News through the viewfinder
Shocking murder trials. Hollywood glamor and big-league crime. Horrible fires and accidents, tragedies and touching rescues.
William Walker watched it all unfold through the viewfinder of his press camera.
Walker, now a McMinnville resident, wrote for his junior college and college newspapers before going pro. Called up for the military during World War II, he photographed pilot training, then left the service to enter a different kind of war zone — the streets of Los Angeles.
He made his career, and a name for himself, as a newspaper photographer and writer for the Los Angeles Herald Express, a daily published in the evening, and Herald Examiner, a Sunday paper.
The two papers consolidated in the early 1960s to become the seven-day Herald Examiner. With a circulation of 740,000 at its peak, it was a major competitor to the Los Angeles Times.
“Twenty-seven years, counting the Army time,” he said, looking back on his long career in photojournalism.
He continued photographing and writing after he left the paper, too. He became a college newspaper adviser and a contributor to the local paper.
Walker, 97, has ink in his blood. His paternal great-grandfather, John Finley Walker, owned two newspapers in Bloomington, Ind., in the 19th century. He set his own type, which was made of wood back then.
When the Confederates rode through during the Civil War, the Union sympathizer stood ready with a double-barreled shotgun in order to save his printing press from destruction.
William “Bill” Walker was born in Arizona half a decade later. He grew up in Santa Monica.
Enrolling at Santa Monica Junior College in the mid-1930s, he played baseball as well as covering sports for the school paper, the SaMoJac. He later edited the paper, as well, and helped build a darkroom used not only by the paper, but the whole school.
“We just had the bare essentials, typewriters and the Camera Club as photographers,” he recalled.
After transferring to the University of Southern California to study journalism, he wrote for the Daily Trojan.
In the summer of 1940, he was hired as a copy boy at the Herald Express. Most journalists started as copy boys in those days, grabbing delivering freshly typed stories from the reporters and racing them to the typesetters.
Disliking the city editor, he opted to work with the photographers. And they taught him the trade.
His photo skills were a plus when he went into the Army.
After going through basic training and gunnery school, he was assigned to a photo lab. Later he took photos at an Army Air Corps fighter training field in Yuma, Ariz., and at a gunnery school in Las Vegas, where men in training practiced using a simulator with five screens served by five projectors in sync.
“Very realistic,” Walker said. “The fighter planes would come in and students would track them like in a real battle.”
Later, the Army training facility became the first multi-screen Cinerama, he said.
In 1945, Walker was sent to Sacramento with the 8th Air Force to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Then, just before he and his fellow soldiers were scheduled to ship out, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs and Japan surrendered.
“The bomb was a total surprise to us,” Walker recalled.
He’s convinced it was the right move, though, because it saved countless lives. “The death toll predicted if we landed and invaded Japan was 700,000,” he said.
In early 1946, Walker had finished his Army service by closing up the photo lab at an Army base in Arkansas. A civilian again, he returned to the Herald as a full-fledged photographer.
In those days, he used a Speed Graphic, a big, heavy camera with a huge, dome-shaped attachment for flash bulbs. It produced detailed 4-by-5 negatives.
He also carried a twin-lens Roloflex so he could shoot with available light. It was very useful in the courtroom, where he did a great deal of his work.
Later, he used an Omega that could shoot 10 frames quickly — also a boon to a courtroom photographer. It featured four interchangeable lenses, from extreme wide angle to telephoto, and produced big negatives.
“With that, I could out-shoot someone with a Leica,” he said.
During his career at the Herald, he took mostly black and white photos.
“Color wasn’t practical,” he said. “We had trouble with the old presses getting the colors aligned.”
But when he became a newspaper adviser and photojournalism instructor at Bakersfield Community College, he converted the Renegade Rip to color for its homecoming edition. That was remarkable in the 1970s, “years before the downtown daily was running color,” he said.
He also moved the Rip from a letterpress tabloid to a full-size, offset broadsheet. And he switched the school yearbook to a Life magazine format, accommodating large photos.
He’s proud of his work with the college. The local Californian newspaper hired many of his photo students right out of school, he said, and they won numerous prizes in journalism competitions.
Walker himself won many awards for his work over the years — a Hearst prize for capturing a Marine rookie who fainted during drills, for instance.
His color shot of an oil refinery fire also was a prize winner. And he was named “best adviser” at a contest where the BCC Renegade Rip topped the competititon in almost every category.
In his McMinnville home, he has prints of many of his award-winning photos, along with personal favorites. Many of those he likes best are courtroom shots that show dynamic expressions on the faces of the newly convicted.
The collection includes scenic and architectural shots of Santa Anita racetrack, Los Angeles City Hall with the metropolis spread out in the background and L.A. from the Goodyear Blimp. Other favorites capture people, from bidders at a police bike auction to little girls at a Greek Easter service or family members at a coroner’s inquest.
One shot is eerily familiar. It’s his 1947 photo of slain gangster Bugsy Seigel in the morgue, a homicide toe tag dangling from his bare foot.
The picture has been printed and reprinted, almost always uncredited, Walker said.
The photographer never just took pictures. He wrote sports and book reviews for the Herald, as well.
While in Bakersfield, he became The Californian’s unofficial European correspondent during a 1975 sabbatical in Spain, France and England. He also wrote articles for magazines, including Cavalier and Quill.
He authored a book about the 1953 Barbara Graham trial, the sensational case in which Graham, 31, and two male companions were charged with killing 64-year-old Mabel Monohan.
The victim was the former mother-in-law of a big-time gambler. The murderers figured the man had left large amounts of cash with Monohan, so they broke in, tore her house apart and, when they found not a cent, bludgeoned and suffocated her.
It was the longest trial in California history prior to the one in which Charles Manson and his followers were prosecuted. “I was there four days a week for six weeks,” he recalled.
On the day the verdict was read, his photos accompanied a story in the 4 p.m. edition headlined, “Unholy 3 Must Die for Mrs. Monohan Murder.” A year later, Graham became the third woman executed by gas in California.
A movie called “I Want to Live!” was made on the case. It was based not on Walker’s book, but on information provided by a San Francisco journalist who claimed to have first-hand knowledge.
Walker said the reporter hadn’t even been in the courtroom, so he wrote a magazine piece debunking the film.
He ended up getting sued over it. “Guess who won?” he said with a smile.
Walker covered more criminals than celebrities during his career, but in L.A., it was inevitable that he photographed some of the Hollywood stars.
He had a picture of Hedy Lamarr run on Page One with a story about her frequent shoplifting.
“The shopgirls hated to see her come in,” he recalled, “and yet there she was. She had all the money in the world.”
He became part of the action himself in 1957, while photographing Shelley Winters with Anthony Franciosa.
The actor, who was still married to another woman, didn’t want his picture taken with his actress girlfriend. So he kicked Walker, knocking his Speed Graphic out of his hands.
But the actor soon found himself wrestled to the ground by police and handcuffed. Originally sentenced to 90 days in jail and a $250 fine, he served 10 days in jail and spent two years on probation in the end.
Herald photographers and reporters didn’t take any guff, Walker said.
Whenever he was threatened on the job, he recalled, “I said, ‘Go ahead. You’ll go to jail.’”
The managing editor, John Campbell, backed his crew.
“Campbell had started as a reporter on the docks, and got beat up by thugs,” Walker said. “He went back there with a pitbull on a leash.”
During his time with the Herald, Walker said, he had more threats from movie stars than criminals.
“Movie people get to thinking they’re little gods,” he said. “They think they can buy you or intimidate you.”
Of course, he said, that doesn’t apply to everyone in the industry, or to everyone in any industry. “I’ve seen obnoxious doctors and lawyers — and newspaper people,” he said.
Contact Starla Pointer at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.
LIFE IN McMINNVILLE
Photojournalist William Walker and his wife, the late Jeanette Walker, moved to Oregon after he retired for good in 1982.
They already owned a place on the Oregon Coast. They had bought it as a vacation spot initially, and built a house designed to take full advantage of ocean views from every room.
After living at the beach for 10 years, they relocated to McMinnville to be closer to medical care.
Walker volunteered a docent at the Evergreen Air Museum back in the days when it was located on the south side of Highway 18. He was an active member of Michelbook Country Club.
His home is decorated with paintings of buildings in Europe, done by a niece, and some of his own photos from vacations he and his wife took in the U.S. and Europe. In one, Jeanette, who died in 2001, is shown gazing at Mt. Whitney in California.
Through he dedicated his life to photojournalism as a photographer for the Los Angeles Herald and a newspaper adviser, Walker rarely takes pictures these days.
"I'm not into the digital age," he said.
But he is hoping to gather some of his work into a book for his family and friends.