As a senior in high school, 25-years ago, I worked alongside the stepdaughter of Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Brian Lanker. She was the photo editor for the student newspaper, I was the photo editor for the yearbook. We were both effectively on each other’s staff at any given time.

Standing on the sideline of a Friday night football game with my Canon AE-1 Program and 135mm f2.8 lens, waiting for the action to get close enough for me to shoot, Julie walked in with a Nikon F3 and 300mm f2.8 over her shoulder, and a Pulitzer Prize winner carrying her bag.

I honestly never had the guts to even talk to him.

Lanker was larger than life to me. As a junior I had gone from thinking that photography was a fun hobby to defining myself as a photojournalist. I had gone from just taking photos for the paper and yearbook, to pursuing a career in the field. And here, in my backyard was one of the greats. Lanker’s Pulitzer photos were eye-opening. Not just because of their content, but because to me they were proof that even the smallest event was a story that could have impact on people’s lives.

Before he’d ever walked onto that football field, before I’d even realized who Julie’s dad was, I was aware of Brian Lanker. I knew he’d turned our local paper, The Register-Guard, into one of the “best photo papers” in the country when he came there from Topeka, Kansas. I knew that the inspiration I got from looking at the photos in the paper every day was in part because of his influence there.

But the story does not end there. I graduated from high school I remained in Eugene for a couple more years attending community college, doing a little freelance work, consulting at my old high school as mentor for students following me. I still never got the guts to call Lanker.

But in 1990, the year after his I Dream A World book was published (I raced out and bought it at the Boston University bookstore as soon as I could scrape up the cash) I had an assignment in my newswriting class. I had to interview someone famous in my chosen journalism concentration. The broadcast majors called the networks, the print majors called the Globe, I called Eugene.

I told Brian Lanker, in a cold call, about my high school years, those football games, and I asked if he could spare some time when I was home for spring break? And he did. For over an hour, both sides of the tape in my mini-recorder, in his living room, he let me ask him the most mundane questions a wide-eyed college kid could ask. He told me his life story. He told me about the idea to do I Dream A World. He talked about the Pulitzer, about coming to Eugene. About fighting to change the culture of the paper. About shooting the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

I can honestly tell you I have no idea what grade I got on the story. I can tell you that Lanker wrote me back when I sent him a copy and thanked me. That experience has stuck with me for 20-years, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who was willing to give me of his time to inspire me in my career.

The odds of me ever winning a Pulitzer are pretty low I suppose. But one thing I do know. I will never hold back from providing an aspiring visual journalist with as much of my knowledge, experience and passion as I can share.

27 Responses to “In Memory of Brian Lanker”

  1. Thanks for sharing your memories of Brian, Sean. What an amazing talent he was!

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