When I first moved to Los Angeles I taught photography and had a steady
stream of students whom you might politely call blessed with enthusiasm but lacking in talent. Who knew that one day I’d be following a student’s career. Even teachers need to learn.
The phone rang in my office the other day and it was Bear. No, it wasn’t a “real-life-talking-bear”—this caller’s full name is Barry Gutierrez but everyone knows him as Bear. He was one of my earliest students and in those early days he was very eager but still rough in his basic skills.
Maybe some of that photo chemistry had seeped into his brain but after taking my class a few times he decided photography was how he was going to spend his life. Barry wanted to be a photojournalist so he spent several months researching the best colleges and ended up choosing Western Kentucky University. He loaded up an old blue Chevy pickup truck; said good-bye to Los Angeles and 2200 miles later arrived in Bowling Green, KY.
The Picture Coach: What did you think of Western Kentucky University when you very first arrived?
Bear: WKU was like joining a family. A co-ed fraternity of photojournalists. I felt a sense of competition and camaraderie all at the same time. I knew that I would be judged on my character, pictures and effort. I got involved as quick as I could.
TPC: Bear worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News before he ended up at the Rocky Mountain News.
Bear: The Rocky was a fantastic place to work. I was impressed with the caliber of photographers and they pushed me to be a better photographer every day.
TPC: Lets get to the big stuff. Your were a member of the photo staff of the Rocky Mountain News which earned a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Colorado wildfires in summer 2002. Tell us about that award.
Bear: The paper entered 20 images for that contest and I had seven pictures in the original entry. I was given the task to print the entry myself. I did it in the studio of the RMN and it took nearly a month. I am almost as proud of printing the entry as I was of making the pictures. I’m pretty sure we used an Epson 2200 for the prints and an 11×14 print could take 10-20 minutes. I made each print with a thick black border and added caption information in white type to the bottom of each print. The format, style and words all had to be checked, rechecked and edited by two different editors at the paper, with the final approval from our publisher. WIth that many eyes on our entry, I had to make a dozen versions of most images and duplicates for safety.
TPC: Where were you when you got the news about the Pulitzer?
Bear: I was stuck in traffic on the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles on my way to see my grandmother. At the time she lived in a house that my grandfather builtwith his own two hands. It stood on a hill with 52 steps. I remember being a little taxed after running up the steps and trying to explain to my 92-year-old grandmother what a Pulitzer Prize was. She really had no clue but she knew it was big. She was so full of joy with me. It was the perfect person to share the news. She has since passed and that moment is chained to my heart forever.
TPC: What was great about shooting for newspapers?
Bear: The best and the worst was the daily grind. I loved the daily adventure of random assignments. One day it might be a plane crash, the next a baby’s birth, and then a baseball game. Some days I had two or three of those assignments one after the next. I loved the instant gratification of being published everyday. When I first started working I would sometimes stay up until 3 am to watch the newspaper being printed with my picture on the front page.
TPC: Tell us what you are doing since the newspaper folded?
Bear: The RMN closed its doors Feb. 28, 2009. I now work for numerous editorial clients nationwide, three or four collage publications, The Associated Press, Denver Post, European Press agency. I shoot corporate portraits, weddings and headshots. I was hired as a stills photographer for a movie in California called Heathens and Thieves in 2009. I also teach photojournalism at Front Range Community College and Metro State College.
TPC: What photographers do you study?
Bear: I think Alex Webb’s work is amazing. He is intensely drawn to great light. His pictures have a special beauty and depth which are framed by incredible culture. I’m curently reading Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Dr. Maria Tippett, and as I read through Karsh’s journeys, I daydream about being a mouse in his pocket. It has been a fun read about an incredible portrait photographer.
TPC: Cameras are now so smart, what advice do you have for “students” to make their photos stand above the usual.
Bear: If you are examining your pictures, ask yourself this question: “Could my mother take this picture?” If the answer is yes, you need to work much harder. When I teach, I tell my students that billions of images are taken around the globe every year. What makes your images worth looking at? You have to master your equipment. You have to shoot more. Remember, your first 100,000 images are crap. The sooner you get to 100,000 frames, the sooner you will have a style, a name, and a future as a photographer.
TPC: I don’t think you have a crystal ball but what do you see in the future for photography.
Bear:” I fear that video will be our only medium to use in a very short time; 5-10 years. The quality of a still frame from a video will be that of a digital image from a Cannon EOS 1D Mark IV and then it’s all over. Still images will be no more. Like film, we will only make it for artists. There will always be a need for images. In fact that need grows greater and greater each day. It is how we gather those images that will change. Unfortunately the art and craftsmanship I fell in love with will be no more.”
Barry, I just keep learning from you.
TPC: This was the first photo I saw after it was announced that the Rocky Mountain News had won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Even before I knew he shot the photo I was willing to bet it was Barry’s picture. For me this photo is about timing. Both the timing of the fires as it approaches the beautiful house and the realization that in no time, that house woud be gone.
TPC: Shooting air to air can be tricky and doing it the middle of a major operation like the Colorado wild fires takes talent under pressure. The position of the airplane and the dramatic lighting were elements Barry had no control over but still managed to create a striking image with near perfect composition. In some ways the photo is so pretty it looks like a poster for an upcoming Clint Eastwood poster.
“That’s all he wanted to do, is come home and put her(Leia) on his chest,” said Dana Baum, Rayn’s mother. A photograph of Leia Ryan Baum was placed on her father Sgt. Ryan John Baum’s chest for visitation. Rayn was killed in action in Karmah, Iraq May 18, 2007. Ryan was scheduled to return home to be present for the birth of his daughter Leia Ryan Baum who was born 11 days after his death. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.