Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Robert A. Nakamura Interview
Narrator: Robert A. Nakamura
Interviewer: Sharon Yamato
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: November 30, 2011
Densho ID: denshovh-nrobert-01-0013

<Begin Segment 13>

SY: So when you came back, then you went right away to junior high school?

RN: I went to elementary school. I must have been in the sixth grade, then I think junior high school started. So I think I started junior high school, seventh grade.

SY: So that must have been disruptive 'cause you had to meet a whole new set of friends again.

RN: Yeah, yeah. But once again, it was pretty multiethnic there, so there was something about being in an area with other people of color that was a little more relaxing than, like, my high school. So I had to change my ways in high school.

SY: So did you become, you were a better student then?

RN: I had to. That's like Eddie Wong talks about his parents had a laundry that's right in, close to the Fairfax High, so he went to Fairfax High School which was pretty all white, Jewish. So he says, "That's why I learned to talk fast and I had to think quick." Anyway, it was kind of like that.

SY: So you think that was an advantage, then?

RN: Maybe made me be more competitive.

SY: Do you remember your interests back then?

RN: It was pretty much football and journalism. Those were the two...

SY: You played football?

RN: Yeah, yeah.

SY: In junior high school and high school?

RN: No, high school, I'm sorry. In junior high school I got interested in journalism, and then later in high school I edited the, I was editor of the Blue Tide, the high school newspaper. And I worked at the Old Alley Examiner writing and covering high school sports and played football. That's my high school experience.

SY: That's impressive. You went from a C in English.

RN: Right, right.

SY: Oh, no, it was math, sorry.

RN: It was math, right, right.

SY: So you liked to write, per se?

RN: Yeah. That was a period there where I wanted to be a writer, and I used to buy all these books on writing short stories and all of that. Then I slowly, because everyone has one teacher in high school who influenced, my journalism teacher, Mr. Edwards, he really encouraged me. So I got interested, and that's what I thought I was going to do. I wanted, at that time, that's what I wanted to do. So I joined the high school sports writing organization sponsored by the L.A. Examiner, and we had our own page in the sports page, prep sports. And so I covered a lot of games and did a lot of writing. And my idea was to eventually work at the L.A. Examiner. So when I graduated, I got a scholarship, the Examiner gave me a scholarship to Pepperdine. And part of the scholarship was a job at the L.A. Examiner as a copy boy. So that's how you start out in the old days, start out as a copy boy and work your way up. I didn't like Pepperdine at all so I gave it up after a year. It was very religious then, they had mandatory chapel hall and all this, so I couldn't take it. But I kept the job at the Examiner. And so I enjoyed working there and I thought I could work my way up as a reporter, but after a while I started hanging out in the darkroom with the news photographers 'cause they were kind of more fun guys, and they let me work in the darkroom and go out with them when they would cover assignments. So that's where I began to rethink writing versus photography, being a newspaper photographer. And one of my copy boy friends and I went to an evening course at Art Center. It's Art Center College of Design, but at that time it was called the Art Center School. And that was my first exposure to kind of like real photography. And I did that one portrait that I have in the museum of my father in front of the house. I did that shot at night school, and so when the instructor said he really liked what I was turning in and I should think about coming full time. So I ended up, that's how I ended up going to Art Center. And there I majored in photojournalism and advertising design, with the idea of now becoming a magazine photographer.

But just backtracking on that, I liked the idea of shooting people. I wasn't like a landscape photographer, and that's why I chose photojournalism, because I thought I could do, tell stories about people through photography. And so that's why I wanted to be a photojournalist. I had seen a lot of work shot by the Farm Security Administration photographers, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, then later Life magazine, like W. Eugene Smith.

SY: This was all in high school that you...

RN: Around that, maybe a little later.

SY: High school, college?

RN: Yeah, just about my senior year, I begin to say, "This is what I really want to do." I got exposed to that in my photojournalism classes at Art Center, I was just introduced to this really whole idea of photojournalism, social change photography. And so I got pretty interested in that. So when I graduated -- I was still, again, I know when my classmates all wanted to go out and get a beer, I couldn't go with them. So I must have been like eighteen or nineteen. So, let's see...

SY: You must have been... well, were you ahead of your class?

RN: Well, it was real interesting because the Denver schools were much better than the L.A. schools. When I came back to L.A., they skipped me a whole grade. I was supposed to come into the fourth and they put me in the fifth. So, yeah, I had that. And then by accident, if you're born at the right time, you start early. So yeah, I was fairly young getting out of high school. And I went, after a year I went back to Art Center.

SY: So do you remember what sort of caused that little shift in your outlook toward this more social kind of journalism?

RN: I think it was my high school journalism teacher, Mr. Edwards, 'cause he was very interested, less in news, but more in social change. He was very progressive. He would go to the Hopi reservations during the summer and volunteer and teach. Yeah, he was a very progressive kind of person. And so I think it was influenced, not only the idea of journalism, but social change. And then when I went to Art Center, my photojournalism class was definitely geared, there was a whole... we had a lot of guest speakers like W. Eugene Smith, and there's a whole European school, Cartier-Bresson and Elliot, Yousef, and there's a whole group that was part of a picture agency called Black Star. And all your famous photographers of that era came out of that. And earlier in the '30s was the Farm Administration photographers who covered the dust bowl and the Depression.

SY: So those were the people you studied.

RN: Yeah, yeah, I was exposed to them in Art Center in the journalism class.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2011 Densho. All Rights Reserved.