Jim Pearson remembers his one and only encounter with Cesar Chavez.
The famed civil rights pioneer and labor leader had agreed to an interview with the photojournalist, and after Chavez initiated an abbreviated session, the two had a chance to talk.
“He saw my Leica camera sitting on the table in the hotel room while I was doing the interview and he stopped the interview because he wanted to talk about my camera,” said Pearson, laughing, “He had the German-made Leica camera, too, really liked it and wanted to talk about this for a while – so, we did. It was a very interesting experience and one I would not have expected to happen.”
Photographing high-profile people has never intimidated Pearson, 80, who has been a photojournalist since the early 1960s. Early on, he discovered that people are pretty much the same, no matter their societal status, which often made for fascinating assignments.
“Everyone really has some of the same enjoyments as anyone else has, and for me, I have had an enjoyable career,” he said. “Of course, sometimes you get a person who is a bit snooty, but most of the time, everyone is nice.”
He recalled a time when actor Bill Cosby was in town, dressed as an animal with a hood over his head. Pearson was photographing the event, but thought Cosby appeared a bit intimidating to surrounding children.
“I saw this lady who wanted her child to get his picture taken next to Bill as he was dressed as an animal, but the kid was pretty scared,” he explained. After taking a deep breath to calm his anxiety, Pearson looked at the actor/comedian and made an unusual request.
“I got enough nerve to ask him to take the hood off and surprisingly, he did so. He was very nice despite all of the time pressure he was under – just a very thoughtful guy.”
After serving four years in the U.S. Army, Pearson, went to Marquette University to major in journalism. His first job was with an advertising agency. Although he considered it a good job, it was not something he could himself see doing for the rest of his life.
“I was working for someone other than myself and it wasn’t a great experience,” he said. “I learned a lot, but it isn’t an honest type of photography like journalism is. I took lots of pictures of pretty girls holding packages of noodles, but those are not scenes you come across every day.”
After leaving the advertising agency, Pearson worked for Wisconsin Architect Magazine, taking pictures of buildings and photographing the conventions. While the job was interesting, it didn’t capture his interest as news photography did.
Gradually, Pearson began working solely as a freelance photographer, taking photos of famous faces for the Milwaukee Press Club’s famous signature wall, and later for your Catholic Herald.
“I began working as a freelance photographer for the Catholic Herald in 1973 or so,” he said. “William Cousins was the archbishop at the time, and I remember taking pictures of him through my association at the Milwaukee Press Club. At that time, (the late) Ethel Gintoft was the manager of the Catholic Herald. She saw me doing this and asked me if I would like to take pictures for the Herald. So I began doing all kinds of stuff for them, such as traveling to the Dominican Republic and sitting in on all types of wonderful events happening through the church.”
The opportunity to earn a living in a field that continually captivated his interest and enthusiasm is something Pearson does not take lightly.
“I have always considered myself fortunate to earn a living at something I enjoy as much as photography,” said Pearson, who also taught photography classes at Marquette University. “One of my first assignments at the Milwaukee Press Club was when I was to photograph Don Ameche when he was in town. He made an early movie about Alexander Graham Bell – so they set up a bunch of antique phones around him and I got to take his picture, balding head and all, while he was signing his plaque.”
He has traveled the world taking photos of religious events, poverty stricken missions, and locally, captured anti-abortion rallies, church and school events. Each person has left an imprint on his heart, but some of the more notable figures Pearson photographed were Bette Davis, Mark Harmon, most of the bishops of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Blessed Mother Teresa and Blessed Pope John Paul II.
“The photo of Mother Teresa was an unexpected surprise for me,” he explained. “She had just gotten her honorary degree from Marquette and left the stage. I walked to the back of the arenaand saw her sitting in the back of a car near the window. A woman came up to her and pressed her hand against the glass and Mother placed her hand there, too. The picture was just so good, and unfortunately, I have not been able to find it. But it has left an impression on me to this day.” (Editor’ note: After the interview, your Catholic Herald found the photo in its files.)
When Pope John Paul II traveled to Chicago in 1979, Pearson and Catholic Herald reporter Eugene Horn were among what seemed like a million people gathering in Grant Park. Nearly swept away by the merging crowds leaving the train station, Pearson and Horn were jammed in behind a fence with reporters, Catholics and onlookers.
“I sneaked way up the fenced in area, close to the helicopter landing pad and ended up being only 5 or 6 feet away from him,” he said. “I snapped his picture as he walked past and, believe me, it was my only chance to get his picture. It was interesting, though, as I looked back, I saw hundreds of photographers, including nuns in habits taking his picture. There was probably thousands of the same picture taken that day. But, as we were leaving, there were many people who came up and offered to buy our film – but, of course, we didn’t do that.”
Some of the more emotionally grueling assignments entailed traveling to areas of immense poverty, running into starving children in the Dominican Republic or Haiti.
“You just want to hug them all, but you have to move on,” he said. “I was basically assigned to do mission study photography. We would be in one area where there were the very rich and then another we would see destitute kids in grubby clothes trying to make a few bucks selling bottles of soda in a bucket of water with chunks of ice floating in there. You just can’t help but have it affect you. When I would get home, I would always do more research on the area and keep up on what was going on there.”
Although the never-married Pearson continues to take pictures for himself with his non-digital Leica camera, his freelance jobs are rare these days, as he has decided to slow down, enjoy the home he has lived in since childhood, and perhaps become more involved in his parish, St. Sebastian, Milwaukee.
“Sometimes I get called on to take pictures at church, but they don’t seem to need me as much now with all the digital cameras. I’m not against digital cameras, but for me, I appreciate the qualities and nuances of film,” he said. “I also enjoy getting together with some of the old codgers that used to be photographers with the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel. We like to sit around and reminisce when we can.”