From Pittsburg, Kansas, to Washington, DC, to Long Beach, California, Alan Hagman rubbed shoulders with everyone from presidents to sports and literary legends over the course of an extraordinary photojournalism career — before it was tragically cut short one month ago when he died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 55.
Hagman, who grew up in Pittsburg, had been deputy director of photography for the Los Angeles Times for several years until he passed away Nov. 11.
“Whatever’s in the water in Kansas that makes you a good person, you know, he drank a lot of that water,” says Rick Loomis, who now lives in New York but previously worked with Hagman as an L.A. Times photographer.
“I don’t think he ever really lost touch with who he was and where he came from,” says Colin Crawford, former Times deputy managing editor for visual journalism until his retirement earlier this year and Hagman’s former supervisor, adding that Hagman’s youth growing up in southeast Kansas “absolutely” shaped his later life and career.
“I think, in a good way, he had a lot of small town values,” Crawford says. “I think it really kind of gave him that grounding but it also sort of made him want more and want to see more and do more and maybe appreciate all of that a little bit more than somebody who’s lived in it their whole life and just takes it for granted.”
After beginning his career as a student photojournalist in high school in the early 1980s, when he also worked for the Pittsburg Morning Sun, and continuing it as a college student at the University of Kansas, Hagman became then-Vice President George H. W. Bush’s personal photographer as a White House intern. He later turned another internship — this time at the L.A. Times — first into a freelance gig and later a permanent position.
While many may have seen future-President Bush as symbolizing a conservative political ideology and culture, Hagman’s interests spanned a decidedly broader spectrum. He covered early Burning Man festivals and remained a dedicated Grateful Dead fan over the course of the band’s life and through its later reincarnations.
“Hunter Thompson was his probably favorite author and journalist ever,” recalls Todd Loveland, who grew up with Hagman in Pittsburg. “And also when he was in college, William Burroughs had moved to Lawrence and Alan had met him numerous times, and so those gonzo journalists, he was enamored by. He was on this photojournalism plan from high school on, you know, and he put the whole thing together, and it worked.”
Crawford says Hagman’s broad range of interests “says a lot about him.” Hagman’s sister Jennifer would agree. And the things he took an interest in “he wasn’t just dabbling in,” she says, “these were all things he fully wove into his life.”
Though Hagman’s many surreal life experiences included playing tennis with world champion Boris Becker during his White House internship, when it came to sports, Hagman was probably most fanatical about Kansas Jayhawks basketball.
“He even converted me to be a KU basketball fan,” Crawford admits.
“I was privy to all the weird rituals that he had,” recalls Loomis. “When Kansas played basketball he would wear certain socks or a certain T-shirt. He would record every single game and if he was watching it at work and they started losing he would turn the game off, and then once he found out if they won or lost he would go back and watch the game anyway, but he didn’t want anyone to ruin it for him. So I ruined more than a couple basketball games for him by giving him the score and saying ‘Oh, that was a close one Alan, sorry about that.’”
Loomis not only worked with Hagman at the L.A. Times, but bought a house with him in Long Beach.
“When we first started hanging out he was looking for a place to live,” Loomis says. “I’d been homeless for about three years after covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and basically living out of the trunk of my car and a storage unit, and it was sort of time for me to find a place to stay.”
Driving around Long Beach one day, Loomis and Hagman spotted a duplex that was for sale by owner. “And I was like, ‘This would be cool, like you have one and I’ll have the other one,’” Loomis says.
“So this guy that I barely knew at that particular time — this was back in 2005 — and I pooled all the money that we had and bought this house together and moved in, and when we first moved in one of the units was occupied, so we just became roommates, and we stayed that way for years and years and years, up to and through when I met my wife to be,” Loomis says. “When we got together, she moved in with the two of us, so it wasn’t until just before we got married that Liz and I decided that if we were going to be grown-ups we needed to live apart, but Alan was always a part of our family unit.”
Hagman’s friendship with Loomis was not the only known case in which he quickly formed a lifelong bond.
“He and I, we met in preschool, we were four years old and we ended up coming out of preschool the first day and telling our moms that we were both going to go to KU and we were going to live together,” recalls Henry Menghini of the Menghini Law Firm in Pittsburg. “And we ended up doing that when we graduated from high school.”
Today, Menghini and his wife live in a house on East Quincy in Pittsburg that was built by Hagman’s uncle. Still, despite remaining close over the years — the Menghinis visited California and attended a concert with Hagman in San Diego just days before his unexpected death — there were things Henry never knew about his modest childhood friend, who won a wide range of awards including an Emmy, several Pulitzer team photo awards, numerous Photo of the Year awards, the Life Magazine 1998 photo of the year, and the Robert F. Kennedy Humanitarian award in 2019 for photography.
“He never made a big deal about all the awards that he had won,” says Menghini, who only learned of many of them after Hagman passed away. Similarly, Hagman quietly maintained the relationships he built with a worldwide network of influential contacts.
“He kept all of his connections alive, so he could call people in a wide range of places internationally to make things happen or to figure something out, it was quite impressive,” says Jennifer Hagman. “He supported all the foreign national photography for the L.A. Times, so he’d have reporters and photographers in, you know, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and he would know who to call in all these different places when something needed to be done or changed, or a reporter or photographer needed support, sometimes around very serious situations.”
Crawford, who oversaw Hagman’s career as he advanced up the management ladder at the Times, similarly noted that he made time to travel, spend time with friends and family, and go to concerts — even as he remained dedicated to a job with such stressful duties as dealing with and looking out for photojournalists working from conflict zones.
“He was not only an award-winning photographer when he was younger and still shooting but then he became a great editor,” Crawford says.
Yet even as Hagman moved into the role of editor as he got older, leaving most of the work of actually going to the scene of breaking news and taking pictures to younger journalists, he never gave up his lifelong love of photography, of food, or music, or his friends.
“There’s no way this was supposed to happen,” Loomis says of Hagman’s untimely death. As far as anyone who knew him was aware, Hagman had been in good health.
The last weekend of his life, Loomis says, Hagman sent him and a mutual friend living in Texas three text messages. They were photos of the dinner he was eating, Loomis says, which Hagman was jokingly sending to tempt his friends to come visit him in L.A. The first was a picture of bacon-wrapped jalapeños.
“And then he sent a picture of a dessert, like a red velvet cake — that was always Alan’s favorite — from another place that’s right nearby, from these two places we like to frequent,” Loomis says. The third message included a photo of a beer — a favorite variety of the two friends he was teasing.
“And then when he sent that picture,” Loomis says, “he just sent ‘final pic,’ is all it said.”