Behind the Lens: Looking back on the golden era of Folio with longtime photojournalist Walter Coker

“This isn’t any of my best or favorite work,” Walter Coker joked as he pulled a quite impressive stack of Folio Weekly issues out from under the bottom shelf of his bookshelf. The other shelves, lined with photography books authored by some of the most impressive photographers of all time, photojournalism textbooks, stories by local novelists and a beachcombing collection, stood as a sort of ingredient list for what Coker created within the pages of those copies of Folio humbly stashed on the bottom rack.

Coker’s 21 years with Folio is one of the only reasons we still have a publication today; his photos stand as one of the greatest historical records for this area and still inspire journalists longing for a time when newsrooms were filled with talent and drive. He’s most known for his work on his photo column, “Through the Lens,” where he published outtakes from stories and images from walking around the city.

Flipping through the pages, the unpresuming stack revealed an Association of Alternative News first place cover, interviews with the area’s top environmental activists, sources who became best friends and a whole swath of emotions, stories and memories.

For me, much of Coker’s work is familiar, mostly due to the time I’ve spent digging through the archive room here at Folio HQ. When we reached out about doing a retrospective interview, he invited us into his home to have a chat about his time spent behind the lens for Folio. To no surprise, though, sitting with him in his living room, he told us stories never heard or told before. Buckle up.

So, just to get started, for those that don’t know, can you give us a rundown of how you got started at Folio?

I moved to St. Augustine in ’90. I used to work at the University of Florida as a staff photographer and moved to start a freelance business. Back in those days it was a pretty closed town and getting photo business was pretty hard. After a couple of years, I realized it wasn’t working out so well. I ran into a photographer friend of mine at the post office who tipped me off to Folio looking for a photographer. I applied and got an interview with Sam [Taylor, former publisher]. I worked on a trial shoot for them and got hired in April of 1992.

Do you remember what that shoot was like? What was the subject?

It was with the owners of the Raintree Restaurant up there in St. Augustine near my shop. They were this British couple that were sailing around the world in the ’80s and stopped in St. Augustine and fell in love with the area. I guess they were in the restaurant business back in England and decided to convert an old house into a restaurant. And we were doing a profile cover story about their journey and restaurant. I shot an environmental portrait of the couple in the restaurant garden on my Hasselblad.

Your Folio career coincided with perhaps the fastest advancement of technology in human history. How did you see your work progress alongside it?

Well, it was interesting to live through the transition for sure. What I recall the most is obviously going from film to digital. I love the darkroom, but I didn’t love the darkroom when I was printing or developing a bunch of film for issues where the photos were not really meaningful to me. Our darkroom didn’t have good ventilation, and I spent a lot of time in there with chemicals. When we started going digital, I was pretty happy about it because I could shoot a restaurant issue and just bang it out. I still remember going to this place called Digital Dark Room in the late ’90s. Kodak was making the first big digital cameras that were high resolution. Charles Bäck, the art director, and I went and demoed one and it was jaw dropping. They had a studio lighting setup in there, so we shot a photo of each other. They printed it out on 11 by 14 [in] like a minute or two, and we we’re just like “holy shit, is this really happening?”

What was the photo process like during that cusp of innovation?

When our art department got the ability to use Macs and do composites, they went a little overboard. I could send them a perfectly good photo, and they’d have to change it somehow. I would be like, “just leave it alone. It’s a good photo, it’s photojournalism.” They got to a point where it became “let’s just jazz this thing up somehow because we can.”  It was a tool that we had at our disposal all of a sudden that nobody ever had before. We went through a lot of battles about stuff like that. I was kind of a purist and had a certain sensibility as a trained photojournalist. I learned a photo should be a photo; it should be unaltered. Your guidelines should be what you could do in a wet darkroom, which was contrast control, cropping, etc. You can’t take a branch out of the picture, a bird out, I mean, that’s an age-old argument. National Geographic did it in a famous case. It’s like they couldn’t help themselves either, except they moved the pyramids in Egypt in one photo.

Your stack of Folios seems pretty slim for how much work you put into the publication, what’s that about?

Let me tell you a story. In the film days in my darkroom, which was always locked, I kept a file box of every issue. I would put all the negatives I shot for that issue and a copy of the issue in a folder that says, you know, January 5 or whatever the date was. I had one for every week, and I kept all those because nobody else prioritized archiving. I could just see that what we were doing was history, that it needed to be preserved. The staff kept issues in the warehouse in stacks, but the ad team would raid them for ad leads, and they just slowly disappeared. Nobody kept track of them. So I kept a copy of every one in a very orderly file, nine or 10 boxes.

I had a planned vacation, and we were actually renovating the darkroom and turning it into an office because we were going from a wet darkroom to digital. So I took all my boxes out of there and put them out in my studio, which was also the warehouse. It was like a bunch of random storage and stuff, but on the one end is where I did my studio work, seamless backdrops, lighting and equipment like that. So I put all my archived boxes far against the wall and away from everything else. I thought, “everything is totally safe here.”

Well, I was gone for a week and didn’t notice anything right away when I came back. I started looking around, and I couldn’t find my boxes anywhere and started freaking out a little bit. It’s about 10 years worth of work, which is 51 issues a year. I started looking around and they’re all gone. I can’t find them anywhere. I’m asking everybody what’s going on? Where were the boxes that were in my studio? They’re clearly labeled with my handwriting.

It turns out that every so often, they would bring a mobile shredder to get rid of the old bookkeeping. And they shredded all that while I was gone, along with my archive of my first 10 years worth of work. There was no excuse for it, I mean, physically, they were like 30 feet from the bookkeeping. I don’t see why it would be on purpose, but I also can’t see how it could have been accidental. So to this day, I’ll never know what actually happened.

It was gut wrenching. It was like a part of me was gone, a part of Northeast Florida history gone forever. People even wrote me letters like I’d lost a loved one.

Why do you think you had such a strong writer and story pool to pull from when you were working here?

For one thing, there was no Internet, so print journalism was where you got your information. So I mean, the Internet has been responsible for the bombardment of information now. We had great journalists because they loved what we’re doing and wanted to write for us. They wanted to work at Folio. I mean, I had students always calling me to see if they could be interns because they wanted to get involved.

How did y’all decide covers and feature stories at the time?

We had a great team of journalists that were tapped into the area and a great rapport with readers, who would often tip us off to stories. Other times, we would discover other stories while working on current stories.

But the cover was everything to the publishers. They had “the six-foot-test,” which was if you’re standing somewhere six feet away, and you look, you have to know what’s going on and want to pick it up. They just beat us over the head with it all the time, like “does that stand up to the six-foot-test?” When we started doing more hard-hitting stories about minority issues or people living in impoverished areas like LaVilla, they didn’t want to see that on the cover. I was like, f*ck you. This is journalism, man. And you want to put this fluffy restaurant shit on the cover. It was an ongoing war between editorial and advertising. And the advertisers, you know, they would say if you did that kind of cover with something unappetizing, the pickup rate would be too low. I understand back in those days, advertisers were our bread and butter. I mean, our salaries were paid by advertisers. It was obviously the business model. It was a legit concern, but you also have to balance it with doing real journalism, real stories that people needed to read.

What are some things during that time you felt that the publication was doing well?

When Bob Snell came on as editor in 1995, he assembled a strong team. He hired the all-star team of reporters including Anne Schindler, Tricia Booker and John Citrone a little later that year. I worked with all of them on some real, serious and memorable stories. We started doing stuff that was pretty much unheard of around here. We got to the point where we could do more cutting edge stuff because people were picking us up and wanting to read us. There was a buzz on the street every week when we put out an issue. There’s an old adage in alternative weekly circles that a paper has come of age when you can afford to piss off your advertisers. And we started pissing off our advertisers. That was when we turned the corner and started doing stories like the migrant workers and stories that other people weren’t writing, stories that made a difference. That era lasted for a pretty long time.

We covered a lot of stuff  like the Fleeman Tract, a pristine piece of land up here that got mowed down, and a lot of environmental issues that I was really deeply involved with and emotional about. That was one of the coolest things I remember. We did journalism with a point of view, and it wasn’t trying to be fair and balanced. We were very left, I mean, for Northeast Florida, for the Bible Belt, but we had the platform to advocate for issues. Being a voice for the voiceless, whether it be a piece of land or an individual from a marginalized group. And that was super important to our staff, that’s what alternative weeklies were for, advocating. It was really rewarding.

About Vincent Dalessio

Vincent Dalessio is Folio Weekly’s Head Photographer and Writer. Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, he takes pride in resetting his roots in Duval County. Active in the skateboarding, surfing, rock climbing and outdoor recreation communities, he takes what he’s learned in his personal life and applies it to current issues facing these groups. His writing focuses on the environment, socio-demographic issues, biopics on community figureheads and stories on the communities he spends the most time in.