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Interview with Gary Ayala

Discussion in 'Member Interviews' started by Iconindustries, Feb 24, 2012.

  1. Iconindustries

    Iconindustries Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Hey all. Gary has kindly accepted my request to an interview and I'm excited to find a little more about this awesome guy.

    To give you a little heads up. I've known Gary on this forum for quite awhile and his input and comments are always constructive and he's just 'one of those guys who are part of the furniture' so to speak. Members who have been here awhile will certainly remember him. He's got years of experience with photography and some interesting stories to tell, so let's get started.

    I've never interviewed before so forgive me. Let me ask the questions until the interview is finished and then you are welcome to ask any questions you have. I live in Australia and Gary lives somewhere in America so keep in mind we have different time zones. He'll probably be replyng while I'm pushing zzzzz's

    1. Gary, can you please tell us a little about your growing up years, about your family, where you lived and what your dad did to earn a crust?

    2. How did you come to have your first camera. And what was it. Can you remember what you liked to photograph when you first walked around with this new toy?
    • Like Like x 6
  2. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011

    Thanks Brady,

    I'm an old fart, I was born in 1952 and grew up in an analog world, one without computers and cell phones. We use to 'spin records', these thin black plastic discs, when we wanted to listen to music.

    I lived Chino, in a small agrian community about twenty miles east of Los Angeles. Chino was largely dairy, which was quite apparent when it rained. There was plenty of corn, beets, strawberries, citrus and horse ranches. In fact Swaps, a Kentucky Derby winner called Chino home. Back then we all knew our neighbors and in summer all the family's in Chino would toss the kids outside and expecting not to see them until dinner. Nobody locked their doors in those days in that community.

    I'm like fifth generation Californian, which is unusual as most Californians came from somewhere else. My folks also grew up in Chino and our entire family, Mom, Dad and my two older brothers all graduated from Chino High School.

    When I was young my father sold insurance. When I was three year old he ran for and won his first elected office. He held an elected office continuously for nearly five decades. He retired/termed-out in the 1990's after 40 plus years as a State Senator. He has roads, parks and a high school named in his honor (Ruben S. Ayala High School, Chino Hills).

    The first 'real' camera, the first camera with manual controls, was a Mamiya Sekor which belonged to my uncle. While still in grade school, my cousin, Bill and I would walk around Chino shooting B&W. My uncle taught Bill how to develop and print and Bill taught me. I became hooked on photography and over time I scrapped together enough money to purchase a fixed lens, Yashica rangefinder (sans light meter), from a pawn shop. For a couple of years all my exposures were based upon 'rule-of-thumb' with adjustment learned from trial and error.

    Bill and I would buy bulk film in 100' rolls and load our own cassettes. At night we'd stuff towels into door cracks, tape foil to windows and printed a ton of muddy, dust-mared prints from his bathroom. It wasn't a large bathroom, we had a tray on the comode and two on the floor. The inconvenience of it all didn't matter, by then I had decided a life of a photojournalist was the life I dreamed.

    I used that Yashica until I wore out the wire which controlled the aperture blades. Again, I scrapped together all my nickels and dimes, borrowed the balanced and purchased my first SLR, a Nikon F. In middle school, (junior high is what it used to be called), I was riding my bike to various high school sporting events, shooting them as a 'stringer' for the local papers. From that beginning the papers started using me for weekend assignments. When I turned 16 years old, my new mobility (drivers license and car), allowed to to shoot weekday evening stuff.

    Sorry for the rather lengthly reply, old people tend to ramble ... but it was nice to reminisce.

    • Like Like x 34
  3. Iconindustries

    Iconindustries Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Thankyou Gary.

    I really enjoyed reading through what you wrote, no need to worry about rambling:)  When you mentioned about those 'thin plastic discs' you called records, it brought back memories when I was just a little kid. I remember dad used to play them on a machine and i knew if i jumped up and down near the machine it would make funny sounds.

    Your adventures with Bill interesting, especially using the bathroom as a processing lab. Great story. If only todays kids would get off their computers and play stations they would find so much more constructive things to do. (like jumping up and down near their dad's record player) haha

    Ready for some more questions.

    3. Now that you are 16 and have a licence and the papers are using you for assignments, what evolved from this experience ?

    4. did you find a sweetheart in amongst all of this?
    • Like Like x 2
  4. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011


    Well, you gotta remember this was the '60's and a lot of crazy stuff was going on. Back then long hair, weird clothing, music, drugs, free love, civil rights, women's rights, anti-establishment and anti-war were all pulling this country in different directions. Actually it was civil rights, anti-war and women's rights that was pulling the country apart, the rest were just badges you wore, like a flag, showing the side you were on.

    I sorta went crazy too ... ran away from home, took an older brothers ID, commandeered money set aside for college and took off to Vietnam to take pictures.

    No complaints on sweethearts.

    This is high school and early college:


    College Years:

    MX860 series    ---            




    (they were cheerleaders - lol)

    • Like Like x 4
  5. Hikari

    Hikari Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 26, 2010
    How does a run away with his brothers ID start working in Vietnam? You walked into the AP office and said you can take pictures?
  6. Iconindustries

    Iconindustries Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Well, what a turn in events. I love your choice in cheerleaders. Awesome pictures

    5. So now that you are off to vietnam what was your job as a photographer. Did you take your Nikon F? Have you got a story about a close shave, or getting into some serious danger while trying to get a picture?

    6. If it's ok. can you please post 2 of your favourite pictures you took while in vietnam.
  7. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    Yep, pretty much. (Actually it was UPI.)

  8. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011

    I shot Nikon my entire news career.

    Moi and a Nikon Ftn w/motor ana Nikkor 28mm.

    LOL ... to take pictures. My obligations in Vietnam were different than most other journalist. I wangled a 'Special Assignment' job. I rarely had to run back to any bureau office to wire my photos, (or worst, call in from Danang over the knotted clot of military wires, “Working operator, I said working, hello, working... oh, you moron, working!”).

    I wasn't really an oddity in the press corps, but I was a peculiarity, an extremely privileged one. (An oddity was someone like photographer John Schneider, who fixed a white flag to his handlebars and took a bike from the top of Hill 881 North over to Hill 881 South during a terrible battle, in what came to be known as Schneider's Ride. Or the Korean cameraman who had spent four years in Spain as a Matador, who spoke exquisite, limpid Castilian and whom we called El Takiwando. Or the Portuguese novelist who arrived at Khe Sanh in sports clothes, carrying a plaid suitcase, under the impression that field gear could be bought there).

    Because I was on special assignment, (as opposed to general assignment), I was spared the intense pressure of daily filings and, perhaps more importantly, New York did not care or dictate my assignments. It was as if I worked for a magazine than a daily wire service.

    As to close shaves ... Just in the regular course of things, a lot of correspondents took close calls. Getting scratched was one thing, it didn't mean that you'd come as close as you could have, it could have been close without you even knowing it.

    Like an early morning walk I took once from the hilltop position of a Special Forces A Camp. I spent the night, down to the teamhouse at the foot of the hill, where I planned to have some coffee. I walked off the main trail onto a smaller trail and followed it until I saw the house and a group of eight giggling, wide-eyed Vietnamese mercenaries, Mikes, pointing at me and talking very excitedly. They all grabbed for me at once when I reached the bottom, and as it was explained to me moments later; I'd just come down a trail which the Special Forces had rigged with more than twenty booby traps, any one of which could have taken me out.

    • Like Like x 5
  9. Hikari

    Hikari Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 26, 2010
    So, were you there during the entire war? When (and why) did you leave?
  10. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    Nope, just a year. A year was enough.
    • Like Like x 1
  11. spatulaboy

    spatulaboy I'm not really here Subscribing Member

    Jul 13, 2011
    North Carolina
    Great idea Icon, and thank you Gary for doing this. Your life experience really enriches this forum for all of us.

    Now how about Gary interview Icon? :thumbup:
    • Like Like x 1
  12. Iconindustries

    Iconindustries Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Hey Spatulaboy we aren't finished yet. lol. Gary has a bit more up his sleeve yet.:smile: He took his wife out for her birthday dinner so I think we can excuse him for that. He'll be back.
  13. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    Morning All-

    I just want to add that while it may seem cool and adventurous to run off to war, camera in tow ... it was stupid. I was just a kid, I did it for the wrong reasons. In retrospect, it was nothing but a stunt. I was so green, luckily, a lot of people took me in under their wings and taught me survival, journalism and equally important life skills. I owe them much ... I owe them everything. They were brave, they knew what to expect and still did their jobs day-in and day-out. Had I known then, what I know now, I would have stayed home, studied harder and helped those less fortunate than I.

    Life is precious. To treat life any differently is selfish. It is the simple things in life that can have so much meaning. Hearing the laughter of children is precious ... Opening the window blinds in the morning and feel the warmth of the sun is precious ... Having your new born wrap their fist around your finger is precious ... Having the cool spray from an ocean wave cool you after a hard day is an experience worth savoring.


    Canon EOS 20D    ---    50mm    f/4.5    1/80s    ISO 1600
    • Like Like x 21
  14. Iconindustries

    Iconindustries Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Sorry about the gap here guys. I did a write up last night before I went to bed and ended up pressing the wrong button and 'whooom' she was all gone. I'll try again

    7. When scurrying around Vietnam taking pictures and trying not to get killed how did you get your images processed and printed? I'm assuming you couldn't put them on your laptop and email them through to the editor in those days.

    8. What was your war kit Gary?

    9. I was going to ask Gary about the drive or reason that saw him heading off to Vietnam and at the same time I received an email from him. He said to me I could choose if I would like to post it or not and I decided I will. I read through his story and was touched. As I reached the end it revealed to me that there is something in every human that strives for love and respect. Often these days it's dad's that miss this point and there will be quite a few that will be able to relate to what Gary says. (dad's, your kid's need you to be there)

    Here's Gary's Story

    10. After your escapade in Vietnam came to a close what did you do after that? Did you still follow you photography career?
    • Like Like x 6
  15. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    The above was written a few years after coming home as part of a journal.

    7) There never seemed to be a shortage of helicopters in Vietnam, big, fat birds criss-crossing the sky. When stuck in the field, I'd package up the film and story with the NPX number (address) and date and toss it into a copter heading to Saigon. Through these 'Dispatches' we got the story back to the bureau office. Vietnam wasn't all that big, so much of the time you just grabbed a Huey or truck out to the action then hop on a return flight back to Saigon or Danang. When the story was close, just take a cab or bummed a ride with other correspondents who had vehicles.

    After souping up the film, cross checking the negs with the story, make a few prints, scratch-out and attach cutlines to go with the photos, dump the whole mess on an editor's desk, package all the negs for cataloging then head out to for dinner and a beer with other reporters/photogs.

    8) In the field weight was always a concern and I never packed everything. I'd have one motor driven Nikon and one manual advance Nikon. My entire kit consisted of a 28mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm, 180mm or 200mm and a 300mm. Every lens had a UV filter (lol). Typically, I shoot with the 28mm on the motordrive and the 85mm on the manual.

    I even had a Calypso (predecessor to the Nikonos) underwater camera for shooting in the Monsoons. Silly me, when the Monsoons hit there's really nothing worth shooting so I never used it.

    10) I finished school. In college I majored in Communications (Journalism) and Biology (Marine). I free-lanced my way through school picking up work from magazines and newspapers. I picked up a medium format camera and did some non-studio commercial stuff. I also started my own public relations firms specializing in political marketing and over time directed 19 political campaigns. When I finished school I started working full time for Knight-Ridder and LA Times newspapers.

    Moi and a Nikon F w/ Bob Lachman (LA Times photog). Venice Beach, out with the LA Times BAD Society (Biking and Dining). circa mid-70's

    • Like Like x 7
  16. Iconindustries

    Iconindustries Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    11. Working at Knight-Ridder would have given you a broad range of experience. You may like to tell us the difference (if any) between news photography back then and what it's like today. What is the difference between news photography and other types of photography?

    12. As a journalist how do you approach a situation you need to document. Do you follow a formula or does it just come naturally for you.

    13. Jumping forward a little. Somewhere in there you met a girl who later became your wife. Did you meet her on one of your excursions with your camera?

    14. (*This is the special edition question which allows you to ask yourself )
    • Like Like x 1
  17. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    11) Working for a daily paper in a major news market is similar to playing professional basketball. Everyday was not exciting or stressful, but every few days you had a game. Between games, I joined the rest of the staff and started filling out the crossword puzzels in pen. Plenty of free time in the day to kick back. But, couple times a week something big would break and then you had to perform. It could be hard news, like a fire or a shoot-out or a big event, Lakers vs. Celtics, Rose Parade and Bowl, Academy Awards ... but something big happened a few times a week and you had have your game on. Like pro sports, everybody was watching and comparing what you got (photos) to the competition. We were paid not be be 'scooped' and the higher-ups never let you forget that. Even when working in a war zone, there was intense pressure from the home-office to field correspondents to out-scoop the rivals.

    For me, I had to get the shot ... the defining moment ... the image which told the story (Henri Cartier-Bresson called it "decisive".) Each and every time I headed out for a story I had to bring back that defining image that moment which told the story without words. The bigger the story the more critical the review. That critical review wasn't by my peers or editors ... but by myself.

    Everyday there were 'budget meetings' where editors would discuss what went into the paper, what stories to cover and what stories required 'art' (photos). Stemming from that meeting assignments and deadlines would be handed out to reporters and photogs. At the LA Times we had multiple deadlines a day and printed several daily editions. An edition delivered far away, say San Francisco or Sacramento was published early in the day with slightly different content than a later edition published for the local market. There were little swords in the mast head designating edition.

    Between big stories and crossword puzzels we'd work on 'feature' stuff. Lighter, non-hard news stories you would find in the middle of papers. An editor would hand you a story and say shoot me some art for this, proofs by Tuesday. You'd read the story, sometimes a discussion about 'angle' with the reporter. Often you'd have to do your own research on the story to find the defining image. The best research library, prior to the internet, was the newspaper itself. The paper had a library composed of articles which ran in the paper. So, let's say were doing a story on the Klu Klax Klan in California (KKK, an extreme far right organization in the USA), the librarian would hand me a folder full of KKK stories. After my research I'd make some phone calls, set up photo opps, process and distribute proof sheets, (small thumbnail images lined up on 8x10 sheet of photo paper, usually viewed with a lupe or a 50mm, reversed and held up to the eye), by Tuesday.

    Sometimes you'd just headed out in your car, scanner on, cruising around looking for a feature photo, usually weather related, (lol, how hard is that...). Head out to the beach, head out to the mountains, scout some nice parks ... usually you just headed out to your favorite watering-hole, have a few beers and turn in something you shot a week before.

    I think that technology has trade-offs. Somethings were tougher then for photojournalists and somethings are tougher now.

    Back then a 'professional' had a darkroom. Darkrooms were few and far between and separated the men from the boys. Today everybody has a printer. But you were tied to that darkroom like an umbilical cord. You were constantly calculating processing time with driving time against deadlines. You were always stretching that umbilical cord ... printing from a wet negative was not uncommon.

    Today, you shoot in JPEG, at your assignment you can plug in a memory card into a laptop, link-up to the internet, press the send button and your day is over.

    Back in to film only days, auto was a car not a camera setting. Everything was manual, focus was manual, ASA (ISO) was manual, shutter and aperture were all manual. The zooms back then were pretty crappy, so we all shot primes.

    Stress level is high with film because you never know what you have until after the event is over ... No chimping, no histogram, no LCD. While film was free, I'd need to carry a dozen or more rolls to equal one decent memory card. Processing up to four rolls at a time was brainless, but more than four becomes time consuming, tedious and painful.

    I wouldn't want to work in todays market. While technology has made photography faster and simpler, the pressure placed on reporters and photogs has greatly magnified. I believe this pressure is stemming from the corporate ownerships of news organizations. The shareholders are more concern about their return on investment, more concerned about attaining a prescribed level of profit over the integrity and accuracy of the product. There are news organization who are laying off professional journalists in favor of unskilled and untrained everyday Joe's and Jane's with cell phone cameras.

    Most major market news organization required a degree as a hiring requirement (or a long and painful history of paying one's dues by working one's way through the ranks of small, medium and then large markets). At one time journalistic skills were equally as important as photographic skills ... now it seems only money matters, cheaper is better and unbiased, crossed-checked, professionally garnered editorial content and accuracy is meaningless.

    'Photoshopping' has now questions the accuracy of image documentation and bloggers have smeared the line between news and opinions ... right and wrong and what isn't muddy is polarized.

    While the technology in todays world provide the photojournalist with superior tools to capture and publish the defining image ... I think that pressures in this fast evolving and eroding marketplace creates an environment I wouldn't want to be associated. When I was working we were family. Yes there was stiff competition but we were still family. I remember many reporters/photogs who were near retirement who rarely, actively, day-in and day-out, worked. The paper just kept them on until their pensions kicked in. That was family ... okay so the paper made a few points less of profit ... but that what happens with family. The old ones passed on their experiences, their ethics and integrity to the younger journalists.

    One of the fundamental differences between news and other photographic disciplines is that in news there is this overwhelming attention to accuracy. Sure you can fudge here and there, burn-in, dodge-out to heighten the drama, but there are strict boundaries. If one crosses those boundaries you are out ... kaput, history, blackballed ... one day you're shooting the President of the United States having tea with the Pope ... the next day you're shooting kids on a pony.

    While other photography is designed, by the photog, to enhance the image beyond reality, a photojournalist is by design dedicated to bring that reality home. (I've been asked by friends to shoot weddings ... I politely refuse because I would shoot it as I saw it and not make any attempt to enhance the bride's to princess pretty or turn the groom into a knight in shinning armor. You really don't want me to shoot your wedding, lol.)


    PS- I'm not saying that a photojournalist couldn't shoot a wedding and deliver a good product ... I'm saying that this photojournalist doesn't have that skill set.
    • Like Like x 11
  18. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    12) Generally, I look for the big picture, can't go wrong with a wide, overview shot ... then I'd close-in and look for the drama with more impact. The greater the impact, the higher the percentage of failure ... so get the boring shot first and packed away, then go for the good stuff. Robert Capa stated that if the photo isn't any good then you're not close enough. I'm of that lineage ... get in tight ... fill-the-frame ... bring the image home.

    Canon EOS 20D    ---    10mm    f/5.0    1/1000s    ISO 400

    Former President of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Lech Walesa attended the Polish Festival in Santa Monica, CA. Walesa was mobbed when he tried to hand a person his card. Instantly, the crowd was upon him grabbing for the keepsakes. (I got a card - lol.)

    I try to capture images that not only tells the story but tells the story with such an intrinsic value/intensity that the viewer feels compelled to look at the photo.

    Lambs at the California Institute of Women

    Farm Worker, citrus grove Upland, CA.

    Mr. Universe Contest, Santa Monica, CA.

    The Lion of the Senate

    Sandinista National Liberation Front fighting government forces in Nicaragua.

    Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II    ---    200mm    f/8.0    1/400s    ISO 200

    Bubblefest, San Juan Capistrano, CA.

    Much of what I do is instinctive, quasi sub-conscience stuff. As most of my photographic skills were self-taught at an early age, my eye is mostly automatic. My formal education and experiences served to honed my instincts.

    • Like Like x 8
  19. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    Generally, I've done okay with the ladies. I married late, in my mid 30's ... largely due to being chicken of the commitment and to a lesser extent I kept flying to rather ugly and hostile places to take photos. Most normal people couldn't relate or understand why anyone would do that. A globe-trotting, camera-toting, photojournalist is a great calling card for meeting people ... but the flip side, such a lifestyle does not promote stability or create a personality that an 'outsider' a non-journalist could relate.

    I didn't marry until I got out of the biz and pursued a more respectable career. I did marry a former KCBS news writer/producer who could somewhat relate to my former life (and sense of humor).

    My daughters 20 years ago.

    • Like Like x 2
  20. GaryAyala

    GaryAyala Mu-43 Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    • Like Like x 3
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