PHOTO BY BRUCE FORRESTER
Privette at a Fourth of July parade in Sausalito.
Claudia Kelly and Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
Herman Privette served as the long-time staff photographer for all five of the Marin community newspapers. When he started circa 1972 with the Marin Scope for $10 week, he had to pick up film at the office and deliver exposed film later in the day.
Over time, owners Paul and Billie Anderson started the Mill Valley Herald and bought three other local papers: the Ross Valley Reporter, San Rafael News Pointer, Twin Cities Times and. “Those had been small family-owned businesses which no one in their respective towns wanted to acquire.
For Privette, as he became known, this involved five different editors and their various local assignments. Paul Anderson and Privette bonded over their shared experience with paper routes as kids, both obviously destined to work in the newspaper biz.
As staff photographer he covered the entire county but had a special connection to Sausalito where he started. Recently, a Sausalito fireman recognized him and mentioned their meeting 25+ years ago when this fireman was a Fire Cadet painting a fire hydrant RED and Privette was on assignment to shoot.
While in college, he approached the teacher about entry into a sold-out class on Journalism.
”NO” was her answer until she learned that he was a photographer with a darkroom; so shortly thereafter he was welcomed to join the staff on the college newspaper where he stayed for two extra semesters beyond his degree. Like his college contemporaries, his goal was to study enough to stay enrolled in school which would maintain his very important Student Draft Deferment. NO to “good morning Vietnam” for those 20- year-olds.
As one of the early San Francisco licensed street artists, Privette became the Button Man making souvenir picture pins. This changed his personality from being shy to becoming an outgoing jovial street artist. Everything was positive about this role: people smiled for the camera and were delighted to see their picture souvenir. An old buddy had offered the Button machine for free if Privette would drive to Sonoma to pick it up out of his barn. This friend had burnt out on making buttons while following the dog show circuit. Buttons were printed with a Polaroid pic of you and yours. Clever affordable mementos made on the spot, with the help of a propane torch, attached to his handcart, to dry the Polaroid. Luckily there were no fire safety checks on artists.
One early venue was the Marin City flea market but mud and wind plus very few tourists drove him away. Next was Union Square before moving over to Beach Street at Fisherman’s wharf. Two thousand potential customers passed by, and his only competition was the quick-sketch artists. But they were bait and switch, offering a price of $l.99 initially and then there were add-ons for more people, bigger images, etc.
For the street artists there was a lottery for location and position at the neighborhood art shows. Luckily, he preferred the least desirable location in the middle of Beach Street with Alcatraz as his background. One of his very clever features was to add a sign with the year to include in the photo. Through the years his repeat customers would revisit his booth with their prior years’ buttons to show off their loyalty.
He was inspired to join the Union Square street selling scene after seeing the famous mime, Robert Shields, who would mimic people’s walks as they came by. Shields graduated from San Francisco street artist to the stages of Las Vegas and beyond.
Privette feels very lucky about random connections in his life. An example was when he was driving up the coast from photography school in San Barbara and he stopped at Monterey in 1967. Without a ticket he joined others as they climbed over the fence and were able to witness one of the most important music festivals in the world, Monterey Pop, for free. But only one day, as security was beefed up after that day.
Remembering Sausalito of the 1970‘s, Privette recalls that the No Name bar is where he got the lead on a $75 photo studio on his way back from selling photos at Union Square. He also remembers that the town had at least seven bars (which everyone drove to), six gas stations and cops who would drive/guide you home if necessary for your safety.
Asked about any dark stories about Marin, he mentioned a certain police chief with a huge display case in his office with all of the dangerous illegal drugs and confiscated drug paraphernalia on view. Serious aficionado or just doing research for his job? He also was present during the downfall of Mark Anderson, a respected Sausalito Man about town who burnt his investors and their investments.
Being present at so many events in Marin, Privette was often hit up to dish the gossip on the local town folks – his policy was Pics only, no Tales. As the newspaper photo assignments ended due to a change of ownership and location move, Privette has continued with his craft as a still photographer and printing people’s photos on buttons.