It occurred to me with the 20-year anniversary of the O.J. Simpson chase that news photography coverage has changed so much. The way this business has evolved is nothing short of mind-blowing. Imagine no mobile phones to connect with editors and sources; instead, it was pagers and payphones. And no digital — only 36 frames at a time that were physically delivered, not transmitted. The film was then processed and an actual print printed.
I asked the Los Angeles Times’ Allen J. Schaben about his experience covering the infamous car chase across the Southland.
I left my home in Seward, Nebraska, in late April 1994 to come to work for the Los Angeles Times, where some of the biggest stories in history have taken place. My first big news assignment was President Nixon’s funeral, with five living presidents attending. My next big news event was to cover Nicole Brown Simpson’s funeral in Lake Forest, where I photographed O.J., his and Nicole’s two children, his mother attending the funeral, and Nicole’s sisters weeping over her casket on June 16, 1994.
Little did I know that two months after arriving from Nebraska I would find myself covering one of the biggest news stories in history. So there I was, June 17, 1994, standing on the top of a TV truck next to the center divider on the 91 Freeway, photographing Heisman Trophy winner and football star O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings and leading a historic 60-mile police pursuit across Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Simpson was a suspect in connection of the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. It was my day off, and I decided I needed to prove my worth and get some more news experience. I headed to Los Angeles to photograph O.J. turning himself in at the LAPD headquarters at the time, Parker Center, but that never happened. I proceeded to the scene of Nicole Brown Simpson’s Brentwood condo, because the rumor was that he would be headed there. After photographing the large gathering of curious onlookers, I called our Orange County photo desk editor, Jose Barrera, and he told me that O.J. had been spotted in Orange County. I headed back to O.C. on the 405 with my attention being split between the Thomas Guide road map, the police scanner, KNX news radio 1070 and a mini portable TV.
Suddenly, I heard on the police scanner that he was leading police on a slow-speed chase on the northbound 5 Freeway, and I figured I would try to shoot him coming at me, guessing that he would take the westbound 91 Freeway. I quickly looked at the Thomas Guide map and then glanced up to the freeway signs on the 405. The 91 Freeway exit sign was right there in front of me. I exited and headed to intercept O.J. on the 91 Freeway.
Thankfully, I found a news van parked next to the center divider up ahead and pulled behind him, figuring that I might be able to climb up on his truck with him and get a better angle. Thank God he let me. He said, “Just don’t rock the truck while we are up there.” As I stood there on the TV truck, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I guess this is my ‘welcome to L.A.’ moment.
While running to my position, I quickly took the slide film out of my cameras and put in color negative film and tried to calm down enough to make sure the sprockets took correct hold of the film, because my adrenaline was pumping fast and making my hands shake.
Suddenly I saw several police and news helicopters on the horizon, following the police chase, and I knew I better be ready. I decided to use my Nikon F4 and manual focus Nikon 300 2.8 to compress the space between the white Ford Bronco and the police. And so I concentrated on getting the focus correct and took several frames to get the best shot. Thankfully, it was nice afternoon light.
After I got the photo, I proceeded to head to O.J.’s mother’s house in Brentwood because news reports predicted that he was heading there. I made my way to a street behind O.J.’s mother’s house using the Thomas Guide and my mini portable TV that showed the view of the house. I found myself in the backyard of her house and stayed put because police were arresting photographers on the front side of the house. Soon after, O.J. was led away by the LAPD. Fellow photographer Rick Loomis and I made photos of O.J. being led away in a police cruiser and that was the end. Later on, fellow staff photographer Larry Ho got a great shot of O.J. in the police cruiser at Parker Center.
I headed back to the L.A. Times and “souped,” or developed, my film. In the following days, the photo ran in the Los Angeles Times, around the world and was a triple-truck (three-page) layout for Newsweek, a double-truck for U.S. News and World Report and the cover of TV Guide. At the time I made the photograph, I thought that every photographer in SoCal had the photo, but it turned out that only a few of us got it. There was no wide-use of the Internet at the time and latimes.com didn’t exist yet.
That was 20 years ago today.
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