In 1987 Ken Kobré joined SF State to start a photojournalism program growing out of a course taught by Fran Ortiz, a staffer of the old San Francisco Examiner. Kobré took over a small darkroom in the HSS Building previously used in anthropology. Just one year later, a class publication titled “Helpers in the War on AIDS” won Kobré and his students the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial’s RFK Journalism Award. Under Kobré’s leadership, photojournalism became a top program at the University and has produced numerous winners of the National Hearst Contest awards over the years.
Although Kobré retired at the end of the spring semester, he is still coming up with his celebrated photography tips. His latest: “You need to get close enough so your subject leaves lipstick on your lens.”
Such Kobré-isms have played a part in netting Pulitzer Prizes for former students Annie Wells and Krista Joy Niles.
Niles (B.A., ’12) won her Pulitzer as an intern at The New York Times, as part of the paper’s photo team covering 9/11.
“On assignment I could hear Ken coaching me,” Niles says. “I could hear him giving feedback during critique sessions. His words of encouragement seem to ping around in my head.”
Wells says Kobré’s lessons on photographing from various angles came to mind when a Sonoma County firefighter was rescuing a teenager from raging floodwaters. One of her photos for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize.
“Get up, get down. Don’t shoot everything at eye level — the idea of different visual perspectives,” says Wells, who attended SF State in the late 1980s. “That teaching would come into play for my Pulitzer picture.”
‘He saw us as individuals’When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, Kaia Means was taking her second class in photojournalism. A fire began to rage in the Marina District, and the student went to the scene to see if she could find any photo opportunities for a news assignment in Kobré’s Photo II class. She captured the anguish of a father whose baby just died inside his collapsed home. Life magazine bought the dramatic photo. While on a follow-up assignment for Life, days later Means called Kobre from a local hospital. She needed a quick lesson on strobe lighting over the phone, as Kobré hadn’t yet taught the lighting portion of the class. Life published Means’ gripping photos of the earthquake disaster as a two-page spread in its year-end issue. Kobré remembers his phone conversation as one of his most memorable lectures at SF State.
“There was the sense that he was taking a personal interest in my learning, my success,” Means says. “Then he also expected great things from me. I felt like I had to work hard to meet his expectations. They weren’t just generic expectations. He saw us as individuals, and he could relate to us one on one.”
Though Kobré has retired, students and alumni still have the chance to learn from him. He promises a lifetime commitment to personally help every student who has taken one of his classes.
“Anytime I needed advice or insight he had a response via e-mail, text or phone,” Niles says. “Ken’s positive attitude is incredibly beneficial. [He would say], ‘If something in your environment is working against you, try to find a way to make it work for you.’”
Textbooks and inventions
Kobré’s textbook, Photojournalism: The Professional’s Approach, has sold more than 500,000 copies and has been translated into five languages. The seventh edition is coming later this year.
He’s also an inventor. Professor Kobré’s Lightscoop is a patented camera accessory that makes dramatic improvements to the quality of light in indoor photographs. His VideoPro Camera app transforms the iPhone into a professional-quality video camera.
“This is the golden age of photojournalism because the equipment is amazing,” he says. “You can take photos with light you can’t even see.”
As journalists in all media are now expected to write, take photos and make videos, Kobré has written a new textbook, Videojournalism: Multimedia Storytelling. He also established a multimedia course that is required for all Journalism majors.
About 17 years ago Kobré ventured into documentary filmmaking. Kobré has shot and edited a number of documentaries, ranging from Fire! in Australia to Shooting Stars at the Cannes Film Festival.
He photographed Deadline Every Second: On Assignment with 12 Associated Press Photojournalists, which aired on KQED in San Francisco, WNET in New York, nationally on WBGH’s WorldCompass and in six countries abroad. To shoot the documentary, Kobré followed AP photographers while they covered everything from fires near Santa Barbara to an uprising between Palestine and Israel. He also covered the New York Stock Exchange with an AP photographer and went on the Tour de France with the AP’s team covering the event. The film was edited by John Hewitt, a retired Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts professor who has been both a colleague and mentor.
Kobré’s next documentary, tentatively titled La Révolution de Rosé, explores the different factors that cause our perception of wine in general and especially for rosé.
In late April, about 150 colleagues and alumni attended Kobré’s retirement party. All attendees received a mug shot of Kobré, well, mugging outrageously for the camera. Then, they took selfies with Kobré and his mug shot.
The day before spring 2016 finals began, students lined up at Kobré’s office door. Most of his belongings were packed in boxes, save for slide boxes, a few binders and his laptop.
“It’s hard to know the right time to step out. You don’t want to wait until you’re past your prime,” Kobré says. Some professors bemoan the changes in student quality over the years, but he says, “but this semester, I’ve actually had some of the best students I have ever had.”
Despite continuing economic troubles in the newspaper industry, Kobré says journalism remains a valuable major.
“You can grow in photojournalism just like in any other field,” he says. “I can’t imagine a more exciting profession.”
- Ken Kobré
- Deadline Every Second: On Assignment with 12 Associated Press Photojournalists
- Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach
- VideoPro Camera app
- Professor Kobré’s Lightscoop
- Journalism Department
Professor Ken Kobré shoots footage in Israel for his 2013 documentary about Associated Press photographers, Deadline Every Second. Courtesy of Ken Kobré.