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A French-Eye View of America : Kern County Sits for a 'Fantastic' Portrait

May 08, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — At precisely 12:01 a.m., Frank Fournier snaps into action.

Fournier on one knee. Snap. Fournier standing on a chair. Snap-snap. Fournier belly-down on the barroom floor. Snap.

"Fantastic!" Fournier says to himself, squinting through the smoke. "Good, good. Very good. Ah, oui! "

On the dance floor, seven young women line themselves up, affecting boredom to screen a residual self-consciousness. Up on the stage, a beefy type in a cowboy hat flexes and preens.

"Remember," the emcee says, "100 bucks to the winner. Everybody ready? OK, Kenny, wet 'em down."

The Wet T-Shirt Contest revs up. So does photojournalist Fournier.

When the contest ends, the women will share a few giggles, a few brews and head for home. Not Fournier. For 24 hours he will not sleep. He will ingest a grand total of two sandwiches, half a bowl of curdled chili, a Coke, two cups of coffee and a raw onion.

Many Miles to Go

He will cover 25 miles by foot and another 400 by streaking T-Bird. In his wake he will leave half the population of Bakersfield, all of Parkfield, one ex-national security adviser, three TV crews, half a dozen cops, a reporter running on empty and a hobo in a white suit.

For now, though, Fournier is just beginning to click.

"Let's hear it for No. 3," the emcee bellows. No. 3 takes a tentative step forward, does a little Sister Kate shimmy and falls back into line.

Fournier gets an offbeat angle from behind a mug of beer. " Formidable, " he mutters. "Fantastic!"

To Frank Fournier, all of America --including Bakersfield--is "fantastic." It is his favorite word in English.

In French, America--Bakersfield still included--is " vibrant , eclatant , puissant " (stirring, dazzling, powerful). Maybe a little crass and commercial, too, but perhaps that is to be expected in a country "so young, so immature."

Fournier, 37, a prize-winning photographer from Saint-Siver, outside Bordeaux, works for Contact Press Images. His beat, quite literally, is the world, but for now he has been selected as one of 200 elite international photographers to flare out across the 50 states and the District of Columbia one day last week to record "A Day in the Life of America," destined for the best coffee tables. His assignment: Bakersfield and Parkfield, the latter a hamlet insouciantly perched squarely atop the San Andreas Fault.

Fournier, who's never been here before, is almost maniacally enthusiastic about the assignment, the area and the people. He has been scouting the area for two days, and two hours before the beginning of D-Day, he permits himself a rare breather over Coke and chili to map out his headlong trajectory.

"I don't know if Bakersfield is typical ," he says. "Can anyplace in America be typical? It's so fantastic, this country, so unstructured . You go from New York to L.A. to Chicago to Atlanta and every place you go to is so different .

"Europe is more civilized in a sense, sure, but also older, settled, structured. You get your meal at 12 and go back to work at 2, and then home at 6, see your wife, dinner and TV.

"Here, you never know what to expect. I feel the power of this country. The mountains, the plains. So big, so free. The space is unbelievable. In France, yes, it's rich too, but everything seems to be at the end of your arm.

"In Bakersfield, you've got farms as far as you can see. You've got all these oil wells. You've got youth, so irrepressible. . . ."

Irrepressible is le mot juste --the precise word--for the scene in a roadhouse just south of Bakersfield.

To start his marathon, Fournier has chosen the Highland Inn as perhaps most representative of the area. It is an instinctive choice and he's not far wrong.

Suds, fiddles, women, noise, movement--in its own way, a little good clean fun. A little redneck too, maybe, but that's Bakersfield, or at least part of it.

Short, balding, intense and thoroughly charismatic, Fournier immediately draws more attention and admiration than even the women in the T-shirts.

He sees the contestants, the country combo, the boozers, the dancing couples as something very special, even precious. Flattered by his genuine interest, they respond in kind, a scene that is to be repeated for 24 hours.

The contest over, the young women lay siege to Fournier as he passes out release forms. "Gee, he's cute," one of the contestants says. He may not be--not physically--but his particular vision is a reflection of themselves, or at least of the way they would like the world to see them.

Fournier lingers at the roadhouse, utterly enthralled. "Come here and look through the lens," he shouts to a companion, who at first sees nothing but a half-dozen synthetic cowboys and cowgirls sweating through the Texas two-step. "The energy!" Fournier says. "The enthusiasm! Fantastic!"

"You know," says John Harte, a local photographer along for the ride, "he really makes it all come alive, all those things we take for granted."

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