Behind-the-Camera of Photojournalist Nic Coury in Monterey County, California.

February 21, 2010

From the Archive: I was Subpoenaed!

The photo in question... photo by Nic Coury/Mustang Daily

I've told the following quite a bit over the years as an interesting story from my photojournalism career starting in college, but figured I'd illustrate it and get it down in writing.

This is the story that I tell when people ask me how I got started in photography.

~ ~ ~

I went to college at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo (SLO). I was studying print journalism and eventually got my degree in it.

Winter quarter of 2005 was the first of two quarters I took the required JOUR 352 where we were required to write 13 stories for the college newspaper, the Mustang Daily. It was a 5-day daily written, produced and printed all by the students and a neat place to learn journalism.

For whatever reason, SLO was a major player in the Mardi Gras celebrations over the years, but not just on the college party level either. There used to be a huge parade downtown and everything and people came from all over to party in town.

In 2004, that all changed. The city decided they were not interested in having college kids from other schools come into town that week and wreck havoc on their city, so they said no party, which does not go over too well with hundreds of 18-22 year olds. The small SLO PD encountered riots and protests all along frat row just below campus. Cars were set on fire and students got very hurt. It came down to a small police force that had lacked planning and management that resulted in numerous lawsuits against the city.

In 2005, the city planned, but maybe a bit too well. They called in help from all over the state, including numerous sheriff's deputies on horseback, PD and security companies and swat and tactical teams from Los Angeles and San Diego equipped in full riot gear with non-lethal projectiles of rubber bullets and beanbag guns that left heavy bruising.

Police, swat units and tactical teams came into SLO from all over the state, including an LAPD Swat Team. All were armed with non-lethal weapons of bean bag guns, rubber bullets and pepper spray and zip-tie handcuffs. Photo by Nic Coury/Mustang Daily

It was an absurd amount of force that marched up and down California Avenue where all the frats and typical party scene was. They marched in unison for many hours, only breaking to stop kids who lived in houses and apartments on or near California to question why they were walking around. The police force broke up large gatherings with tear gas and bullhorns, not allowing enough students to gather for a riot.

Even the press, both us at the college paper, the SLO Tribune, local news stations and larger papers that came to town to cover the riots were not allowed to walk around. It was pretty much Martial Law.

Prior to Fat Tuesday, all the reporters and photogs from the Mustang Daily were briefed prior by the SLO public information officer and our advisors in the journalism department, so we had some idea something could go down and what to expect and look for on the streets.

I was a reporter then and not really interested in being a news photographer, but at the time, digital cameras were coming into the mainstream, so I had one: a very neat Nikon Coolpix 5700. So as I reported on the street, I took my camera and told the photo editor Matt Wector that I would snap a few photos.

Sometimes towards the end of the night, the police had divided up a large group of students who had gathered in attempt to riot for their right to party (like they did every single weekend the rest of the year). Smaller groups of cops penned off students on street corners and parks and would not let anyone move around.

A cop checks the ID of a college student who lived on that street. Photo by Nic Coury/Mustang Daily

I was standing in the street with one such group when a student near me (the first photo on this page) chucks a beer bottle at one of the cops and is very promptly grabbed and cuffed. (I had a frame of before, a very blurry frame during the throw and the shot of the kid being cuffed).

Sometime around midnight, I wandered back to the newsroom as we were filing super late for the next day's paper and ran into Wector, who was mad that none of the assigned photogs had gotten anything worth running due to where they were penned off. I told him I thought I might have a few good frames. He takes my memory card and we're looking at the photos on the computer and he says sometime to the effect of "I can't believe it. This stuff is great!" Along with my story on the front page, I also got the only four photos on the front page, including the kid who threw the bottle being handcuffed.

Skip ahead to winter quarter finals week in mid-March. As I walked into a final, I got a text from Wector saying he needed to see me ASAP. Being that he was a pretty mellow guy, I was a bit worried, so I took my final and hurried back to the newsroom.

I get sat down by the paper's advisor George Ramos (he won 3 Pulitzer's with the LA Times) and we were joined by Wector, the news editor, the managing editor and the editor-in-chief. Turns out the kid who threw the bottle sued the city of SLO for unlawful arrest (he threw a glass beer bottle at a police officer...).

Being a college kid, he cannot afford a lawyer, so the court appoints him one who then subpoenaed me, Wector and all the editors for the photo, claiming I was a witness to prove the kid's alleged innocence. He also requested the other photos I took that night that were not published for his evidence. Having just taken media law the previous quarter, he was a bit misinformed how that all works...

As I was the only one who was at the scene, I was the only one asked to appear in court as a witness. I was told by my advisor to claim ignorance and say that I can't remember what all happened, because it was a busy scene and I only got that one photo.

The trial was supposed to happen over the summer and as I had moved back home, they were going to cover my food and lodging for the two days witnesses were needed. Turns out, the kid settled out of court before the actual trial, pleading guilty to inciting an officer.

There's my story. I was subpoenaed.

The photo editor liked my work from that, that he let me continue shooting all the stories I would write for the Daily.

~ nic

February 20, 2010

From the Archive: Cal Poly English Professor Dr. James Cushing

This is a feature story I wrote in college for the Mustang Daily newspaper where I worked. I shot the photos as well.

~ ~ ~

Six Hours with James Cushing
By Nic Coury

In building 38 on the Cal Poly campus, there is an office where a 53-year-old man sits typing on a computer, wearing black socks adorned with multi-colored neon fish that do not match his cream V-neck sweater, or the salmon button-up shirt.

There is a wall behind the Macintosh where a poster of a young Bob Dylan hangs slightly askew, while Bela Bartok fills the office that is covered with posters of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The man’s salt-and-peppered hair is in a ponytail, and shorter wisps blow in free arrays over his glasses. With gusto, he recites the opening stanza of a Dylan Thomas poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day/rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

This is one of two Dylans, the other being folk-great Bob Dylan, who have had a major impact on the writing and life of the man reciting the poem.

The man is Cal Poly English professor James Cushing.

Cushing, a 17-year veteran professor of the English department, uses the influences of both Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, within their realms of poetry and music, in his own artful writing. Recently, Cushing had a second book of poetry, “Undercurrent Blues,” published from Cahuenga Press. Over a period of nearly six hours, Dr. Cushing talked about his writing, the Dylans, his love for jazz music, heartbreak and the mystery of life.

“Here were these two guys named Dylan, both coming at me (in 1965). One of them was of my parent’s generation and dead, and the other was close to my generation and still alive,” Cushing said. “But they were both talking about an ultimate meaning and language, and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot “fighting in the captain’s tower, while you don’t go gentle into that good night.” It was a pretty intoxicating brew for a young person at that time.”

Looking back, Cushing says that it was his experiences from a young age that helped shape a deeper look at life for him.

“In the middle of the birching culture explosions in L.A. I ended up going to an all-boys Christian military academy in the late 1960s,” he said. “I have had to get accustomed to, and find comfort and solace in, fun (but) seemingly arbitrary transformations. My experiences have told me that supposedly everything can change fast for no particular reason.”

An interest of poetry and the human voice started early for Cushing. On Dec. 16, in 1965, when he lived in Connecticut, his seventh grade English teacher, Isabel Teal, brought in an old-fashioned record player and an LP of Dylan Thomas reading the short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

“As I was listening to that record being played, a couple things struck me,” Cushing said. “One being that this is one of the most amazing things I have ever heard in my life, and it also struck me that this is what I wanted to do. I wasn’t amazed by it as a performer amazes an audience member; I was amazed by the sense that I recognized something of my own potential. I heard that (record), and knew that that is where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.”

When Cushing was six-years-old, he received a record player and a typewriter.

“You might say that those things have been the two wings that have kept me aloft in a sense,” Cushing said, who still owns and uses the typewriter.

“I began writing poetry when I was 12 in a very conscious imitation of Bob Dylan an Dylan Thomas,” Cushing said.

He would put on one side of a Thomas album and the other side of a Dylan album and just type away as fast as he could and just letting it all out.

In 1964, The Beatles helped Cushing dive completely into rock music. Other great artists like Cream and Jimi Hendrix showed Cushing that he never knew existed.

“I kept noticing that the rock music I liked best used improvisation and had long jams,” he said.

It was rogressive rock that prepared Cushing for jazz. When Hendrix died, a newspaper ad introduced Cushing to the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring John McLaughlin. He later saw them at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, a club in Los Angeles.

“I didn’t know it was possible for sound to do that,” Cushing said. “I started looking around for music by McLaughlin, and he had done records with a trumpet player named Miles Davis.”

Cushing gave jazz a chance. Once he listened to Davis, everything changed.

“I remember picking up records I had bought two or three years before and thinking ‘Did I ever actually like this?’” Cushing said.

The first Davis record Cushing owned was “In a Silent Way,” because McLaughlin’s name was on the back cover. In 1972, Cushing realized there was “this huge room full of fascinating stuff” in jazz music.

After graduating from UCSC in 1975, he got a master’s degree and doctorate from UC Irvine by 1983. The following year, he moved to the Central Coast and took a job in sales.

In 1989, there was an opening in the English department at Cal Poly, where Cushing was offered a job. Almost two decades later, Cushing still teaches English and creative writing. His passion for teaching writing and literature are still evident from his days as a student.

“When Mrs. Teal brought in the record in 1965, it completely changed my life,” Cushing said. “If I can do that for someone else, then I have passed something on that is really valuable. It is ultimately impossible to tell what impact a teacher has on a group of students, but what I hope happens is that I get to expose some people to some extraordinarily rich, marvelous and life-enhancing things. That is really my goal.”

But Cushing also wants to reach his students on a more personal level than that of just a teacher.

“I see so many young people feeling down, worried and upset, and if I can help them find their real core of self, which is what (writing and music) have done for me, then I think I am living a legitimate life,” he said.

Cushing’s fellow professors agree with what he does as a professor.

“I tell all of my students that they should not leave Cal Poly without taking at least one course with Cushing,” said Dr. Kevin Clark, English professor and head of the creative writing department at Cal Poly. “All teachers have their own way of ‘professing’, but (Cushing’s) perspective is more divergent than most. His presence and his language and his teaching expression are all imbued with this temperament that relishes atypical understanding – but not simply for the sake of being atypical. It’s for the sake of grasping as much of the ungraspable universe as one can. He's not one of a kind; he's many of a kind, at once.”

Cushing’s love for jazz music shows in his writing. In the first part of “Undercurrent Blues,” Cushing entitled and engrained the poems with inspiration from standard tunes of the jazz repertoire. He wrote them in such a way that if you knew the song, the melody or the words, a jazz rhythm can easily be found between the lines.

“The true answer (for writing in the way I did) is that I felt the universe giving me a nudge in that direction,” Cushing said. “Loving jazz and music as much as I did, that by using these songs, I felt that I was able to bring something extra to my own experience.”

Cushing wants his poems to be resonant with the lyrics of the songs and the mood of the melody.

“What I’m trying to do in any one of these poems is to create an emotional situation in which the reader has some complex, new feeling that they might not have had before,” he said. “I hope that feeling leads to some sort of epiphany about possibilities of love and knowledge and meaning in the world. You might say that writing is a non-rational trance state for me,” Cushing said. “I am hoping to bring my readers to a similar sort of state too, where it intensifies the real.”

It is this state of mind which Cushing harnesses in his writing and life.

“I sometimes think of (my poems) as working in the same way dreams work, in the sense that dreams can have a very powerful effect on you for the rest of the day or your life, even though the effect is never entirely clear,” Cushing said. “People ask me why I write, and I respect the question, but if I were able to give a full, correct and open answer to that, I probably would not need to (write), because I would understand my own motivations well enough for them to no longer be interesting. For me, there is something that is a pure and undiluted pleasure in taking a page of words and trying to make it so the result is something that is beautiful, entrancing and mysterious as a dream.”

Cushing wants to use his writing to create a space where he can live without fear.

“People who read my poems and enjoy them say that one of the things they enjoy is sense of the sudden leap, which is not a plummet to danger but a leap into strangeness and that is alright.”

~ nic

February 18, 2010

Portraits: I Love Shoes!

Nike Dunk Hi.

I love shoes and have a bunch of brightly-colored sneakers and cool boots.

I decided to photograph them with some cool lighting and shadows, which shows
them off in a more exciting way.

Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars Hi.

Even cooler with the black logo and black laces.

Vasque Skywalker.

I bought these boots ten years ago for a 70-mile backpack trip with the Boy Scouts. They're Gore-tex and been through many miles all over the state and Big Sur's trails. I recently shot golf at Pebble Beach anda they're still comfortable and beat to hell.

Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars lo.

I bought these Chucks for $6 on sale at Sear's in San Luis Obispo. They were part of my Halloween costume for many years when I dressed up as Hunter S. Thompson and have tons of (now faded) black Sharpie marker in weird squiggles.

The soles of brown Beatles' boots.

Van's checkered slip-ons.

Comfortable, all-the-time, lazy sneakers.


Cool name for sneakers, don't wear them much.

Dr. Marten 8-eyelet 1460.

Dr. Marten's are the toughest shoes around and they will last, literally, forever.

~ nic

February 11, 2010

Travel: San Benito County

Two friends play checkers at Mars Hills coffeeshop in Hollister.

The short of it is that I need to get to Hollister and San Benito County much more often.

I took a trip out there for work today and it was a great drive with lots of neat photos ops.

A mural in downtown Hollister.

Raul Gonzalez cuts the hair of a client in B&R Barbershop in Hollister. Gonzalez has been working there since 1964.

A tractor at a Pinoche Valley farm.


A pig wanders the pasture in warm, afternoon light.

~ nic

February 8, 2010

Music: Vinyl Revolution Benefit Show for Bob Gamber.

Angelo of Serpico.

One great show happened on Saturday night. A bunch of old school, local musicians gathered to play a benefit show for Vinyl Revolution owner Bob Gamber, who has owned his record store on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey for nearly 20 years.

It was a great community effort where all sales from tickets and t-shirts went to keeping the store open.

Check out the Monterey County Weekly for a story about Bob Gamber.

In my own efforts to help, I'm selling over 100 photos I shot at the show and 50% of sales will go directly to the store. I'll cut a personal check myself.

Photos of Bob and bands like Serpico and Mystery Lights can be seen at

At the purchase screen, enter "VINYLREV" for 50% photos until the end of the month.

Angelo of Serpico.

Bob Gamber.

Records for sale at the show.

Aaron dressed as Bobby Liebling of Pentagram.

The Mystery Lights.

The Mystery Lights.


Pentagram tribute.

Aaron as Bobby Liebling.


A banner where friends could sign.

~ nic

February 6, 2010

Sports: Hang Gliding

A few folks flew kites from the beach, so I managed to frame both together.

A 300 f/2.8 lens I borrowed from NPS (Nikon Professional Services) arrived on my desk at work yesterday, which I had requested to cover the upcoming AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am next week.

So with expected rains that didn't happen and nice, sunlight, I headed out to Marina State Beach in hopes of finding some hang gliders. And I did.

The 300 stayed on my full-frame D700, while my D300 had a 17-35 f/2.8 mounted for wider shots. I had my other lenses with me, but didn't want to change lenses in the windy sand.

This is a shot of the guy launching and a remote control place pilot watching from the parking lot in the background.

~ nic

February 3, 2010

Music: Zoe Boekbinder

The Ticket Taker.

One of the coolest people on the planet and one of my favorite subjects to photograph, Zoe Boekbinder, performed last night in Monterey.

Zoe and her sister Kim are from the area and had this great folk duo of circus-y, wild music called Vermillion Lies and now each sister is doing their solo thing.

Zoe has this great, classic deep-ish crooning voice and writes great songs and is just a great subject to shoot, so I try to whenever she's in town.

Zoe's friend, Dakota Bell Witte, opened the show with her unique, story telling ukelele set.

I shot these with a wide array of lenses, mostly wide open at f/1.4 or f/2.8, depending on the lens. I really love my 85 f/1.4. it's super sharp and fairly light.

~ nic