The Tardy Times
FRAN ORTIZ  (1932-2007)

  ‘To capture a moment, an experience’
                                          – Dr. John Summersette
                                                                 
FRAN ORTIZ represented everything that was good about the old San Francisco Examiner and, for that matter, the old newspaper business itself.
   Celebrated for his brilliant photography, worshiped by his former students and esteemed by his fellow journalists, Francisco Ortiz Jr. had an ill-kept secret: He wasn't just a Beethoven junkie. He wanted to be Herbert von Karajan, only nicer.
     If nobody was watching, he would flourish a pencil and conduct a CD of Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony.
    In the old M&M saloon, a difficult venue for Beethoven, Fran and a friendly basso began one afternoon to hum an inexpert rendition of “O welche Lust,” the Prisoners' Chorus from “Fidelio.” Other patrons edged away, their facial expressions unreadable.
     He made no secret of another passion.
     Fran was well into his 70s when neighborhood boys began a touch football game one day on the street outside his house in Kensington. It had been more than 50 years since Fran starred at Vallejo High School, a football powerhouse during his two undefeated seasons as its quarterback.
      He called for the football. Careful to  head for the berm when cars came up the hill, the kids ran routes while Fran hit them with tight spirals. Or so he said. After 15 minutes it was time, he conceded, to limp back to the house, take an ibuprofen pill and listen to more Beethoven.
      He had become a lot more fragile. Not long afterward, he came across the Bay to talk about photographs at an exhibit of his greatest hits at the San Francisco Exposure Gallery.
      On Feb. 4, 2007, Fran went to the hospital for surgery to get rid of colon cancer. Four days later, he died. He was 75. He left his wife of 25 years, Kathy; their son, Michael; three older daughters from his first marriage, and a full house of mourners at his memorial service.
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PAT YOLLIN, a reporter who worked with Fran at the old Examiner, took a look at Fran's last exhibit:
     In 1960, poet Robert Frost writes at his desk.
     In 1978, the mist shrouds towering redwoods.     
     In 1981, it's midnight in Moscow.
     In 1997, clouds billow over hills of  Wildcat Canyon.
     Pensive portraits of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, singer Peggy Lee, photographer Richard Avedon and opera star Luciano Pavarotti share a stillness that makes the viewer feel very much alone with them.

     In her eloquent obituary in the Chronicle, she talked to Fran's colleagues and friends.
     “He was probably the person I admired most in journalism,” said Larry D. Hatfield, the retired reporter and rewriteman.  “Not just for his talent but for who he was.”
      “He was just masterful, both technically and emotionally,” said Chronicle photographer Mark Costantini, a former student of Fran's.
      “Fran realized a photo should be made and not ‘taken,’ ” said Chronicle photographer Kim Komenich, who won a Pulitzer Prize when at the old Examiner. “He based his entire way of seeing on the idea that the negative is the score and the print is the performance.”  
     At Fran's memorial service, Gary Cameron of Reuters flew across the country to join in the eulogies. He said, “Fran was the best teacher I ever knew.”    
     The late Ansel Adams was another fan of Fran's: “To maintain such a consistently excellent output is, indeed, an achievement.”
     To Yollin, Komenich said, “He was a mentor. He really wanted to make sure you realized it was a lot more than a job. It was an opportunity for you to learn something and then try to educate people with our pictures.”
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JOHN TODD, an assistant city editor who liked offbeat stories, spotted a classified ad in 1963 that offered “town for sale.” He asked me go with Fran to Lodoga, a hamlet in eastern Colusa County. As we strolled around the all-white town, a couple of raggedy 10-year-old boys began to follow.
     From behind a barn I heard the boys amuse themselves by yelling “nigger!”
     Fran smiled.
     “Kids.”
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FRAN BEGAN work at the Examiner in the summer of 1963 in all-white (and 98 percent male) newsroom. The son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polynesian mother, he was the first black photographer on a general-circulation daily newspaper in Northern California and, so far as anybody can tell, in the nation. Don Hogan Charles didn't join the New York Times until 1964. Earlier black pioneers in news photography worked for magazines or the African-American press: Gordon Parks, for Life magazine; G. Marshall Wilson, for Ebony; Maurice Sorrell and Pulitzer winner Moneta J. Sleet, for Jet. Perhaps the most famous was Charles Teenie Harris of the Pittsburgh Courier. His nickname, a credit to his skills with the Speed Graphic, was “One-Shot.”  
     Nobody would ever apply “One-Shot” to Fran. He would disturb the parsimonious old timers by shooting whole rolls of film for routine mug shots.
     To him, each was a portrait.
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THE PRESENCE of a youthful college-educated, Beethoven-loving black man didn't bother the hard-drinking, hard-working, all-white photographers, all of them male. It was a talented  assemblage of variegated characters (an understatement). Higher education was their name for miliary  service in The War. And not the one in Korea.
     We overheard but one criticism of Fran. It had nothing to do with race. According to a conversation with first-rate photographers Walt Lynott and Matt Southard, gabbing among the martini drinkers at Jerry & Johnny, the newcomer in the darkroom had an odd choice of cameras.
     It was understandable. The old pros had spent their apprenticeships learning the fiendish intricacies of the Graflex Speed Graphic. That workhorse press camera weighed 5 pounds. It came with a heavy bag of accessories, including the familiar flashgun that survives 50 years later in the movies and TV dramas as a fake prop to show fake press interest in fake celebrities. In real life, the photographer could take only two exposures before reloading film into the plate holders. Shoot too soon and you could miss the picture; wait too long and you're out of luck. It took experience and, ahem,  the ability to sweet-talk people into a posed reshoot.
     Abruptly, these skills were obsolete.
     By 1963, the Speed Graphic had been largely replaced by the up-to-date Rollieflex, a twin-lens reflex camera with a hand crank and upside-down viewing lens. And just as the grumbling veterans finally learned how frame their pictures as if they were standing on their heads, Fran walked into the darkroom and politely spurned the Rolleiflex. Instead, he pulled a 35mm Leica M2 from his bag.
     Mike Musura, who learned his trade as a bantamweight combat photographer at the Battle of the Bulge, delighted everybody with his inventive neologisms (“the car hit an embunkment” and “Gordie Stone is a tall-legged guy”). He was similarly expressive one day in 1964 when Fran brought back his Leica with unusual shots of a charismatic protest orator named Tracy Sims.
      “That's uncredible,” Mike told Matt. “It looked like nothing I've ever heard.”
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TRACY SIMS figured in one of the first partnerships of Fran with the Gazoot's future scribbler. The sit-in was only one block from the old Examiner newsroom on Third Street to the lobby of the Palace Hotel. Black and white, hundreds of demonstrators marched outside in a sidewalk picket line intende to pressure San Francisco hotels to end racist hiring patterns.
     Fran focused on Sims, the young black woman who stood on a fire hydrant to demand fairness in hiring.
    Protesters then swept into the elegant lobby in the early morning of March 7, 1964.
    Sims and 165 others would later be hauled into the booking pens.
    Welcomed by the picket people, Fran was clicking his 35mm and wondering shyly – so he said later – if fate had decreed that he would be there to document a historic change in race relations.
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AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, Fran enrolled at Vallejo Junior College and experienced his first defeat in football. His teammates since junior high school sat in the locker room and wept. Then he joined the Air Force to see the world, literally, through the eyepiece of an aerial camera. Racial hostility was pervasive in the military, but his wife, Kathy, said Fran credited the Air Force for opening up his world.
     “He never used racism as an excuse for anything,” she told the Gazoot.
      After he re-entered civilian life, he studied at the University of Nevada and then enrolled at Merritt College in Oakland. He came under the sway of the late journalism chairman, Dr. John F. Summersette, one of the few black journalism professors outside the South.
     “Fran told me that he was more ‘serious’ in those days and that knowing Doc got not only got him to lighten up and laugh more, but also widened his horizons,” Kathy said.
     Doc also wrote a powerful poem that would shape the way Fran would look at photography. Here's a key line (the ellipses are the poet's):

    Your spirit summons . . .
             all knowing responds
    to capture a moment,
             an experience . . .
    And freeze it for life.

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IN THE day-to-day work of a newspaperman, of course, Fran would freeze thousands of moments, from sports to dance to riots. His journey at the Examiner was interrupted in 1965 when staffers with insufficient seniority were let go after the merger with the News-Call Bulletin. He worked at the Oakland Tribune and tried commercial photography, only to learn that clients resented his efforts to get paid.
      By the time he was rehired at the Examiner, the darkroom doubters had switched to 35mm cameras. He traveled the nation and the world with his trusty Leica (later, he also used a Nikon, a Hasselblad and a 4x5 view camera that he built and named for Dr. Summersette).
      As an adjunct faculty member for many years at SF State, he inspired scores of students. He was instrumental in organizing the Greg Robinson Scholarships at S.F. State in memory of his former student, the brilliant Examiner photographer killed by Peoples Temple gunmen in Guyana in 1978.
      Fran's photographs appeared in Life, Time and many other magazines. He illustrated several books, including Tricia Brown's “Someone Special Just Like You” (1985). He became Director of Photography at the Examiner. He won many awards. He tossed the football. He conducted Beethoven's Ninth in the privacy of his home.
      He retired in 1989. But he never forgot that uncredible scene in the Palace Hotel, a turning point in public understanding of a semi-forgotten movement whose goals are now taken for granted.  
      “That was something,” he said.  “Those were the days.”    
       
                                                                      –  Lynn Ludlow


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