About this project

harteTwo 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.

The 1980s Bakersfield Californian photo staff. Front (l-r) Alan Ferguson and Casey Christie. Back (l-r) Henry Barrios, Liz Snyder, chief photographer Jack Knight, lab technician Scott Rice, Felix Adamo and me.
The 1980s Bakersfield Californian photo staff. Front (l-r) Alan Ferguson and Casey Christie. Back (l-r) Henry Barrios, Liz Snyder, chief photographer Jack Knight, lab technician Scott Rice, Felix Adamo and me.

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


24 thoughts on “About this project

  1. John, I never even knew all of that stuff about the Californian. At the time I was there, I was just very homesick and lonely. It was my first “career”-type job and my first time living away from my hometown. But looking back, I miss that time in my life. It was exciting and liberating. I miss what newspapers USED to be.

  2. Wow. Speechless Mr. Harte!!! Former Renegade Student (w Kathy Freeman & Rod Thornburg, who shot my wedding!) loooooooove the history and the story behind every photo. I should tell you though, you caught me at the mall with a ‘secret’ boyfriend. July ’92. I was in the background but front page in Local section. I laugh about it now . . . I wanted to kill you back then! Keep sharing!! Long live journalism, may it never die!!!

    1. Ha! I had no idea. Hope I didn’t get you into too much trouble. By the way, I started teaching journalism at BC in 1997. Kathy hired me. I’m still there.

  3. I’ve read your postings from beginning to end.
    Absolutely riveting and a great story with each image. I must say that the image of the boy drowned in the lake and his distraught family was exceptionally powerful on so many levels? It is a great image.
    Love to read more

  4. John,

    I’ve got to tell you I spent all morning reading all your post. It was very interesting. I did not realize you had such a long history in Bakersfield. Great work. Looks like the makings of good book.

  5. Hello John! I am the Director of the Central Coast Writers conference and I was wondering if you would be available and willing to lead a workshop? The conference is Sept 18-20, 2015. If you are interested, I can give you more details, please email me at livewell@teribayus.com. Thanks!

  6. John,

    What a great article. With the conclusion of the BCS playoff games on New Year’s Day, I began reminiscing about the ’88 National Championship Team and came across the story of your favorite photo.

    I was there too. In fact, I saw myself in one of your photos included in the article. I believe the caption reads “previously unpublished photo.” If you look in the photo to the right of Coach Bowser, you’ll see #38 with a camera of his own, taking photos in hopes of capturing the moment for posterity. That young kid, #38, is me!

    I’d certainly love to see more game photos and would be interested in purchasing a copy or two if available.

    Thanks again John!

    1. Hi John. That’s funny, you with the camera! I’m going through the pictures and coming across things bit by bit. I still have not located the entire shoot from that Potato Bowl. If I do, I’ll look for you. We you defense or offense?

      1. John,

        I appreciate your efforts brother! I was on the offensive side of the football but didn’t have much of an impact on the game. The ’88 team was so laden with talent that it made it difficult for an ‘ole country boy from Arvin to crack the line-up.

        I knew my role however. There’s an old saying in athletics, “get in, where you fit in” and I was content with running scout team, holding for the PAT’s once in a while, and running down on the kickoffs to bust the wedge. It was a wonderful experience.

        Thanks again for all your help. Hope to hear from you soon


  7. John,
    I stumbled upon your website and had to write. I have been researching for an article or anything on the murder of my birth mother. She was murdered in Kern County on the river (found on Camp Okihi Rd I believe) in August of 1990. I have been told the man who did it is named Jeff Boatman but I cannot find any info on him. I tried several times to contact someone at the Californian hoping for an archived article but to no avail. I have even tried to look up the coroner’s name on her certificate but there is no record of them that I know of …Do you know the case I am referring to and do you know how I might be able to get that information? I know it’s out there!! Thanks.

  8. John, I just wanted you to know how much I enjoy this site and all of the photos and backgrounds of each. It brings back lots of memories for me, too. There’s very few of the ’80’s folks still here…that is the hardest thing to lose people that share your “history”. Thanks for bringing some of my history back to me!

  9. John — It was a hoot finding the photo and posting about your arrest at Lake Ming, which took place on one of my first weekends on the sports desk at The Californian. Thanks for the baptism by fire and the innumerable great stories, laughs, and late nights with you, Griffith, Jeff Evans, and the Late Great Phil Klusman. I’ve spent some decades now with one foot in higher education and the other in various facets of publishing, and they’ve finally re-converged in my current stint teaching journalism, photojournalism and English at Community College of Denver and Arapahoe Community College here in Colorado — at least for now. My students have heard the Lake Ming story over and over as we’ve tackled the rights of photojournalists to shoot in public places (and, if need be, in officers’ faces), and your Hart Park drowning photo in Kenneth Kobre’s textbook is a major point of discussion. Oh yeah — your Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood shot makes it into our classroom as well. Most of my shooting over the years has been outside the U.S. (South America, the UK, Greece, & the Middle East), but now I’m back shooting short track racing and lots of outdoors stuff. I’ve raised five kids but now have two more little guys, ages 8 and 7, and the youngest can’t keep his hands off my cameras — or any cameras, for that matter. So the beat goes on, I guess. The good news is that with digital, I can afford to support his bad habits.

    I’ll be pointing my students toward this blog so they can get a feel for what life has been like for a real front line news & sports photojournalist. Now that “everyone’s a photojournalist,” the real thing is more rare than ever. Keep the faith, brother.

    1. Hi Ken, so great to hear from you. Yes, that was your baptism by fire, wasn’t it? The boat wreck photos day one of that weekend, then the arrest. I, too, am now teaching. Photojournalism, multimedia reporting and mass comm at Bakersfield College. Here’s my email: johnlharte@sbcglobal.net Let’s keep in touch.

  10. John – Thank you for work. I grew up in Bakersfield through the 70’s and early 80’s and it has been an absolute pleasure to read through your blog and relive lot’s of moments of my youth


  11. Mr. Harte I am posting this as a question. I am part of a group of students doing a project for nation competition on Mcfarland’s boys cross country team of 1987. We have been using a large amount of your pictures on our topic I am trying to contact you to see if we can use your photographs

  12. Mr. Harte – I am a student at Iona College who read about your photos of Edward Romero in my Media Law and Ethics class. I was infatuated with your story and your amazing photograhs. I was so happy to see this blog! Keep up the awesome work.

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