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Television, the Hamer Way: Father-son tandem of Dave Hamer and Roger Hamer own combined 76 years in the TV news industry 


Television, the Hamer Way

Father-son tandem of Dave Hamer and Roger Hamer own combined 76 years in the TV news industry 

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the June 2019 edition of the New Horizons

Outside of Mike and Chris Wallace, there may not be another father-son tandem in broadcast journalism history with the pedigree and longevity of Omaha’s own Dave and Roger Hamer.

Retired television newsman Dave Hamer. 89. enjoyed a 1953 to 1991 career distinguished by many firsts. He was the first journalist to work at all three major Omaha network affiliates. He was America’s first local TV journalist to file stories from Vietnam. He was the first civilian reporter to fly a mission with the U.S. Air Force’s airborne command and control center, Looking Glass.

He covered the horror and hysteria of the Starkweather murder spree. As a street reporter-photographer, he  covered storms, accidents, riots, political rallies and athletic events. He wrote-produced newscasts and documentaries, He captured the return to Omaha Beach of a Heartland veteran who survived D-Day. He gave back to his profession as president of the Omaha Press Club, the Nebraska News Photographers Association and the National Press Photographers Association. He taught TV news at UNO and co-chaired the annual News Video Workshop at the University of Oklahoma.

He’s been honored for his contributions to the field as an inductee in the Omaha Press Club’s Journalists of Excellence Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.

Roger Hamer, 61, never intended following the family trade yet his 38-year TV news career now equals that of his father, Roger creates packages that see him do photography, reporting, editing. He also produces. He succeeded his father as a teacher at UNO. He, too..has earned much peer recognition for his work, including an Edward R. Murrow Award. He is well on his way to joining his father as a lifetime achievement honoree.

They have a combined 76 years in the business. Their professional paths formally intersected once, in 1991, when Roger, who began at KMTV, joined WOWT, where Dave worked his final decade. Roger is still there today.

“I kind of backed into the business. He never pressured me,” Roger said of his father.

“I don’t think I ever tried to talk you out of it either,” Dave told hm. “No, you never did,” Roger replied.

“i’ve been fortunate to always be surrounded by smart people very good at what they do. Of course, this guy,” Roger said, indicating his father, “helped me a lot when I was starting out. We would have lunch breaks in the edit booths at 3 (KMTV) and 6 (WOWT). I’d show him tapes and he’d critique them. We’d talk how to do stories. I learned a lot that way. He let me pick his brain. He was always generous in dealing with me.”

Then there came the workshop his father put on for newcomers and veterans.

“You don’t know how you’re going to act when your dad pops your videotape in and plays it in front of all these people and comments on it,” Roger recalled. “I hoped he was going to be as nice as he was when we were alone in the edit booths. But it was something along the lines of, ‘If this guy came in and wanted a job, I’d tell him to sell shoes,’ It was like the air in a balloon going out.

“But that was the best thing that could have happened because you need a kick in the pants now and then. The effort wasn’t there that he expected and that inspired me. It gave me a clue I could do better.”

 

Image result for dave hamer

 

By the time Roger established himself, TV technology transitioned from film to video. It’s since gone to satellite uplinks and digital streaming.

“Now he’s shooting live shots alone with a tiny camera,” Dave marveled.

“No truck, no cables, no nothing,” Roger confirmed.

“As long as you’re in range of a cell tower, you can send a live picture anywhere,” Dave said, “It staggers my imagination.”

“There’s an app on my phone called TVU Anywhere,” Roger said. “All I have to do is to call into the station. They pull me up – and we’re on. It’s instantaneous.”

“I try to avoid saying, I wish we had that back when I was in TV,” Dave said, “but I do wish we had that. But what goes along with this is that you’re under more pressure.”

“Yeah,” Roger said, “the technology is phenomenal, but it’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is you can be live in a moment. The curse is the technology far exceeds our human capability of gathering information.”

Then there’s the rabbit hole of Google search results.

“With this avalanche of information you have access to, it can be overwhelming,” Roger said. “You have to determine when to stop because information overload can set in. There comes a point when you have to pull back and say, Okay, I know what I need to know.”

Roger’s grateful to have learned from a master like his father. “He’s a pioneer.”

A Wayne, Nebraska native, Dave Hamer segued from taking still photos in his hometown to stringing for KVTV in Sioux City. The eye he developed for composing portraits helped him transition to moving images.

A generation later his son Roger went from taking photos for the UNO Gateway and Papillion Times to breaking in at KMTV.

“The difficult part of going into motion (photography) was coming up with a closer,” Dave said. “You’ve told the story, but you have to have something at the end to cap it. You need the exclamation point.”

“Even now I struggle with closes.” Roger acknowledged.

They both love storytelling

“Every story’s got to have a beginning, middle and end. That’s utmost in television news,” Dave said. “You don’t just leave it hanging out there. I don’t think anybody ever told me how to do that. I just naturally fell into it.”

Both learned to cut in the camera.

Telling a story you pitched is preferred. “I had, and I think Roger has, the freedom to go to the front office and say, ‘Hey, this is a helluva story, We ought to do it.'”

Any excuse to get out of the newsroom.

“The daily routines never appealed that much to me,” Dave said. Same for Roger, who likes being “free from a desk” and “someone looking over my shoulder.”

Creativity and ineginuity come in handy on assignment.

“You run into situations you didn’t expect,” Dave said, “and you have to think on your feet, improvise and go with the flow. We always used to say, Have in mind where the story’s going to go but don’t be locked in because things will change. You’ll find better stuff than you imagined.”

When revisiting perennials, such as the winter’s first snowfall or spring flooding, Roger said, “the challenge is to make it  different from the story before or different from what your competition’s doing.”

“That’s the fun part of it.”

Then there’s following your instincts and, as Dave said, “making your own luck” by being where the action’s at and seeing-capturing what’s happening around you.

The year Roger was born, 1957, his father helped launch Omaha’s KETV on the air.

“I had been there only a week,” Dave said. “There were only four of us in the news department. Six days a week were the norm. Sometimes Sunday, too, It was a challenge and great responsibility, but also fun. You had to do everything – shoot it, write it, maybe voice it.”

He left KETV for KMTV, where he worked the bulk of his career and where his colleagues included future network stars Floyd Kalber and Tom Brokaw.

“What his generation did set the groundwork for what we do today,” Roger said admiringly. “The whole idea of visual storytelling – of stories that are concise, make sense, have impact, elicit emotion and are accurate.

“Today, I think we’ve lost a little bit of that desire to find out as much as we can and make it as accurate as possible. In the rush to get things on the air NOW, we don’t always have the information to back it up exactly.”

“That’s a helluva challenge.” said Dave.

Adding to it is an ever more competitive environment.

“Now,” Roger said, “it’s Channel 7 tweeted this or Channel 3 tweeted that. Personally, I don’t care because I live by what I learned from old pros Steve Murphy and Mark Gautier – ‘I don’t care about being first, I care about being right.’ That doesn’t seem to exist like it used to.

“It’s a matter of feeding the beast” – otherwise known as the 24/7 news cycle. “You have to do all this social media stuff my father’s generation didn’t have to worry about or deal with.”

When Dave Hamer started, there were just two newscasts per day. “and even with that and the technology being so much slower,” he recalled, “we were still pressed for time.” “I wrote for nine years the six and ten o’clock newscasts on Channel 3. You barely got six o’clock on the air before you started writing the ten o’clock. You were always up to the wire.”

Early news pioneers didn’t have access to the vast amounts of video-on-demand content Roger Hamer and his colleagues have at the ready on devices.

“It would take us three or four days,” Dave said.

Today’s constant content demands and deadlines can be exhausting.

“You just don’t have the longevity of people in the field   anymore,” Roger said. “People get burned out.”

Professionals with his equivalent experience in the biz, are “getting fewer and fewer,” he said, “and it bothers me because I don’t see the next wave of lifers coming up – and I wonder about that.”

Image result for roger hamer wowt

 

Oddities and happy accidents are bound to happen over careers as long as the Hamers. Once. Roger shot news footage of a pileup on an ice-covered section of Leavenworth Street south of downtown. “We sent it out to NBC,” he said. A couple weeks later the video showed up in an SNL skit.

“‘They pirated my video for entertainment purposes. It took a couple months, but I got 750 bucks out of them and gave them a tongue-lashing. How do you know people didn’t die in that crash? That blurring of the line between entertainment and news shouldn’t happen. Once you send video somewhere you don’t have any control over what happens to it. But even if i don’t send it, somebody else will. Many different people have access to my video than ever before.”

Standard protocol is for networks to ask local affiliates to provide video.

“Sometimes it was a bother because I’d be working on my piece for the six o’clock and they’d want something right now,” Dave said. “You would do everything you could to get it there.”

“It just may not be right now,” Roger said. “I’m not going to send it to them until we air it. My obligation is to my station first.”

Dave once fielded an NBC request for footage of a blizzard raging in Nebraska. They needed about a minute’s worth. He dutifully shot the storm.

“The network’s Huntley-Brinkley newscast switched to Omaha live. I was on the phone with the producer from New York. He told us when to roll the film. We’d built it logically to show the storm getting worse and worse. Well, the last shot came up and the film broke. We were on live coast-to-coast and I was like, Oh, my God. The producer comes on and says, ‘Great job, Omaha, Man. what a storm I couldn’t see anything in that last shot.’ We never told him.”

Memorably, Dave Hamer scooped the networks with his 1962 Vietnam reporting.

“The French had been kicked out in 1954. There was very little American involvement until about ’61 when we sent military advisers over. In April ’62 the first Nebraskan was killed in Vietnam – Army Special Forces Sergeant Wayne Marchand from Plattsmouth. He was wounded and captured in a firelight with the Viet Cong, then taken off and killed.

“We ran the wire story on the air. That was all we knew. Our general manager said, ‘What the hell was that all about? How come we’ve got people in – where is that place again? Within a month I was there because the front office said this is a story that should be told.”

Hamer and writer-producer Bob Fuller went as a two-man team.

“We did Marchand’s story, but while we were there we covered everything else we could find. We even did stories on Vietnam’s agricultural economy.”

The reporters stuck to a strategy.

“The first thing we did when we got in Saigon was check the overnight police reports for bombings, rocket fire at the airport and such to know what the hell was going on.

“We carried Department of Defense clearance paperwork that we never had to show. We had orders that allowed us to travel on military transport. If we couldn’t get military transport, we did what we could, even going by pedicab for God’s sake. Several times we hired a car with a driver. Sometimes we hired an interpreter. We could go anywhere we wanted. We checked in with the press office in Saigon when we got there and checked out when we left, They didn’t know where we were those three weeks. We were all over the country enmeshed in what was going on every day.”

Hamer and Fuller quickly learned U.S. involvement was larger than reported.

“There were 5,000 Americans in-country.. We went on helicopter support missions. Americans were flying planes and helicopters carrying South Vietnamese troops. The rule was fire only if fired upon,”

The entire western press corps in Vietnam then, he said, consisted of New York Times, AP and UPI correspondents, “and two guys from Omaha.”

“We had the whole story to ourselves. We did four half-hour documentary segments.”

The series was cited for special commendation by the Radio Television Council.

Fast forward three decades when Dave’s last major assignment took him to another war zone to cover Nebraska military personnel in Saudi Arabia.

Over time, he had offers to join the network in  Washington DC, New York and Paris, but he and his wife Verla deferred each time. They liked Omaha.

Roger Hamer “tested the waters” in other markets but stayed put.

Father and son “competed” when Dave was at WOWT and Roger at KMTV. They were briefly at WOWT at the same time but never covered a story together.

Roger said there’s much they share in common. “One thing we share is we’re not the story – the people are the story. Nobody wants to see us. They want to see the people living the experience.” They each derive satisfaction, he said, “just knowing that we did a good job and put a good story together.” “You get those four, five, six stories a year where you go, I nailed it. That’s what keeps you going.”

“We show up with a camera and people stop what they’re doing because they know you’re going to tell their story. It’s important to them,” Dave said.

“You have to be genuinely curious and caring and want to be involved in your community, and in telling the stories of its people,” said Roger, who, like his father, is grateful for the many fine collaborators he’s worked with. “It’s wonderful to work with people as passionate as you are and who are dedicated to their craft.”

A love for teaching is something else they share. “I found teaching very rewarding,” Dave said. “The satisfaction of sharing what you know and seeing the light bulb go off is a big part of it,” Roger said.

Not to be forgotten, Roger added, “We’ve both been blessed being married to very strong, supportive women that understood what we do and tolerated it.”

Dave and his late wife Verla were married 61 years. “Verla was interested in what we did and was our best promoter,” he said. The couple lost their other son, Dennis, to a coronary occlusion in 2002.

The quiet-spoken, TV news trailblazer gets choked up talking about family. “I’m very proud of this guy,” he said, clasping Roger’s knee. “Roger is his own man, has made his own reputation. and lives it every day on every story. He earned the Edward R. Murrow Award. I was never even close.”

Roger appreciates what his father’s given him – from leading Scouts canoe trips to being “a great mentor.” “He taught me that if I’m not trying, if I’m not pushing myself, if I’m not putting product out I’m happy with, then it’s time to walk away.”

There may not be a third-generation Hamer in the field  “Never say never,” cautioned Dave, a grandfather of two. Meanwhile, Dave writes a newsletter, Window on 53rd Street. he shares with family and friends. Like the man, it’s a warm, witty, sincere, humble take on a life         well-lived and a career well-earned.

Though louder and more outspoken than his father, Roger is a mensch among newsmen just like his old man. A passing of the torch has occurred in another way. Where Roger used to be asked, Are you any relation to Dave Hamer?, now Dave is asked, Are you related to Roger Hamer?

“Roger and me reversed roles.” Dave said. “I’m very proud to be asked if I’m related to Roger.”

“I’ve always been proud of my dad, ” Roger said. “He’s my hero.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Life Itself: VIII: A quarter century of stories about photographers


Life Itself: VIII:
A quarter century of stories about photographers
 

 

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/04/27/photographer-jim…-to-honor-beauty

Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/04/24/nature-photograp…raphic-photo-ark/

Paul Johnsgard: A birder’s road less traveled
Natural imagery: Tom Mangelsen travels far and wide to where the wild things are for his iconic photography, but always comes back home to Nebraska 
frank_oneal_01
Master of many mediums Jason Fischer
For Omaha Film Festival guru Marc Longbrake, cinema is no passing fancy 
Creative couple: Bob and Connie Spittler and their shared creative life 60 years in the making
Feeding the world, nourishing our neighbors, far and near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha nonprofits take on hunger and food insecurity
Matinee marriage: Omaha couple Mauro and Christine Fiore forge union based on film and family
 Run DMC,  ©Janette Beckman
Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real: Her hip-hop and biker images showing at Carver Bank as part of Bemis residency
The panoramic world of Patrick Drickey
Master of light, Mauro Fiore, Oscar-winning director of photography for “Avatar”
A brief history of Omaha’s civil rights struggle distilled in black and white by photographer Rudy Smith
To Doha and back with love:  
Local journalists reflect on their fear, loathing and everything surreal adventure in the Gulf
Exhibit by photographer Jim Krantz and his artist grandfather, the late David Bialac, engages in an art conversation through the generations

A very young Jim Krantz with an iconic mentor, Ansel Adams, ©photo Jim Krantz

Photographer Monte Kruse works close to the edge
From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football
Photographer Larry Ferguson’s work is meditation on the nature of views and viewing
Jesuit photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University documents the global human condition – one person, one image at a time
 
Imagemaking celebrated at Joslyn Art Museum: “The Misfits” and Magnum Cinema
Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”
Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work 
Photographer Monte Kruse pushes boundaries

Bejing Rose, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

Golf shots: Patrick Drickey lives dream photographing the world’s great golf courses
My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work: 
Omaha Fashion Week may be showcase for the next big thing out of Omaha
Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey
The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film
Matter of the heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s love for community brings art fest to North Omaha
Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s small box businesses fight the good fight by being themselves
Nobuko Oyabu

Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s own journey of recovery sheds light on survivors of rape and sexual abuse through her Project STAND
Artist Vera Mercer’s coming out party
Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter
Hidden In plain view: Rudy Smith’s camera and memory fix on critical time in struggle for equality
Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today
Former Omaha television photojournalist Don Chapman’s adventures in imagemaking keep him on the move 
Rudy Smith, ©photo by Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald

A brief history of Omaha’s civil rights struggle distilled in black and white by photographer Rudy Smith

May 2, 2012 15 comments

Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened.  That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist.  Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in.  He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town.  Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life.  The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.

 

 

3/21/04 Omaha, NE Omaha World-Herald photojournalist Rudy Smith. (photo by Chris Machian/for Prarie Pixel Group)

Rudy Smith, ©photo by Chris Machian

 

 

A brief history of Omaha’s civil rights struggle distilled in black and white by photographer Rudy Smith

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.

The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.

Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.

Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.

On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.

Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and  spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.

The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.

The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”

Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.

Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.

Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.

Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”

Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.

His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’

Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”

An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.

From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football

August 23, 2011 11 comments

Huskers Versus Missouri, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke is as intrepid as they come in his globe-trotting work. He covers everything, from wars to Olympic Games, in all corners of the world, always seeing deeper, beyond the obvious, to capture revelatory gestures or behaviors or attitudes the rest of us miss. With his new book, Farewell Big 12, he examines the University of Nebraska Cornhusker football program’s last go-round in the Big 12 Conference through his unique prism for making images of moments only the most discerning eye can recognize and document. He sets off in relief the truth of individuals and events and actions, drawing us in to bask in their beauty or mystery.

Two photographer mentors of Jarecke’s, Don Doll and Larry Ferguson, are also profiled on this blog.

A gallery of Jarecke’s images can be seen at http://www.eyepress.com.  His book can be purchased at http://www.huskermax.com.

 

 

New York City Boardwalk, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

In his 26 years as a Contact Press Images photojournalist, award-winning Kenneth Jarecke has documented the world. Assignments for leading magazines and newspapers have taken him to upwards of 80 countries, some of them repeatedly.

His resulting images of iconic events have graced the pages of TIME, LIFE, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and hundreds of other publications. His work has been reproduced in dozens of books.

He has captured the spectrum of life through coverage of multiple wars, Olympic Games and presidential campaigns. He has documented the ruling class and the poorest of the poor. He has photographed the grandest public spectacles and the most intimate, private human moments.

Wherever the assignment takes him, whatever the subject matter he shoots, Jarecke brings his keen sensitivity to bear.

“I know how to capture the human condition,” he said.

His well-attenuated intuition and highly trained eye followed the University of Nebraska football team on its last go-round through the Big 12 during the 2010 season. The result is a new coffee-table book, Farewell Big 12, that reproduces 300 Jarecke photographs, in both black and white and color, made over the course of 10 games.

He is planning a companion book, Welcome to the Big 10, that will document the Huskers throughout their inaugural 2011 season in the fabled Big 10 conference.

The projects represent his first solo books since 1992, when he published a collector’s volume of his searing Persian Gulf War I photos entitled, Just Another War.

His work has shown at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, at Nomad Lounge in Omaha, at the Houston Fine Arts Museum and at other galleries around the nation.

 

 

Hama, Syria, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

Coming Full Circle

The Husker photo books have special meaning for Jarecke, a native Nebraskan and one-time college football nose guard, who wanted to give Husker fans and photo aficionados alike a never-before-seen glimpse inside the game.

“It’s something I always wanted to do. I wanted to do an in-depth season in my own style, capturing the kind of images I like to see and make. I don’t cover football or sports as a news event, I cover it as an experience.

“I don’t care about the winning touchdown, I don’t care about really anything except what I can capture that’s interesting. So, it might be a touchdown or it might be a fumble or it might be concentrating on something completely different (away from the action).

“You don’t really see those type of pictures too much.”

His instinct for what is arresting and indelible guides him.

“It could be the light was right in this area. It could be something I see on somebody’s helmet or hand. It could be something I’ve seen somebody do two or three times and I follow this guy around to see if that happens again. My goal is to not record the game as it happens, my goal is to try to give an idea of what it’s like inside that thing.”

As a University of Nebraska at Omaha nose guard, he lived in the trenches of football’s tangled bodies, where violent collisions, head slaps, eye gouges and other brutal measures test courage. As a world-class photographer with an appreciation for both the nuanced gestures and the blunt force trauma of athletics, he sees what others don’t.

“I understand the game of college football from an inside perspective and I know how to shoot sports.”

“He’s a person who has this gift of seeing. He’s a 360-degree seer,” said noted photography editor and media consultant and former TIME magazine director of photography MaryAnne Golon. “What you’re going to get is Ken’s take, and Ken’s take is always interesting. Plus, he has a very strong journalistic instinct, and not every photographer has that.”

He is well versed in the hold the Huskers exert on fans. Indeed, his first national assignment, for Sports Illustrated, was a Husker football shoot.

“I’m basically circling back with this project,” he said. “In a lot of ways this Husker book is a dream project. As a native, I understand what this program means to the people of the state. and I wanted to capture it. That’s basically the bottom line.”

What appears on the surface to simply be a football photo book hones in on behavior – subtle or overt, gentle or harsh – as the mis en scene for his considered gaze.

“That’s the same approach I take to anything,” he said.

“Ken possesses an uncanny artistic exuberance and a deliberateness that belie his quiet personality,” said Jeffrey D. Smith, Jarecke’s Contact agent.

“Like a hunter methodically stalking his prey, Ken quickly and silently sizes up his surrounds, and determines position, shying away from the obvious. He assesses the light, watching how it changes, then he waits. He waits till the moment’s right, till the crowds thin, till the explosion of action provides an awkward off-moment or someone pauses to catch their breath, and then BAM, Ken catches the subject floating and off-guard.”

 

 

Bejing Rose, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

Camera as Passport

This sense of capturing privileged, revelatory moments is the same Jarecke had when he first discovered photography at age 15 in his hometown of Omaha.

“I realized that with a camera in your hand you basically had an excuse to invite yourself into anybody’s life. I figured out real quick it’s like a passport.”

A camera, when wielded by a professional like himself, breaks down barriers.

“As a photographer you’re completely at the mercy of kindness from strangers wherever you go in the world. Whether you speak the language or not, you’re with strangers, and it never ceases to amaze me how kind people are and how open they are. And if not helpful, how they just leave you alone to go about your business, and it’s been that way everywhere.

“Yeah, I’ve had nasty experiences, but even then you see where there’s like a silver lining, and somebody helps you out somehow.”

He remembers well when photography first overtook him and, with it, the purpose-driven liberation it gave him.

“It was the end of my sophomore year at Omaha Bryan High School when I met a couple guys photographing football-wrestling-track. I was in all that. A guy named Jim Guilizia (whom Jarecke is still friends with today) invited me to see the school darkroom and how it works. And the first time I saw that I was like, ‘I’ve found something to do with my life.’ It was just that quick, just that easy. It was a done deal. Like magic.

“My dad had a 35 mm camera, so I started messing with that.”

Reflecting back, Jarecke said, “I didn’t know exactly what a photographer was. I mean, I thought it was this thing where you go and shoot a war and you come back to New York City and do a fashion shoot. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” He wanted it so badly he quit football over the objections of his coach, arguing it left no time for photography.

“I felt like I was already missing out on things. I had to get to making pictures.”

His actual career has not been so unlike the idyll he imagined it to be, though as an independent contractor it has been a struggle at times. The challenges he may endure are outweighed by the freedom of operating on his own terms.

“I’ve always been a freelance photographer,” he said.

He has worked with every conceivable budget and circumstance – from all expenses paid, full-access, months-long sojourns to zero budget, uncredentialed gambits funded himself. He doesn’t let obstacles get in the way of doing his work.

“It seems strange, I know, but I’ve gone to countries without visas.”

His mantra is: “Somehow, I’m going to find a way.”

His skills at improvising and making-do in difficult situations and in a highly competitive field have steeled him for the lean times. Like today, when the market for editorial photography has shrunk as print media struggle to survive in the digital age.

“Basically I was forced to keep getting better, keep getting smarter, keep working. I’m a better photographer today then I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve been hungry with this profession for 30 years. That’s the difference. If you’re making a living with a camera today, you’re already in the 96th-97th percentile. How do you get to that 99th percentile?

“The whole struggling thing has made me stronger, has given me an edge. I think it’s more of a blessing than a curse.”

Magnum photographer Gilles Peress admiringly calls Jarecke “one of the few free men still in existence,” adding, “I think he’s great.”

 

 

New York City Bathers, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

School of Hard Knocks

Jarecke broke into the ranks of working photographers with a by-any-means-necessary ethic.

At 18 he got his first picture published – of an escaped Omaha Stockyards bull subdued on a highway. He became a pest to Omaha World-Herald editors, ”borrowing” its darkrooms to process his images. Sometimes he even sold one or two.

He became a stringer for the AP and the UPI.

“I was doing whatever I could do,” he said. “I never had a press pass. It was always, Which door can I sneak through? Literally.”

Jarecke often refers to the uneasy balance of chutzpah and humility top photographers possess, qualities he displayed when, still only a teen and with minimal experience, he flew to New York City to be discovered.

Against all odds he talked his way in to see Sports Illustrated editor Barbara Hinkle, who reviewed his meager black and white portfolio and offered advice: Start shooting in color and filling the frame. He heeded her words back home and built up a color portfolio.

His first big break came courtesy SI via an early-1980s Husker football shoot. He itched for more. Local assignments just weren’t cutting it for him financially or creatively.

“I was pretty frustrated. I was already at the point where I could make their pictures, but now I wanted to make my pictures.”

It was time to move on, so he headed back to NYC, where he “pieced together a living.” “I always had a camera in hock,” he said. “I was kind of stumbling along, living out of a suitcase for two or three years. I was broke.”

Among the best decisions he made was attending back to back Main Photographic Workshops: one taught by Giles Peress and another by David Burnett and Robert Pledge of newly formed Contact Press Images.

It was not the first time Jarecke studied photography. He counts among his mentors two Omaha-based image-makers with national reputations, Don Doll and Larry Ferguson, who took him under their wing at various points.

During one of his forays at college, editor MaryAnne Golon was judging a photography show in Lincoln, Neb. when she saw the early potential that eventually led him to working for her at TIME and U.S. News.

“I met Ken when he was an emerging photographer and I remember the work standing out then, and he was like 19, so it was interesting to watch the progression of his career,” she said. “I think he has a very lyrical eye. He’s a classic case of a photographer who comes out with some little magic moment.”

Bobbi Baker Burrows, director of photographer at LIFE Magazine Books, has also seen Jarecke grow from a wunderkind to a mature craftsman. “He just never ceased to amaze me in his growth and his artistry and his strong journalistic integrity,” she said. “As an adoptive mother to Ken I was so proud to see him blossom into a fine person as well as an extraordinary photographer.”

 

 

Ethiopia Road, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

Breaking Through

Jarecke said he got noticed as much for his talent as for his attitude. “I was obnoxious, I was arrogant.” Chafing at what he considered “too much naval gazing and thinking” by fellow students, he advocated “going with your gut.”

“It was very clear right off the bat he was quite a special, unusual character on the one hand and photographer on the other. Quite daring also,” said Pledge.

Pledge became a champion. With both Pledge and Burnett in his corner, Jarecke became an early Contact Press Images member. Pledge assigned Jarecke his breakthrough job: getting candid shots of Oliver North at the start of the Iran-Contra affair.

“I actually got his (North) home address through a Sygma photographer. Back then there were a lot of photo agencies. We were all competitors, but we all kind of worked together, too.”

From his car parked along a public street, Jarecke staked out North’s home. “I hung out from sunrise to sunset, waiting for him to mow the lawn or something. I was down to two rolls of film when this LIFE magazine photographer showed up. He had some type of agreement with Ollie that he’d get exclusive pictures. But he wasn’t allowed to go into Ollie’s place. It was like a wink and nod deal.

“This photographer had a small window to get his pictures and my being there was screwing up his whole deal.”

Frantic phone calls ensued between the LIFE photographer and his editor and Jarecke’s agent, Robert Pledge. LIFE insisted Pledge get his bulldog to back off, but Jarecke recalls Pledge giving him emphatic orders: Whatever you do, don’t leave.

“I explained to Bob I didn’t have any film. He said, ‘I don’t care, just pretend like you’re making pictures.’ It was a bluff with very high stakes.”

Jarecke did make pictures though, “shooting a frame here and a frame there,” shadowing the LIFE photographer.

“I just had to cover everything he covered.”

Jarecke’s persistence paid off. His work effectively spoiled LIFE’s exclusive, forcing the magazine to negotiate with Contact. “LIFE had to buy all my pictures that were similar to the ones in the magazine, basically to embargo them.” Jarecke found eager bidders for his remaining North images in Newsweek and People.

“I went from being broke to making a huge sell over like one week. That allowed me to keep working.”

Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, LIFE hired Jarecke to shoot some stories. Offers from other national mags followed. In 1987-1988 he traveled constantly, covering all manner of news events, including the elections in Haiti, an IRA funeral in Belfast that turned violent and the Seoul Summer Olympics. He was the most published photographer of the ‘88 presidential election campaign. His in-depth coverage of Jesse Jackson earned him his first World Press Photo Award.

In 1989, he became a contract photographer for TIME, whose editors nominated him for the International Center of Photography’s Emerging Photographer Award. Jarecke fulfilled his promise by producing cover stories on New York City, Orlando and America’s emergency medical care crisis. The 1990 “The Rotting of the Big Apple” spread attracted worldwide attention. His nine pages of black and white photographs dramatically illustrated the deterioration of America’s greatest metropolis. The piece’s signature picture, “Two Bathers,” won him another World Press Photo Award.

He didn’t know it then, but these were the halcyon times of modern photojournalism.

“Back then we used to spend a month on a story, not three or four days like we do now.”

it was nothing for a major magazine to send a dozen or more photographers and a handful of editors to a mega event like the Olympics.

When not on assignment, the TIME-LIFE building became something of a tutorial for Jarecke. In his 20s he got to know master photographers Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstaedt and other originators of the still very young profession.

“If you’re Yo-Yo Ma today, that’s like hanging out with Mozart,” said Jarecke. “You’re standing on the shoulders of these giants that paved the way and you have their careers to build off of.”

 

 

Bejing Opera, ©photo by Kenneth Jarecke

 

 

Photographing and Surviving a War Zone

Then came his coverage of Desert Storm and a controversy he didn’t bargain on.

The U.S. military instituted tight control of media access.

“I was a TIME magazine photographer at that point. I didn’t want to be in the (U.S.) Department of Defense pool, but I was forced to be in this pool. AP set up all the rules of engagement, down to the type of film you shot.”

Near the conclusion of fighting Jarecke was with a CBS news crew and a writer. Escorting the journalists were an Army public affairs officer and his sergeant. All were geared up with helmets and flak jackets.

It was still early in the day when the group came upon a grotesque frieze frame of the burned out remains of fleeing Iraqi forces attacked by coalition air strikes. Jarecke took pictures, including one of an incinerated Iraqi soldier. Jarecke’s images of the carnage offered unvarnished, on-the-ground glimpses at war’s brutality. The photos’ hard truth stood in stark contrast to the antiseptic view of the war leaders preferred.

At a certain point, Jarecke recalls, “we broke off from our pool” to avoid the Republican Guard. “We had this stupid, stupid plan to drive cross country into Kuwait. We started with two vehicles  – a military Bronco and a Range Rover. We headed out across the desert with no compass, no map. We had a general idea of the direction we needed to go, but we immediately got lost.”

At one point Jarecke and Co. ran smack dab into the very forces they tried to avoid, and got shelled for their trouble, but escaped unharmed. Technically there was a cease fire, but in the haze of war not everyone played by the rules.

Skirting the combatants, the journalists and their escorts went off-road, ending up farther afield than before. The journalists waited until twilight to try and circle around the Republican Guard. The normally 45-minute drive was hours in progress with no end in sight.

“We’re seriously lost.”

Unable to make their way back onto the highway, the situation grew ever more precarious.

“The Bronco kept getting flat tires. We finally abandoned it and we all piled into the Range Rover.”

Around midnight, Jarecke’s group found themselves amid a caravan of non-coalition vehicles in the middle of a desert no-man’s land. “We’re playing cat and mouse throughout the night through the minefields, through the burning oil fields, through Iraqi fortified positions. We got our wheels tangled up once in their communication wires.”

Adding to the worries, he said, “we were almost out of fuel.” Nerves were already frayed as he and his fellow reporters had been up five days straight. Relief came when they stumbled upon a fuel truck and a small Desert Rat (British) unit. A new convoy was formed in hopes of regaining the highway. Then an idle American tank came into view.

“At 2 a.m. you don’t drive up to a tank and knock on the door,” said Jarecke. “You’ve got serious concerns with friendly fire and protocol and passwords of the day. It was dicy, but they recognized us.”

It turned out they were atop the highway, only the drifting sand obscured it.

“We’re still like 40 miles outside Kuwait City, but we’re on our way. We’ve got these Desert Rats behind us and we’re tooling along. At that point we’re kind of relaxed. I drifted off and when I awoke we’re in what looks like a parking lot with all these stopped vehicles. The Desert Rats are gone. We’ve lost them.

“I get out of the car and see a Russian machine gun set up on a truck, the silhouette visible in the light from the distant fires. Then I realize I hear a radio and that some of these vehicles are still running. It’s a mystery. Where are we? How’d we get here?”

Leaving the surreal scene, he said, “It was obvious trucks were running and eyeballs were on you. And then at some point we drove out of it and we were back on the highway, and we made it into Kuwait City as the sun was rising.”

 

 

 

 

Controversy, New Directions, Satisfaction

A couple days later Jarecke said he was trading war stories with a CBS news producer, who commented, “You won’t believe what we just saw – we’re calling it the Highway of Death,’ blah, blah, blah…”’ Looking and sounding eerily familiar to what Jarecke had driven through earlier, he said, “We were there.”

Back home, his incinerated soldier image was the object of a brouhaha. Deeming it too intense, the AP pulled the photo from the U.S. wire. The photo was distributed widely in Europe via Reuters and on a more limited basis in the U.S. through UPI. Jarecke and others were dismayed censorship kept it from most American print media.

“I thought I had done my job. I’d shown what I’d seen, and let the chips fall where they may. I thought being a journalist was supposed to be trying to tell the truth.”

He said so in interviews with BBC, NPR and other major media outlets. Eventually, that picture and others he made of the war were published in America. The iconic photo earned him the Leica Medal of Excellence and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Meanwhile, in the flood of Gulf War books, many utilizing his work, he tried to interest publishers in his own book, Just Another War, picturing the carnage. Admittedly an experiment that juxtaposes his visceral black and white images with art and poetry by Exene Cervenka, publishers declined. He self-published.

Jarecke’s imagery from the Gulf, said Contact’s Robert Pledge, is “really outstanding and unexpected and very personal. It’s some of the best documentation of that war.”

In 1996 Jarecke left TIME to be a contract photographer at U.S. News & World Report, where he made his mark in a decade of high-end, globe-trotting work.

“He’s the kind of photographer that when you send him out you know you’re going to be surprised when he comes back and surprised in a joyful way,” said MaryAnne Golon. “I’ve worked with him off and on for over 20 years and I’ve never been disappointed in an assignment he’s done.”

“He’s very determined. He really spends the time looking for things to give a shape and a meaning. He’s someone who’s very thoughtful with his eye. He looks at a situation and tries to dig in deep and look with greater detail,” said Pledge. “He’s able to seize upon things.”

Contact co-founder and photographer David Burnett has worked on assignment with Jarecke at major venues like the Olympics, where he can attest to his colleague’s intensity.

“It’s quite something to be able to see Ken about the fourth or fifth day at the Olympic Games, when we’re just starting to get really into it, really tired, and really frustrated. He’s walking down a hallway with this killer look on his face, holding two monopods, one with a 400 and one with a 600. He looks like he’s got the thousand yard stare, but he knows exactly where he’s going

“And it’s a treat to watch, because when he gets wound up like that, the pictures are amazing.”

Today, Jarecke, his wife, and the couple’s three daughters and one son live far from the madding crowd on a small spread in Joliet, Montana. His hunger to make pictures still burns.

“Working without a net keeps me going for that next mountain, and the truth is you never reach it.”

Elusive, too, is the perfect picture.

“There’s no such thing, because if it is perfect it’s no good. There has to be something messy around the edges. That’s part of the mystery of creating these pictures. They almost get their power from the imperfections.”

Imperfect or not, his indelible observations endure.

With his iconoclastic take on Husker football, he’s sure he’s published a collection of pictures “no one else is making.” He’s pleased, too, this quintessential Nebraska project is designed by Webster Design and printed by Barnhart Press, two venerable Nebraska companies.

“No small feat,” he said.

With traditional media in flux, Jarecke looks to increasingly bring his work to new audiences via e-readers and tablets. His art prints are in high demand.

Golon said the present downturn is like a Darwinian cleansing where only the strongest survive and that Jarecke “is definitely one of the fittest, and so I’m sure he’ll survive” and thrive.

Hidden In plain view: Rudy Smith’s camera and memory fix on critical time in struggle for equality

August 29, 2010 4 comments

 Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today.  Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana.  This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana.  I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.
Hidden in plain view:
Rudy Smith’s camera and memory fix on critical time in struggle for equality

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.

“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”

It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”

Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.

More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”

As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.

“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”

For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”

The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.

“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”

Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.

“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.

That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”

Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”

Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.

 

 

His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.

“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”

It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.

With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”

Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and  still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”

“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”

When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.

The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”

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