Fran Ortiz

Article in San Francisco Chronicle
By Patricia Yollin

Consummate craftsman. Mentor to generations of students. Renaissance man. And just a "really classy guy."

That's how people describe Fran Ortiz, a longtime San Francisco Examiner photojournalist who retired in 1995. He died on Wednesday, four days after undergoing surgery for colon cancer, at the age of 75.

"I am especially taken by the variety and quality of Fran Ortiz's work," legendary photographer Ansel Adams once wrote. "To maintain such a consistently excellent output is, indeed, an achievement."

Mr. Ortiz's range and versatility can be seen in work now on display at San Francisco Exposure Gallery: In 1960, poet Robert Frost writes at his desk. In 1978, the mist shrouds towering redwoods. In 1981, it's midnight in Moscow. In 1997, clouds billow over the hills of Wildcat Canyon.

Pensive portraits of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, singer Peggy Lee, photographer Richard Avedon and opera star Luciano Pavarotti share a stillness that makes the viewer feel very much alone with them.

"I have always loved the camera's unique ability to capture time in an instant and freeze it for a lifetime," Mr. Ortiz once said.

Born in June 1931, Francisco Ortiz grew up in Vallejo and starred on the high school football team. In 1962, he arrived at the San Francisco Examiner and is believed to be the first black photographer at a major Bay Area newspaper.

"In the early 1960s here, that was a really hard thing to be," said Chronicle photographer Mark Costantini. "But he would never complain about the battles he fought." Mr. Ortiz was Costantini's teacher at San Francisco State, colleague at the Examiner and neighbor in Kensington. "He was just masterful, both technically and emotionally," Costantini said.

Mr. Ortiz, whose work also appeared in Time, Life and several other publications, retired from the Examiner 12 years ago, but he never stopped taking pictures. However, his interest shifted from portraiture to landscape work.

W. Eugene Smith was his favorite photographer, followed by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.

"Fran realized a photo should be made and not taken," said Chronicle photographer Kim Komenich, who worked with Mr. Ortiz at the Examiner. "He was very meticulous. He based his entire way of seeing on the idea that the negative is the score and the print is the performance." "Above all, though, he was a mentor," said Komenich, a Pulitzer Prize winner. "He really wanted to make sure you realized it was a lot more than a job. It was an opportunity for you to learn something and then try to educate people with your pictures."

Mr. Ortiz was a master carpenter who built his own darkroom and 4-by-5 wooden field camera. He loved to cook and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music -- he always celebrated Beethoven's birthday and saw the intricacies of music and photography as similar in many ways.

Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte taught with Mr. Ortiz at San Francisco State. Sometimes they'd take students on picnics and camping trips to the Russian River or Angel Island. "He could teach people things and they didn't even know it," recalled Nolte, who also got to see Mr. Ortiz in action when the Chronicle and Examiner were pursuing the same story. "Fran was always formidable competition, and he had that way of making difficult things look easy," Nolte said. "He'd ease up, smile that little smile, and boom, he'd beat your sorry tail."

Retired Examiner reporter Larry D. Hatfield met Mr. Ortiz in 1970. They collaborated on many stories and shared countless drinks at the old M&M Tavern, down the street from the paper. "He was probably the person I admired most in journalism," Hatfield said. "Not just for his talent but for who he was." He only saw Mr. Ortiz get angry once. During contract negotiations, a management representative proposed that reporters be allowed to shoot photographs. "He said, `It's not that hard to take a picture. You just point and shoot,' " Hatfield recalled. "I thought Fran was going to go across the table at him."

Chronicle photographer Katy Raddatz, who began working with Mr. Ortiz at the Examiner in 1975, said, "There was never, never, ever any hurry about Fran. He just luxuriated in the beauty of the world. And he cared about every single thing that he shot."

That caring is reflected in Mr. Ortiz's favorite quote, framed on his bookcase, from fabled photographer Yousuf Karsh: "When aspiring young photographers ask me for counsel, I suggest they first become students of the humanities, that they fill their lives with more than just technical information about the inner workings of the camera. To make enduring photographs, it is far more important to know about the inner workings of the human mind and soul, for the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera."

Catherine Ortiz said her husband also kept the quote on a piece of paper in his wallet. "He had it with him all the time," she said.
In addition to his wife of 25 years, Mr. Ortiz is survived by a sister, Carmen Ortiz of Richmond; daughters Vicky Hurd of Sacramento, Laura Ortiz of Davis and Jennifer Ortiz of Vacaville; son Michael Ortiz of Seattle; and five grandchildren.

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