Photojournalist Larry Davis Dies In Seattle

Jan 20, 2006

By Donald R. Winslow

Former Los Angeles Times photojournalist Larry Davis, 61, died Thursday near Lake Washington in Seattle. His death was confirmed tonight by Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor for photography Colin Crawford, and by Davis’s long-time friend and former coworker Hyungwon Kang, a senior staff photographer for Reuters News Pictures who is now based in Washington, DC.

Larry Davis, photo by Tom StoryDavis took his own life Thursday afternoon soon after friends in Seattle, as well as many from around the country, became concerned for his welfare when they received an eMail from Davis that was titled “Good bye.” Friends in Seattle who got the eMail tried to call him and then went to check on him, Kang said. When friends could not find Davis they realized that he might be at a boat dock on the lake where Davis spread his late wife’s cremated ashes on the water two years ago this week.

Kang said the friends went to the dock and found Davis alive, “But he was locked inside his van and would not be talked out of his plans.” Kang said the friends told him tonight that “Larry was clear and determined and asked us to leave. When he saw that we wouldn’t leave, he ‘bolted’ in the van (drove away quickly).” The friends called 911. “By the time they and the police caught up with him, it was ‘too late,’ he was dead,” Kang said. Davis apparently circled around the parking lot and back close to the edge of the lake before killing himself.

Tonight the friends told Kang, “We were there to tell Larry that he was loved, but Larry was very clear in his wishes and in his course of action.” Kang, who knew Davis very well over the years, said, “Larry has always been a very focused guy. Once he says something, he does it. His eMail was titled ‘Good bye.’ He said, ‘This is my final note to all my friends.’ I couldn’t read it at first. It was shocking. But then I read it through, and that’s when I called Larry’s sister-in-law (in Seattle, Lori Benner). She said police had located him and were going to talk with him. Then I didn’t hear back from her and I was worried. Then I called Bob Chamberlin (at the Times’s picture desk), and he told me he'd just talked to her, and that she'd just learned that Larry killed himself.”

Davis’s wife, Bertha Jo Hagfors ("B.J."), died two years ago this week from cancer, Kang said, and the photographer was heartbroken. Davis left the Los Angles Times in 1995 when a buyout package was offered to senior staff members. Kang said Davis and his wife decided to take the buyout, pack up, and leave town. “He bought a Ford Explorer,” Kang said, “and it was the first private car that he’d bought. He’d always had company cars until then. They loaded it with everything they owned and went to Seattle, and when they left town he was so happy then. He was freelancing for The New York Times and some others, and they had family in the area.”

Kang stayed in touch with Davis because they were good friends. “He interviewed me for my internship at the Los Angeles Times in 1986, and he became my mentor and then my good buddy,” Kang said tonight. “The Times had several darkrooms that photographers had to share, and he was a generous person, the kind of person who would share his darkroom with an intern. He was a gifted photojournalist. I’m going to miss him. He was a wonderful human being.”

Davis saved Kang’s life several times on the worst night of the Los Angeles riots in South Central, Kang remembers. “Larry volunteered to drive me while I shot photos of the riots. People with baseball bats and weapons chased me down several times that night while I was shooting. I’d jump in the car and we’d take off, and then go shoot again. Larry saved me.”

Seattle's Dr. Hugh M. Foy, MD, a trauma surgeon for nearly three decades, was one of Davis's newest friends in Seattle. He was on the scene Thursday near the lake moments after Davis took his own life. Foy is an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and he also received Davis's "Good bye" eMail on Thursday. Responding to the group of other people on the eMail's address list Thursday night, Foy wrote (used with Foy's permission), "I am sorry for all of you today, as I think most of you knew Larry better than I. But for our short friendship I feel honored that he included me in his obvious last eMail. He helped me with my computer, sent me political blogs. We shared dreams of the return of compassionate democracy. He was my "IT" (information technology) guy and did it well. What an ultimate irony of modern life that he 'penned' his suicide note via eMail.

"I was the first on the scene arriving just before the police and medics," Foy wrote to Davis's friends. "I told the assembled dozen or so police and medics that he was a great man, a Pulitzer-winning photographer, and a great guy who had lost his wife after a long battle with cancer. They were respectful and grateful for my sharing a few remarks of his character." And Foy attempted to comfort Davis's friends in his note with a doctor's insight: "I have been a trauma surgeon most of the last 28 years ... I can assure you that he felt no physical pain as he died ... You are all fortunate to have known him as well as you did. I am grateful for his friendship."

Photojournalist Tom Story in Phoenix, AZ, also got Davis's "Good bye" eMail on Thursday afternoon. He remembers the photographer as one of his best friends, going back to their college days together at Arizona State University and Con Keyes's photojournalism class. "I met Larry back when we were in Con's class in the mid-1970s with Bill Frakes, Andy Hayt, and John McDonough (who all went on to shoot for Sports Illustrated). Con left ASU to become director of photography at the Los Angeles Times when Jim Dooley went to Newsday," Story remembers, "and Larry started freelancing for the Los Angeles Times." Davis had already left a job in the clothing business to shoot for the Mesa Tribune and the Tempe Daily News. "Con told him, 'Come on over and we'll see what we can do,' and Larry quit and moved to L.A. and freelanced, and then he joined the staff."

Story said that when Davis moved to Seattle his major shooting client was The New York Times. "But when the contract flap came up for freelancers, he told me, 'I can't do this,' and he refused to sign the new contract and he stopped getting assignments from The New York Times." Story said that by this time Davis had established a new computer technology business for himself, and that it was a source of income. Davis confided in his friend that it was just as well that he wasn't shooting at the time. "He was having health problems, and B.J. was fighting her long battle with cancer."

Story remembers being in San Francisco the night of the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and he was shooting a collapsed and burning building in the Marina District when he heard a familiar voice shout out from behind him, "Is this the Kodak designated picture spot?" Story said Davis had been on the first plane into San Francisco after the quake and was already in the middle of town and shooting that night, just hours after the disaster. "He told me what he'd already seen and shot, and where the good stuff was to go cover, and he filled me in on what he already knew. He was one of my dearest friends," Story told News Photographer.

Photographs from Los Angeles riots by Davis, Kang, and fellow staff photographer Kirk D. McCoy were the main images in the Los Angeles Times’s Pulitzer entry that year for spot news. It won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News team coverage. (At the time, many thought the dramatic pictures should have been entered separately in the news picture category, instead of part of the overall coverage.) “On the day of the Pulitzer announcement, Larry told me, ‘Great job!’ and he never lost his composure taking in the news,” Kang told News Photographer tonight.

Tonight Crawford said that Davis had been one of the Times’s “heavy hitters.” “He covered the Pope for us, the riots, the first Gulf War from Israel, and he traveled a lot for us.” Davis was also well known for his world travels and coverage of conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.

Kang left the Los Angeles Times in 1997, two years after Davis, and went to work for the Associated Press in Washington before joining Reuters News Pictures. “Photojournalism has lost a great guy, a truly dedicated photojournalist,” Kang said tonight. In addition to photography, Davis was a great Apple Macintosh computer aficionado. “The last time we talked we had this great conversation about Macintosh. He knew Macintosh inside and out. Whenever I needed to know anything about my computer, I called him. I don’t know who I’m going to call anymore.”