Two years. That’s what I’d give it. It was January, 1981, I had graduated from the journalism program at Cal State University, Northridge a few months earlier and landed a job with The Bakersfield Californian. But really, Bakersfield? I was a child of Watergate, one of thousands to choose journalism as a profession in the aftermath of Woodward and Bernstein and Graham and Bradlee. Back then, it was an admired and noble profession. I had a world to save, and it wasn’t going to happen in Bakersfield. Two years, and this boy was moving on. After all, I was born in New York City and earned my journalism degree in Los Angeles. Bakersfield wasn’t exactly in my plans.
I would stay at The Californian 28 years. Actually, I’m kind of still there, now a contractor shooting a few weekend assignments. My primary job is an instructor at Bakersfield College, where I teach photojournalism, multimedia reporting and media and society (mass comm). But back to Bakersfield and my two-year promise. What happened, you ask? A whole lot.
Let’s start with the newspaper’s staff. This may have been a medium sized American newspaper, but it wasn’t medium in attitude or talent. I found myself on an incredible staff of reporters, photographers and editors, and they were good. A little crazy, yes. Fearless, yes. Educated and talented. And most of us had a chip on our shoulder. We were young, many of us had attended top-notch j-schools and had tried to land jobs with the big papers. Nobody wanted us. For me, that was The Los Angeles Times. It was all I wanted, and it wasn’t to be. I tried so hard. So yeah, we had attitude. We took it out by doing journalism of the highest level on a medium sized paper in a mid sized, but rapidly growing city. We were close knit. We became friends. Most of us have moved on, but I think every one would tell you it was the time of our lives.
Then there was the newspaper, The Bakersfield Californian. We covered everything. We considered ourselves as much a state newspaper as a local newspaper. We covered the NFL, the Los Angeles Lakers, UCLA and USC sports. Earthquakes and floods where ever they occurred. We would chase down people who would leave town to avoid us. We even had a full time, staffed Sacramento bureau. Oh, and a lot of money that the paper wasn’t afraid to spend. Trips, training, helicopters, practically any equipment we needed. For me that meant state of the art cameras and lenses. An unlimited supply of film and photo paper, never once audited or challenged. Expense accounts. Any amount of money to get the story and bring home the photo. A brand new, state-of-the-art, full color printing press, one of the first in the United States and the envy of most every paper in the country. And the pay wasn’t bad, either. For most of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Californian staffers were paid in the top 25 percent of all newspapers in the country, in many cases as well or better than some newspapers two or three times our size. That, plus our close proximity to Los Angeles, the Sierra Nevada and the coast made it pretty easy to hang around.
But none of that compared to the news. Oh, my God, the news! This was one hell of a news town! Poisoned watermelons and killer bees. Murders and trials so shocking they would routinely garner national attention. Good old country boys and secret societies and graft and corruption. Fires and floods and dust storms. Farmers vs. laborers. City councilmen getting into fist fights. It never let up, not for a minute. It was intoxicating and impossible to turn away from. So I stayed. I’m still here.
What I’m sharing with you here are the pictures I shot during those remarkable years, as well as the stories of how those pictures were made. Battles were fought, on the street and in my own newsroom. Things you could anticipate and many you couldn’t. Pictures that made you a hero one day, a villain the next. What’s striking me most is when I look at these photos so many years later, I realize the historical importance they carry. At the time we would shoot them, that wasn’t always on our mind. The assignments would come so fast and steady, that our lives were sometimes just shoot, file and move on. This visual trip down memory lane was a long time coming, and I’m glad it is now underway.
I am not presenting these pictures and stories in chronological order. There are too many negatives and slides and prints to dig up and go through. So I’m sharing them as I come up with them. I hope that’s OK with you. I hope you enjoy these photos and stories as much as I am enjoying recounting them and sharing them with you. Looking back, it was one heck of a ride. Long live journalism, may it never die.
— John Harte