hours, and Chavez was oblivious to the camera, which, of course, is the way we photographers like it. After shooting the black and whites for the Globe, I popped a roll of color slide film into my camera and shot a set of images for myself. I’ve always liked this picture, but never had an opportunity to have it published. The Bakersfield Californian, my employer, had its own set of images of Chavez, or would send us to shoot new ones when needed. So, the picture sat in one of those big boxes of photos I’ve accumulated over the years and am now sharing on this blog. You are seeing this previously unpublished photo for the first time, nearly 30 years after it was made.