Mike Tharp: Lanker writes with light

04/04/2009 1:54 AM

10/19/2009 10:51 AM

Danny Little Bear, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound pro wrestler, was bench-pressing me eight feet above the canvas at the Municipal Auditorium ring in Topeka, Kan.

A minute earlier, the American Indian had asked me, "You look like a purdy big boy -- you know how to get out of a headlock?" No, Mr. Little Bear, I said. He ordered me to put my arm around his head and squeeze. Staring at my colleague, photographer Brian Lanker, I did just that.

Suddenly, Danny whipped out of my grip, placed one paw under my neck, another under my lower back, raised me as if my 175 pounds were a feather pillow and started spinning me over his head, around the ring. Lanker dervishly whirled, his Nikon clicking image after image.

Luckily, none of 'em made it into the Topeka Daily Capital. The ones that did, however, later won several photojournalistic prizes. My story accompanied Brian's pictures. He had asked me to come with him and write the words.

That was only one of the hundreds of fun and funny times I've enjoyed with one of America's best photojournalists. We put together another one last weekend in Vegas.

Last year, he published a lovely coffee table book, "Shall We Dance," with a foreword by his friend Maya Angelou, the poet. I wrote captions for many of the photographs about dance across America. It took several of my evenings, but I declined any payment from my friend.

So Vegas was payback.

We go back 40 years. We've met in many states, as well as in Japan. He took the pictures of one of my weddings. (We got the beautiful album just before we split up.) He's been to our family reunions. Our funerals. My mom loved him and called him "a rotten crud." I was with him the night his father died. I profiled him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, an assignment that led to me playing H-O-R-S-E with Wilt Chamberlain, the subject of Brian's cover shot for Sports Illustrated on The Dipper's 50th birthday.

His photographs and books hang all over my house and sit on my shelves. We'd do 'bout anything for each other -- and have.

I worked last Christmas Day and wrote a story about what it's like to be on duty in jail on that holiday. That was inspired by another Lanker story he asked me to come with him to write -- what it's like to spend Christmas in the pen. We went to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan., where the warden ordered him to "sit up straight" and "quit chewing your fingernails." But we got to hang out for much of the day listening to inmates. His essay won more photography awards for him and the Topeka newspaper.

He lives in Eugene, Ore., and decades ago became fast friends with Ken Kesey, the Merry Prankster who was subject of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Lanker and Kesey went to China together to do a story for National Geographic. Through Brian I met the Kezer myself in the mid-'80s and profiled him for a national newspaper. Kesey later told Brian it was his favorite story of all those done on him -- and it happened because Kesey trusted me because I was Brian's buddy.

Lanker won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for feature photography for an essay he did on a woman giving birth using the Lamaze method, a relatively rare deal back then. His book, "I Dream a World" -- portraits of both famous and unknown black women -- became a Smithsonian traveling exhibition. His documentary, "They Drew Fire," about World War II combat artists, was lauded on PBS. (His wife Lynda is famous in her own right as an artist; her book on paintings of cowgirls will soon be published.)

In short, there's nothing he can't do with a camera.

And so much of what we do together makes us laugh. And sing. And dance. We're both Zorbas.

The backstory to the Danny Little Bear episode tells a true tale of how a hack learned from a genius. I was three months back from Vietnam, working as a reporter in Topeka. Brian had joined Rich Clarkson's stud photo team while I was overseas. Lanks and I hit it off right away, so he started asking me to come with him on assignments.

I worked the 7 a.m.- 4 p.m. shift back then. Went to the auditorium to meet my colleague after my shift. We walked into the office of Bob Geigel, a pro wrestler-turned-promoter. Immediately, he and Lanker launched into an intense conversation about pro wrestling: Is it real? Is it fake? How do the wrestlers assume their roles? A true metaphysical discussion that was leading to super quotes I was writing in my notebook.

After about five minutes, though, both men stopped. Then they looked right at me. They both seemed to realize, at the same time, that the reporter in this conversation had yet to ask a question. So they paused.

I was stuck. I had to come up with a question. So I did. "What was your weight in college, Bob?" Bob and Brian looked at each other with a glance that said, Who is this dork? Then the promoter answered: 265. Silence again. Both stared at me. I knew I had to conjure a follow-up. "Ah, um, er, and what is it now, Bob?" Two seventy-five, he barked. Let's go meet some of the rasslers!

And that's when he took us to Danny Little Bear's dressing room. Then we moved to the ring where I could be bench pressed and propellered by a bare-chested Indian rassler. After seeing Brian's images of the matches themselves, I wrote a stream-of-consciousness, impressionistic piece of prose to run with them. The words and pictures seemed to work well together.

I learned that print guys can learn from shooters. In the wars I've covered since then, I've made a point to hang out with the photojournalists. They know where to go and what to do -- and what not to do.

Brian calls what he does "writing with light." His cameras' lenses have been the kaleidoscope through which his unique view of reality becomes frozen in a frame as art.

Check him out at www.brianlanker.com.

One more cool deal: He's told me that if his schedule allows, he'll come to Merced to shoot first lady Michelle Obama's commencement address at UC Merced for the Sun-Star.

Thanks, Lanks.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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