This week's SFist Memoirs features Lt. Dwayne Newton of the San Francisco Fire Department, who's also an S.F. native and veteran photojournalist. Dwayne says he owes his passion for photojournalism to growing up in San Francisco in the '60s, from attending anti-war protests and "staring at hippies" to watching Shaft in the theater with his dad and brother at age 12 and consuming every magazine and newspaper he could get his hands on. Take it away, Dwayne!
I'm going to approach this from the perspective of how growing up in San Francisco inspired me to become a photographer. I'm a San Francisco native. I was born in 1959 in the Presidio at Letterman Army Hospital, and I'm a fraternal twin. My brother is also a firefighter in San Francisco.
My father is a naval officer, and my mother was a secretary. They met in the '50s in San Francisco. My dad was in submarines, and my mom came here around 1932 or '33. She remembers when Treasure Island was built and the World's Fair. She went to high school with some celebrities, such as Johnny Mathis. She worked in jazz clubs in the 1930s. My parents traveled all over the place, all over the world, and my mom was a get-up-and-go sort. She was a San Francisco girl. She liked to get out.
Growing up in the city in the '60s, I was keenly aware of what was going on in the world, like the Civil Rights Movement in the early '60s. I was an early reader and read the paper every day and all of the picture magazines, such as Life, Look, Ebony, and Jet, and I watched the news. There was a lot of stuff going on. As I got a older, like in the summer of '65 or '66, I thought, "This is going to be another summer of riots." I thought that was a normal occurrence because every year in the '60s, the cities blew up, like the Watts Riots, Detroit, Newark.
My dad didn't hide anything from us because he figured we'd find out anyway. He censored nothing. He'd take us to movies, and they'd say, "I don't think they should be in here." We saw Shaft in 1971 at age 12, Alice's Restaurant, The Sterile Cuckoo. These movies were considered heavy-duty in their day.
We rode all over the place on our Stingray bikes. We'd ride to the Haight — we were told not to go over there because it wasn't safe. It was full of speed freaks and runaways. We would go to all the hippie hangouts and stare at them, like at Hippie Hill. We went to Glide, and the Panthers had their food program in the basement. My dad used to bring home the Panther paper and the Berkeley Barb.
The times had a heavy influence on me. The mood, the vibe, of the city, the era, the culture for a 10, 11, 12 year-old.
We used to live on 10th Avenue between Anza and Balboa, and the war protests would go down Geary to Speedway Meadows or the Polo Fields. We'd go down and watch the protests. They were huge marches, like 100,000 people. We'd go to hear the speeches and the music. I saw Dick Gregory when he said he wasn't going to eat until the war's over. And I thought, "How the hell is going to do that?"
There were some violent anti-war protests. I got caught in a riot down in Playland in '71. I don't know if it was an anti-war protest, but I remember seeing cops on horseback riding through crowds with these long nightsticks just clubbing the crap out of people. And tear gas. I got lost, and the cops came in cracking heads, going in and out of those underground bathrooms. They saw me and said, "Get the hell out of here!" And I was mad at my brother for leaving me.
Being there, seeing these events, like the riots at S.F. State — they closed the park and I was mad because they closed the park, People's Park, Kent State, the Martin Luther King shootings. I thought all these things were normal. It all had an effect on me.
Leaving San Francisco
We left the city in 1971 and moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, because of the busing. I lived in the Richmond District, and I went to three different schools in three years. My dad said, "That's enough." The school system was starting to decline.
The Vietnam War
Being aware of the news, as it were, I felt like I had to be there. It didn't really gel for me to become a photographer — a photojournalist, specifically — until April of 1975.
My older brother came back from Vietnam without an arm. My father retired from the military when they tried to send him to Vietnam. He said, "There's no way. My son just came back without an arm." So he got out. He ran the electronic warfare school over on Treasure Island, so for him to say that as an officer is a pretty big deal. He said, "To hell with that." The war had a heavy effect on our household.
In April '75, I was 15, and the war was ending. They had these segments about the Vietnam War with Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite, and one segment was on the media, the journalists, who covered it. They showed these guys hanging out of helicopters and taking pictures, getting paid to go all over the world to take pictures, and I thought, "Wow, that's what I want to do!"
Everything after that moment was geared toward becoming a photojournalist. In high school, I studied journalism. I was on the school newspaper. Then I went to photography school, Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. As soon as I got out, I worked at the Santa Barbara News & Review. My first published news photograph was of a fire.
I was sent on clandestine environmental missions with Greenpeace, Abalone's anti-nuclear protests down at Diablo Canyon. I went to Central America in '84 and '86 — Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala. We drove down for the peace conferences in Honduras from California in '86. We got ambushed in El Salvador, which changed my whole outlook on conflict photography. I realized you can get a good image, but you can also get yourself killed.
So, I moved back to San Francisco after that and started working at Butterfield & Butterfield shooting antiques and art. It was a whole lot safer.
San Francisco Light
Anybody who grew up here and is visual enough to notice — especially out in the Avenues — there are certain times of day here where the light is very unique to San Francisco. I don't know if it's the geography here, the hills, the density of the structures, the water, the microclimates — you're just frozen by the light. It's something you don't see. I call it San Francisco light, and I like to keep my camera with me at all times to capture that light.
When Dwayne isn't fighting fires, he continues to document local, national and international current events. Check out his site at dwaynenewton.com.
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