The fire photographer

Semi-retired at 74, Al Golub is still chasing stories and wildland fires.

The highway between Groveland, California, and the entrance to Yosemite National Park doubles back on itself. During the 2013 Rim Fire, a group of local media parked on the bend and watched the fire roar straight up the mountain, over the road ahead of them and across the road behind them. Photojournalist Al Golub, retired and 70 years old at the time, and ABC video/photographer Mark Pepper were among the media trying to decide if it was safer to go back down the mountain or try to push ahead of it.
Pepper said Golub jumped in his truck and drove back down the road looking for fallen trees or fire remnants. Minutes later, he called the folks on the bend to let them know that it was safe. Golub led them out of danger that day, Pepper said.
Over the last half century, Golub has photographed breaking news events and professional football, but what he’s become best known for are his images of wildland fires.
Golub’s first wildland fire was in 1987. As chief photographer of the Modesto Bee, Golub led the internship program at the California daily. “Papa bear,” as he was known, often suggested that the young photographers accompany a fire crew in the field, where they could meet other young people in high-energy, high-action zones. Eventually, the county manager asked Golub why he’d been sending interns to the fire line when he’d never been there himself.
The next thing Golub knew, he was in the office of Stanislaus Hotshots Superintendent Greg Overacker taking the step test to prove he was fit enough for the field.
Golub and his reporter accompanied Overacker’s team to a fire in Markleeville, California, that year. They started at an elevation of 6,700 feet and fought the fire up another 1,800 feet for almost 2 miles, a strenuous climb for even the most experienced wildland firefighter.
“The fact that I didn’t die, the guys decided they liked me,” Golub said.
Golub won an award for this story and began to gain notoriety for his wildland fire photography.
Golub’s photography education began before he ever picked up a camera. Growing up in Hollywood, California, he learned about composition and light as a storytelling device from black and white movies. At 12, a family friend gave him a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye 620 camera and Kodak Hobby developing kit.
“The magic started there,” Golub said. “My love for chemistry and photography was in my DNA. The neighborhood kids’ parents were in the movie industry and loved photography too. The geeky kids like me had lots of willing subjects to photograph who wanted to be stars.”
Due to family pressures, he pursued chemical engineering in college, but left to join the U.S. Air Force in 1962. In spite of his hopes of photographing the troops, he was assigned to be an air traffic controller at Castle Air Force Base near Merced, California. After the discovery and removal of a benign tumor in one of his lungs the following year, Golub finally got the chance to take photos and joined the staff of the Valley Bomber, the Castle Air Force Base newspaper.
“The next thing I knew, I was Airman Golub of the Valley Bomber,” he said.
Six months after Golub became the Valley Bomber photographer, the newly assigned director of information, Maj. George Herkert, called Golub into his office. Herkert had taught at the Modern School of Photography in New York City and was a well-known photojournalist. Herkert taught and mentored Golub and encouraged him to join the National Press Photographers Association. Through the organization, Golub met prolific photojournalists who taught him ethics and the rule he still lives by behind the camera.
“Tell the truth with the camera and make sure the pictures you use tell the truth,” Golub said. “I’ve been sworn to that since the beginning.”
Golub started working for the Modesto Bee after an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1966. During his time at the Bee, he covered news events such as the disappearance of Laci Peterson, a pregnant woman who was later discovered murdered, in 2002, and Muhammad Ali speaking in Modesto in 1971. Golub covered the NFL, taking pictures at Raiders and 49ers home games. He photographed the KKK on a number of occasions, as well as bands such as Fleetwood Mac and Journey. He created images of Robert F. Kennedy, just days before his assassination.
“My job was to make images, tell stories, inform people and show people how horrible it was or how wonderful it was,” Golub said.
Mike Dunbar, director of integrated operations of the Modesto Bee, said Golub was instrumental in helping the Bee transition from film to digital, calling him a “visionary.”
In the course of working for the Bee, Golub was photographing eagles in Glacier National Park when a colleague suggested he join OWAA. He did so in December 1986, sponsored by photographer Gary Zahn. He’s been an active member ever since, though conference always seems to fall right in the middle of fire season, he said.
At 74, Golub is taking fewer risks, but still capturing fires from behind the camera. He also teaches photojournalism classes at Modesto Junior College and is always willing to teach anyone who comes to him for help, said photographer Wesley Shultz. When Schultz was struggling with his own photography, a 15-minute conversation with Golub completely transformed his style. Golub is a living legend in the region, and most established photojournalists know of him, have worked with him or learned from him, Schultz said.
But for Golub, photojournalism isn’t about name recognition. What draws him back to photography is the story.
“What makes a good photojournalist is one that knows enough about the subject to emotionally have their own opinion, to be able to see what they’re looking at and understand it and know when to put the shutter down,” Golub said. “Is your brain telling you, ‘This tells the story?’”♦
[box size=”large”]SEE AL GOLUB’S WORK: Photographer Al Golub started shooting wildfires and the crews who battle them in 1987. Check out his fire images, as well as the many other subjects he’s documented throughout his career, at[/box]
–Katy Spence is a journalism graduate student at the University of Montana and former OWAA intern.

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