Legendary press photographer Rafael Maldonado retires

Rafael Maldonado on the red carpet at the 2006 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

A Brooks grad, veteran, and FBI employee walk into a daily newspaper and don’t leave for 51 years. Their name is Rafael Maldonado and that’s no joke.

A self-proclaimed military brat, Rafael bounced from his birthplace of Santurce, Puerto Rico, to Key West, Jacksonville, Pensacola and Puerto Rico, according to his father’s naval base. He caught the camera bug in college, and at age 14, he received an Ansco film development kit from the owner of the dime store where he worked. A bathroom in his home soon became a darkroom where he developed rolls of film from the Brownie family camera. But it was a 35mm Nikorex his mother bought with the family credit card that closed the deal.

When he returned home from deployment, Rafael’s father “blew up” that the credit card had been used, but by then Rafael had already settled the debt with $10 payments. When Raf started selling 8x10s for 50 cents a pop in high school, his dad was all for it and suggested he set up a photo studio in the garage after he graduated.

But Rafael was determined to attend the Brooks Institute of Photography, and in 1965 he arrived in Santa Barbara. After 13 lucky months in college, he learned that the military didn’t consider the venerable campus a proper college, so he went into service. He served two years in the military as a photographer, first in Oklahoma, then a year and a half in Ausberg, Germany, shooting for NATO and Stars and Stripes and ending up at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Later, Rafael really wanted to work at a Jacksonville newspaper, but they said he was overqualified and should try the FBI, who immediately hired him as a darkroom printer. Rafael’s signature beard started early due to a skin condition that gave him a rare chance to shave, though he feared meeting J. Edgar Hoover in the halls to test that exception. It was there that he met his 53-year-old wife, Maria, who worked on another floor in the ID department.

Upon his return to Santa Barbara in 1970, the GI Bill helped Rafael buy a house in Isla Vista and a student loan enabled him to complete his education at Brooks. He got the part-time job at Santa Barbara News-Press which had been put on hold when he was drafted, which became a full-time gig once he graduated.

A photographer covers a lot of ground in a daily newspaper – breaking news, parades, protests, celebrities, politics, sports. History is constantly being made, and Raf probably has a few million images to prove it.

A particularly memorable moment came in the 1980s when Rafael, waiting near the Reagan Ranch for the expected arrival of Marine One, took a casual shot of an airplane flying overhead. Returning to the newspaper, he learned that a person had been taken into custody for flying in restricted airspace. Checking his contact sheet, he saw he had the culprit. The next morning, the photo he submitted to the Associated Press had been reissued nationwide.

Rafael also won first prize for a photo of a surfer rescued from the rocky shores of Isla Vista. The image channeled that of Michelangelo Creation of Adamcapturing the final second before a rescuer’s outstretched hand made contact with the stranded youngster.

Santa Barbara news photographer Len Wood interned at the News-Press in 1976 and eventually rose to the rank of photo editor. He recalled Rafael as being “very influential” and showing him the ropes. Wood also recalled that Maldonado was “completely different from anyone else in the business because he always had interesting hobbies and stories that had nothing to do with journalism. Most photojournalists are absorbed in the work, with photos coming first and everything else second.

And that’s true. Rafael was in the video and the illustrations. He was a marathon runner until an injury during the 1984 Los Angeles Marathon caused him to trade his running shoes for a bathing suit. He brewed beer and sold brewing supplies from home, and when he moved to Solvang he started making wine. With so many other interests, it’s ironic that he’s become one of the newspaper’s longest-serving photographers.

Rafael has embraced technology all the way and says “digital” is the best thing that could have happened to photography. Instead of worrying about chemical hazards or accidents during development, you can focus on what’s really important, like “light and timing,” he said. “And that’s, for me, where the image happens.”

After years of carrying around two or three large cameras, Rafael welcomed the lightweight iPhone into his quiver. He always had a life-size body and a long lens at hand, but for everyday images like food homework or headshots, he preferred the phone.

After 51 years, Rafael said it was strange to walk through the door of the News-Press for the last time, but the next chapter will take place in Hawaii, where he will live near his son and grandson. He will still take photos, but mostly of family or snorkeling with a GoPro.

But there are parts of his career he will miss, he admitted. “The best thrill you can get in this job is at the end of the day, you get in your car and say, ‘You know, that was a good day. I did well today. Then go home and enjoy the family.

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