Since I was in San Francisco for the preview of South Africa in Apartheid and After, I figured I’d wander over to the California Historical Society to check out their current exhibition I See Beauty in this Life: A Photographer Looks at 100 Years of Rural California.
Lisa M. Hamilton’s Real Rural project has been interesting me for a while since it highlights the vast portions of California most of us drive through on the way to someplace else. Her landscapes story in particular directly references, in many cases, the landscape as seen by car* when driving through the state. But her portraits and stories about people and their ways of life are also welcome reminders that California is not just technology, movies, and beautiful scenery.
*With my multiple repeat viewings of Cars, I respond very strongly to this kind of thing right now. Hamilton’s photos are especially interesting when compared to Sarah Windels’s. Hamilton is not a car’s-eye view but captures the way I imagine possible photo-opportunities to look like when I’m driving.
We tend to take advantage of California’s natural resources without really thinking about where they come from or realizing exactly how much of the state, and its history, is tied up in natural resources. Yes, most of us know the history, but we still don’t make the connections. And if all you see of California are the Bay Area and LA, then you’re really missing most of the state.
There are many ways to define what is “rural.” For the purpose of her work and this exhibition, Hamilton has used the term to describe “places where the culture and the economy are defined by the direct use of natural resources.”
That I visit family in the Central Valley multiple times a year and have taken an annual vacation to California Gold Country since I was an infant means I burn a lot of my vacation days in rural California and spend a lot of time in areas where the culture, history, and economy are all defined by the use of natural resources. It’s interesting that Hamilton doesn’t explicitly say history in her statement since much of the culture of rural California is tied up in the history of the place even if the resources are no longer being used.
Sadly, the archive images on display don’t quite match up with Hamilton’s photos or her goals. This isn’t really her fault though. The historical photos are almost all formal/public photos of harvests, award-winning livestock, or fair displays. They could be from anywhere in the state. While it’s nice that they suggest that anywhere in California can be rural and provide a nice continuity of how California has always been rural, by being restricted to formal photography we lose some of the specific character of each region and industry.
Formal photographs also become about specific events rather than a continuous way of life. The county fair is definitely part of the culture of the place, but it’s not the only part and isn’t everyday life either.
The photos I want to see more of are the environmental ones. Not “pretty” environmental nature shots but pictures which show what things were like in California and tell stories about how people lived and what the rural landscape was like. There are some photos of people at work—ranchers, miners, etc.—which hint at this story. There are also photos of resource usage—in particular, the fantastic cyanotype panorama of the San Gabriel Aqueduct—but not enough to really get at the land-use questions involved here.
Or water-use questions. Of all the resources involved, water usage is the most important and most interesting.* That Hamilton recognized how water-usage photos were relevant to the exhibition confirms that she knows what she’s doing and suggests that the limitations may indeed have been in the source documents.
I also found myself wanting to see more of the big business vs labor issues which mark rural history. There is some labor stuff. And some small ranchers vs industrial farms. But not much.
Still, despite my complaints, I enjoyed this show. It’s nice to see a government documents type project be actually exhibited and it’s always good to be reminded of this state’s rural heritage. I just want to see more variety in the archive images.