The beloved Chronicle photographer who rose from copy boy to become deputy chief photographer and who was known for his professionalism and his good humor, has died. Frisch died Jan. 10, 2008 in a Walnut Creek board and care facility after a long illness. He was 89.
He was a gentleman who, even when covering the most tragic or dramatic story, never lost his composure or his poise. "Art was a cool guy," said Chronicle photographer Fred Larson. "He was old school, and a pleasure to work for. When Art put an assignment in your hand, you went and did it on the spot. He expected you to run out the door. You better not finish your lunch first."
"That's right," recalled former Chronicle photographer John O'Hara. "One photographer stopped to wash his hands after Art told him to go cover a fire. Art never forgot it. Never."
Frisch, known for his devotion to breaking news, dragged himself from bed in Walnut Creek early one morning in 1982 when a phone tip came about a gasoline truck fire inside the Caldecott Tunnel. He was the first photographer into the eastern end of the tunnel, capturing dramatic images of the horrific blaze that killed seven people.
He was also known for a frequently reprinted 1976 photograph of a rare snowstorm that dusted the hills of Marin County, and of a tense 1980 conflict involving Sausalito house boaters, and of the Goodyear blimp seemingly tied (an illusion) to the tip of the still-unfinished Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco.
From a hovering helicopter, he captured the image of countless U.S. Navy sailors standing on one side of the aircraft carrier Enterprise after it ran aground in San Francisco Bay in 1983, futilely attempting with their combined weight to dislodge the stuck ship.
He was a perfectionist in his work and his personal routine and, recalled Larson, he was the only Chronicle photographer ever to wax his company car. Unlike other photographers who tossed their gear haphazardly into the car trunk, Frisch always kept his cameras and lenses in small slots, in apple-pie order.
Frisch was a native San Franciscan and a graduate of Balboa High School. He joined The Chronicle staff in 1935 as a copy boy and was soon promoted to chief copy boy. In that capacity, he hired David Perlman, now The Chronicle's longtime science editor, who began his career filling glue pots and changing typewriter ribbons under Frisch's unflappable command. "Art made us wear neckties and sit on a bench near the city desk," Perlman recalled. "Art said we were supposed to be ready to do anything that the reporters and editors needed. What we often wound up doing was taking orders for hamburgers and running betting slips to a bookmaker on Fifth Street."
Another of Frisch's early hires was a UC Berkeley journalism student, Jean Baumgartner, whom he married in 1942. Mrs. Frisch died in 2002, after 59 years of marriage.
Frisch was a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, who was stationed on a net tender in San Francisco Bay and later served as chief boatswain's mate on a floating dry dock in the South Pacific.
On returning to The Chronicle, he joined the photography staff and was named deputy chief photographer in the 1960s. He was invariably considerate of his staff and always tried to assign photographers to stories that were close to their homes, or to those of their sweethearts. As deputy chief, Frisch made assignments and maintained The Chronicle darkroom, frequently helping deadline-rushed colleagues to print their photographs from negatives.
He retired in 1984 and devoted himself to golf, travel, spy novels and to his grandchildren. He gave his old camera gear to his young grandson, Chris, and helped him get started as a freelance photographer.
He is survived by his children, Susan Woods of Walnut Creek, Robin Griffiths of Clayton, and Anthony Frisch of Reno.
A memorial celebration will be held Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. at 3151 Kirby Lane, Walnut Creek.
By Steve Rubenstein, Chronicle Staff Writer