The journalism department at Pasadena City College didn’t always include photojournalism classes. Initially, the Courier newspaper students relied on art photography students to provide images for their stories.
When Mikki Bolliger was hired as a faculty adviser for the student newspaper in 1972, she said that working with students from a different department was often trying.
“They didn’t understand deadlines. They’d take pictures of something and then they’d take the negatives home. See everything was negatives,” Bolliger said. “You’d have to track them down and you’d be lucky if you could find the pictures for the paper.”
A photo adviser wasn’t hired until after Dr. Esther Davis was brought on in 1972 to help shape the journalism department into a program that would produce working professionals. Davis taught journalism at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys for 20 years until 1969. Bolliger and a young photographer named
Wilhelm Bleckmann studied under her.
Davis brought Bleckmann on as the Courier’s first photo adviser in 1973. Both Bolliger and Bleckmann credited Davis with making the PCC journalism department what it is today. Bleckmann recalled Davis asking him to call her by her first name, not Dr. Davis, after he became her colleague—something he had trouble doing as her former student.
“I never stopped calling her that. I had so much admiration for her,” Bleckmann said.
Bleckmann started teaching introductory and intermediate photojournalism classes for the journalism program, which didn’t go over well with the art photography department.
“We actually made enemies with the art department,” Bleckmann said. “They thought that Esther Davis took the production class away from the art department.”
In order to make room for the growing journalism department, the Courier moved out of the basement of the C Building to a set of bungalows previously inhabited by nursing students. Bolliger said there were little reminders left behind from the previous inhabitants.
“The cupboards had tags that said ‘bed pans’ and stuff like that–that they took off–but you could still read on the cabinets,” Bolliger said.
Having their own darkroom and staff photographers proved less stressful than relying on students in another department for photographs.
“We were able to print our own pictures and have them ready on time,” Bolliger chuckled. “You know, as much as humanly possible with students who don’t like to do anything on time.”
Besides the uncertainty of students turning in their photos, Bleckmann said working with film made tight deadlines even tighter.
“These days, you shoot a few pictures and you can check – do I have the right one?” Bleckmann said. “With film you have to go back to the lab, you have to develop, you have to dry the film and then see what you have. It was just a long process.”
The process didn’t end with a print.
“When you are setting a newspaper in hot metal, you can’t just print a picture and scan it,” Bolliger said. “You had to send the picture out to an engraver.“
While working at PCC, Bleckmann was the director of photography at Society West magazine from 1974 to 1980 and covered many events in the Los Angeles area. He said the lessons he learned while in the field were invaluable to his students.
“A lot of stuff is not in a textbook. You just have to speak from experience,” Bleckmann said.
Many students were enamored with the events that Bleckmann had the opportunity to shoot—like the Golden Globes—and dreamed of being able to photograph themselves one day.
“Every semester, I would have a student who would say, ‘Mr Bleckmann, if I take your class can I get to be a photographer at the L.A. Times?’” Bleckmann said. “Yes, but you have to be very, very, very, very, very, very good.”
Blake Sell was not one of the students Bleckmann imagined achieving this kind of success. Not at first.
In his first photojournalism class, Sell was using a camera he borrowed from his parents. Unknown to him, the aperture—the hole inside the lens that can be adjusted to let in more or less light to capture the proper exposure— was stuck at f22, the smallest aperture for film cameras. “Every time I took it out, I came back to Mr. Bleckmann’s class and my pictures were horrible,” Sell said.
He recalled Bleckmann telling him jokingly, “You’re never going to be a photographer.”
Sell went on to be a White House photographer, the senior photo editor at Reuters and eventually the director of Associated Press image products – a position he retired from in August of last year.
“I’ve had a pretty good career,” Sell said. “I’ve traveled in 50 countries, I’ve spent 30 years photographing every imaginable news story on the planet.”
Sell said that while working as a photographer for the Courier he had the opportunity to shoot with equipment that most working professionals didn’t even have access to at the time.
“Most professional photographers in L.A. didn’t have Leica cameras and here we were, PCC students, taking Leica cameras out to shoot things with,” Sell said.
While Bleckmann stressed the importance to his students of being technically accurate in their photography, he said knowing if and when you had the shots you needed in the age of film wasn’t an exact science.
“Sometimes you shoot a roll of film and you follow your gut feeling and, if it is there, then you got the shot,” Bleckmann said. “Other times you may need to use two to three rolls.”
In addition to technical skills, the photojournalism program also offered students opportunities to work with local photographers from community newspapers like the Pasadena Star-News. Bleckmann invited photojournalists to give presentations to students and share their photos as inspiration.
David Rust—another former journalism student and a photojournalist for CNN for the past 35 years—said the program was influenced by what newspapers in the community were looking for in prospective journalists.
“They sort of modeled the program around what the newspapers were telling them they needed as employees,” Rust said. “We got some close relationships with photographers and writers from the local newspapers—it really made for a good program.”
Bleckmann retired as photo adviser of the Courier in 2004 and was followed by Rachel Fermi—the photo adviser who started the digital photography courses for both the journalism and art departments. Photographer Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin and L.A. Times photographer Tim Berger followed as part-time interim photo advisers, with Berger taking the helm as the current photo adviser of the Courier in 2013.
This year the photojournalism department celebrates its 42nd year.