He always got the shot: Long-time Desert Sun photographer Wade Byars dies at 75

Robert Wade Byars, a long-time photographer for The Desert Sun and chronicler of the desert's most important news, sports and entertainment stories for 21 years, passed away Sept. 9 under hospice care in Alta Loma. Byars was 75 years old.

Byars used his keen eye, artistic sensibility and unparalleled work ethic to grace the pages of The Desert Sun from 1992-2013.

That's how obituaries usually start out, and if you've been a reporter for any length of time you've had to write dozens of them. But when you are close to the subject of the obituary, the formula goes out the window. So indulge me as I share some memories about an important member of our Desert Sun family.

Wade was one of a kind, a true original. The phrase "one of a kind" is thrown around loosely, but in Wade's case it was fitting, and that went for Wade the person and Wade the photographer.

Wade Byars, Desert Sun staff photographer from 1992 to 2013, passed away on Sept. 9 at age 75.
Wade Byars, Desert Sun staff photographer from 1992 to 2013, passed away on Sept. 9 at age 75.

In his wide-ranging career, which included stints at Agence France-Presse and United Press International before his two decades at The Desert Sun, Wade trained his lens at some of the most iconic moments in time. Space shuttle landings, Super Bowls, presidents and queens all came into focus before Wade's eyes.

But what made Wade special is that, to him, there was no difference between capturing momentous occasions like those or a static photo of a martini glass for a magazine illustration. Whatever his assignment was for that day, you'd get max effort and attention from Wade, and that was a lesson that rubbed off on the journalists he worked with.

"He gave small stories the same attention as the big ones," said photojournalist Richard Lui, a friend and coworker of Wade's at The Desert Sun. "I think he knew that we can't tell what the future will find important and interesting, so he worked hard on all of them."

While his colleagues were impressed by Wade's work ethic and attention to detail, the paper's editors were downright giddy to have Wade around. Not only did he doggedly go after THE shot, but he was excited about it. He never became that jaded journalist that has become a stereotype.

"The best thing about Wade came when he had a killer photo to share," said Rick Green, The Desert Sun's managing editor and executive editor from 2004-2011. "I can remember sitting in news meetings or my office and I could see Wade almost sprinting with his camera in his hand, his shirttail untucked and his photo vest all askew, shoving his camera in my face and saying, 'This is a great image. You've got to get it on Page One. It's the photo of the day!' He loved the readers. He loved his teammates. More than anything, Wade loved to tell stories with his camera."

And when it came to getting that shot of the day, Wade did whatever it took. Even if that meant bending the rules a little, or turning a blind eye to trivial things like fences or velvet ropes.

Long-time Desert Sun entertainment reporter Bruce Fessier remembered Wade fondly and shared one of those quintessential Wade moments.

Wade Byars poses in a 1987 photograph along with his travel cases carrying a portable darkroom.
Wade Byars poses in a 1987 photograph along with his travel cases carrying a portable darkroom.

"Wade Byars ranks in the pantheon of great Desert Sun characters. In terms of uniqueness of personality and quality of work, no photographer in my 43-year association with the paper came close to his level of distinction," Fessier said.

It was the 1998 Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala and Wade was assigned to photograph the celebrities on the red carpet. As Bruce detailed, the cardinal rule of covering the red carpet is you don't step on the red carpet. Security guards cordon off the path with ropes to give stars an unobstructed entry to their event. Much time goes into positioning reporters and photographers off to the side of the red carpet.

"But Wade was never good at following rules. When he saw Sylvester Stallone saunter down the red carpet at the 1998 Film Awards Gala, he ducked under the ropes and confronted Stallone like Apollo Creed in "Rocky II." He snapped a dozen straight-on photos of the stunned actor before security guards grabbed Wade and threw him off the carpet," Fessier recalled. "I was shocked and more than a little thrilled by Wade's behavior. I had interviewed two Desert Palm Award winners before Stallone, but Stallone wouldn't give me the time of day. He even ignored my questions on the red carpet, treating me like some uninvited paparazzi. But he couldn't ignore Wade Byars. Wade (in his own way) sucker-punched Sylvester Stallone."

Behind the darkroom curtain

The photo department at a newspaper is its own little ecosystem, and the people lucky enough to inhabit that world with Wade, particularly in the old days of dark rooms and photo chemicals and late-night chats, are the ones who knew him best.

Many in that club described what Wade meant to them.

Jay Calderon, current Desert Sun photojournalist who worked alongside Wade for 14 years: "Very sad to hear of my mentor and friend, photojournalist and artist Wade Byars' passing. He influenced so many of us who were able to know him. He was a great oral storyteller as well and always had an anecdote to share as well as a sly look that let you know what he was thinking. Everybody loved Wade. We often chatted about great street photographers like (Andre) Kertesz and (Henri Cartier) Bresson. He was a pro's pro: on deadline, in focus, accurate. He was a legend to those who knew him and will be missed."

Omar Ornelas, former Desert Sun photojournalist who worked with Wade for 10 years: "Wade was that friend in the newsroom that would always smile when you walked into the newsroom on your most difficult days and would make you remember why you were a journalist. He was the heart of our photo department, guiding young photojournalists to be better human beings before being great photographers through example. A true ally to journalists of color before it was fashionable. A man of integrity and the kindest of souls. I am blessed to have worked with Mr. Byars for over a decade because he taught me the most important lesson in life; never stop caring about your colleagues and those people you cover as a journalist. Gracias gran amigo, you will be missed."

James Ku, Desert Sun photo editor from 2004-2008: "Wade was a professional that always delivered. Beyond his assignments, Wade was a great friend and admirer of the community he covered. He knew the Coachella Valley like no other. He will be sorely missed. I will always remember my assignment discussions with Wade. He’d start with, 'This isn’t possible James.' We’d talk for a while and then he’d say that he would try but wouldn’t guarantee anything. Every time he came back there’d be a gem of a photo. I’ll miss the wry smile on his face when even he admitted it was a pretty good photo."

'I got the ball'

Wade had a passion for shooting sports and during his pre-Desert Sun career while working for United Press International he captured images from some of the sports world's biggest events.

He shot the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Super Bowl XXI between the Broncos and Giants in 1987, the Americas Cup yacht races in 1990 and a Mike Tyson fight that same year.

In the desert Wade shot our big events, like the pro golf and tennis tournaments as well as tons of high school sports. If you have a clipped-out photo of you playing a sport in the desert between 1992 and 2013, it probably says Wade Byars on it.

When shooting sports, Wade was always driven by a singular goal. Desert Sun sports reporter Larry Bohannan, who worked with Wade for all 21 years of Wade's desert tenure, explains.

Desert Sun photojournalist Wade Byars gets in position to shoot a boxing match in this 2013 photo. Byars, who worked at The Desert Sun from 1992 to 2013, dies on Sept. 9.
Desert Sun photojournalist Wade Byars gets in position to shoot a boxing match in this 2013 photo. Byars, who worked at The Desert Sun from 1992 to 2013, dies on Sept. 9.

"He was a brilliant photographer and he was obsessed when he would go to a sports assignment, whether it was golf or baseball or whatever, he wanted to make sure the ball was in the photo," Bohannan said. "He wanted to make sure you saw the moment of action, the golf ball coming off of a club, or a shot out of a bunker with the ball flying, or if it's a batter taking a swing he wanted to make sure the ball was there, so you know that this was THE moment. And then he'd show you the photo and you knew what he was about to say. 'I got the ball.'"

His own style

As you can imagine, once news of Wade's death reached our Desert Sun circle, the sharing of stories and condolences and heartfelt social posts commenced. The sadness and love were overflowing, but as Wade memories were exchanged, smiles and laughter were part of our healing discussion, too. And a lot of those grins had to do with the way Wade dressed.

Wade was many things, but not a fashion icon. In fact, he had an absence of style all his own. He wore some version of the same thing almost every day. Dark pants, an untucked long sleeve button-down shirt, a photographer's vest, a Member's Only-esque jacket, and his two trademarks: sunglasses indoors or out and sandals with socks. The temperature outside had little to no impact on his outfit. I never once saw Wade in shorts.

Wade Byars, a photojournalist at The Desert Sun from 1992-2013, relaxes in the office lounge. Byars passed away Sept. 9 at the age of 75.
Wade Byars, a photojournalist at The Desert Sun from 1992-2013, relaxes in the office lounge. Byars passed away Sept. 9 at the age of 75.

Wade attended San Bernardino Valley College and then got a Master's degree from Cal State University, Los Angeles. He never married. But he did have something he held dear, a 1938 Chevy that he sunk a lot of money into restoring. It was a creamsicle-colored car that we never got to see. He didn't ever want to drive it from his San Bernardino home to the desert, because the paint job might get damaged by blowing sand.

Wade published a book that chronicled his favorite photos and moments from his career between 1977-2011 titled "Late Night Calls." Within its pages are dozens of moments Byars was proud to capture. It contains images of the Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth, Jack Nicholson and the Pope, but also of frost growing on an orange tree or the starry desert sky. Wade could find beauty in the most unexpected places.

When Wade retired from The Desert Sun in 2013, he gave me a copy of the book and included a personal message on the inside flap. As I reread the note again, I was struck by the poetic way he ended it "Stay ahead of the storm, Shad."

Here's hoping in his final years our friend was always able to find that beauty and that he was able to follow his own advice and stay ahead of the storm.

Shad Powers is a columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at shad.powers@desertsun.com.

This is an image of photojournalist Wade Byars, who passed away on Sept. 9, photographed in front of his house in San Bernardino by friend Richard Lui. When the two met up they would instinctively both take a photo of the other.
This is an image of photojournalist Wade Byars, who passed away on Sept. 9, photographed in front of his house in San Bernardino by friend Richard Lui. When the two met up they would instinctively both take a photo of the other.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Long-time Desert Sun photographer Wade Byars dies at 75