“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, take photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We are more than journalists. As you will see, we are also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences that proudly call Sonoma County.
Today we present to you John Burgess, one of our photographers.
A career in photojournalism was not on my radar when I arrived at the University of California, Berkeley in 1980, but I had to pay my own expenses, and the Daily Cal was an independent student newspaper that needed support. ‘a photographer. I spent the next four years earning extra money and living in a newsroom, getting the education needed for a 42-year career and more.
After earning a degree in economics, I spent my first 20 years as an outdoor “tramp” with Cal Adventures. I made little money, but had the time of my life guiding hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, and cross-country skiing trips. I was one of the first guides in the Bay Area when I started the sea kayaking program in 1985.
My joy was taking 10-15 year olds on a five day hike. I earned an emergency teaching degree and, due to a lack of teachers, ended up teaching special education to some wonderful middle school kids in West Oakland.
By 1988, I had saved enough for a year in Europe, putting 23,000 miles on a Volkswagen bus traveling from Scotland to Sicily to the Iran-Iraq border in Turkey. My camera helped me overcome my shyness. It was my way of starting conversations with the locals.
Turns out the camera, and later a press pass, gave me permission to poke my nose into other people’s business and ask, “What are you doing?”
I moved back to California and was accepted into Sonoma State University’s teacher certification program. Although it’s a long plan, I applied around the same time for a scholarship to the San Francisco State Photojournalism Program with my images from Europe – and I won!
My big breakthrough was winning the shooting contest against 100 other young photojournalists at a week-long workshop in upstate New York. The prize was an internship at Sports Illustrated. I started at The Press Democrat in 1991 after my time in the Time-Life building in New York, but the photo editors kept calling.
Over the next 23 years, I worked weekends and completed over 300 freelance assignments. In the 90s, Sports Illustrated was the quintessential sports magazine. I was his West Coast portrait painter. I toured Navajo and Hopi land with 49ers quarterback Steve Young, rented 4,000 golf balls to photograph 18-year-old Tiger Woods at Stanford, and shut the mouth of 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens.
My day photographing NBA legend Jason Kidd ended with us watching a movie in his luxurious home theater.
With more outlets demanding athletes, our time for photography has shrunk so much that my last assignment in 2013, a cover image of Giants MVP wide receiver Buster Posey, ended with a PR person telling me. yelled at him for taking seven minutes instead of the allotted five. minutes.
Those pressures and a double heart bypass ended my freelancing weekends.
I asked Press Democrat writer Mary Callahan to marry me while we were both covering the trial of Richard Allen Davis for the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. I was the pool photographer, the only one allowed in court, when the guilty verdict was read. Davis turned around and raised two middle fingers.
This image has become the center of controversy and conversation about when newspapers should run an offensive image.
The same problem arose when two Montgomery homecoming princesses waved to Santa Rosa fans with four middle fingers on the back of their convertible driving down the track at halftime. I’m pretty sure I have the record with seven total published “birds” returned – one inadvertently – during my career.
After 31 years, my favorite part of my job is meeting the amazing people we cover. I can interview the experts in every field. I love learning new skills and am an insatiable hobbyist. Many of these hobbies started after I photographed and learned from my subjects.
After photographing master hand toolmaker James Krenov, I became a cabinetmaker. A sea kayak fishing shoot led to summer weekends on the water and a freezer full of rockfish and lingcod. My other hobbies include bird watching, fermenting, indoor plants, vegetable and dahlia gardening, ceramics, and hopefully learning to play my new bass.
I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes of adventure as a photojournalist. Every working day is unique.
I spent three weeks in India and Malaysia photographing an outsourcing story. I was at Obama’s first inauguration. I was in the dugout for the Giants during a World Series. I flew in an army helicopter in Yosemite when it was closed to the public. I photographed four open-heart operations. I was the only photographer photographing in the secure housing unit at Pelican Bay, California’s maximum security prison. Francis Ford Coppola once stole my tooth-scarred pizza crusts and ate them.
And chef John Ash cooks for me once a month, and I get treats home every time.
It was a wild ride. Let’s hope there are a few more adventures for this old photojournalist.