In the late 1960s, U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design lay at the crossroads of two temporarily aligned forces: leftist radicalism and empirical social science. Some professors became, for a time, ‘participant-observers’ in a form of grassroots design process that precluded, indeed disdained, conventional architectural practice. Thus, in Design on the Edge Professor of Architecture Sym Van der Ryn recalls the famous People’s Park experiment, an impromptu occupation and landscaping of a vacant university-owned lot: “I brought my students to the site to watch like a group of anthropologists. (And, I admit, to goad folks on.) As a young maverick professor from the university, I was inadvertently named arbiter.” (p. 152)
This is but one of dozens of recollections recounted in this sprawling, centennial biography of architectural education at U.C. Berkeley. Part documentary history and part collective memoir, Design on the Edge ranges from 1894, when Bernard Maybeck taught the first courses there in descriptive geometry, to the early 1990s, when the Department of Architecture had assumed something close to its present form. With its 76 separate essays and historical documents, the book presents the reader with a kaleidoscopic array of narratives and sub-narratives, loosely ordered by chronology or theme. However, the bulk of the writing focuses on the critical quarter century from the 1950s—when architect William Wurster replaced the Beaux Arts curriculum with a modified Bauhaus approach and founded the present College of Environmental Design—to the 1970s, when the curriculum was re-vamped to accommodate the turbulent political and disciplinary shifts of the previous decade.
This also seems to have been the period when the Berkeley architectural curriculum was most “on the edge,” as the title suggests, of innovative approaches, interdisciplinary experimentation, and ideological debate. Many of the themes of this critical period will seem familiar to contemporary architectural education: the emphasis on “ecology”; the search for innovative technologies to solve social and environmental problems; and the belief in interdisciplinary approaches to architectural knowledge. For the historian sifting through the material in this book, one question becomes: whatever happened to these earlier iterations, and what lessons have been forgotten?
Mendelsohn and students: Well-known European Modernist Erich Mendelsohn, pictured here with his students, taught at UC Berkeley from 1948–1953. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GEORGE KOSTRITSKY.
The stage for modern architectural education at Berkeley seems to have been set by the vision that William Wurster and his wife, Catherine Bauer Wurster, constructed for the future College of Environmental Design. Some of this background is nicely summarized by former dean Roger Montgomery’s posthumous essay, “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge.” Having arrived at Berkeley from MIT, Wurster brought with him a modernist belief in the efficacy of scientific knowledge in solving architectural problems, leading him “to appoint non-architects to his faculty and through them to establish sub-units with links to accrediting, evaluation, and most importantly, to the international community of scholars in that particular subfield or discipline, rather than architecture as such.” (p. 109)
Internationally famous housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, who came out of urban planning just at the moment when that profession was seeing itself as a version of applied social science, seems to have been particularly interested in bringing sociologists into the architecture program. Reading between the lines of the various essays that follow, one has a sense that the belief that scientific expertise could lead to a better built environment (meaning, variously, more cost-effective, healthier, more humane, more socially equitable) ran headlong into the problems of conflicting aesthetic, cultural, and political values. Cultural and urban geographer Clare Cooper Marcus, who taught within “Area E” or “Social Factors,” describes, somewhat bitterly, the rise and decline of this area as studio faculty members systematically failed to assimilate social scientific expertise and research into their studio assignments. Social scientists seem to have been exasperated that architects made what they deemed fantastic and unproven claims concerning the effects of their buildings on users, while design methodologists on the faculty cast doubt on the translatability of raw scientific data into design; in part, by pointing out that many of the decisions were inherently political ones, with potential winners and losers.
During the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, faculty became increasingly ambivalent towards both technology and academic theory. On the one side, social scientists and socially concerned architects increasingly saw themselves as advocates for overlooked minority groups and the poor, and often employed scientific knowledge toward specific advocacy goals while becoming suspicious of (other) architectural theory. Revealing such activist ideals, Clare Marcus reproduces a departmental document that she co-authored in 1976 entitled the “Habitat Manifesto,” which concludes with the following emphatic denunciation: “The world’s problems are not going to stand idle while we theorize!” (p. 143)
Some professors attempted to escape “the system” in its various forms of alienation—the formal classroom, the construction industry, the architectural profession—and, in the process, rejected the technocratic and scientific assumptions of their colleagues. This was the path followed by Sim Van der Ryn after the People’s Park episode, which ended in a violent retaking of the university land. In 1971, he ran an experimental studio in which students collectively designed, constructed and lived in their own village, using found materials and recycled chicken coops, thus producing a studio equivalent of People’s Park in the semi-Arcadian rural space of Marin County.
Buckminster Fuller with faculty and students: Buckminster Fuller, pictured here (center), collaborated with UC Berkeley students and faculty on his “Fly’s Eye” project. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PROF. EMERITUS CLAUDE STOLLER.
At other times, this escape involved theorizing a return to an imagined pre-technocratic, in fact pre-Enlightenment, wholeness. This type of reaction, and the sharp critique it received from empirically minded colleagues, is illustrated in the exchange between architect Jean-Pierre Protzen, known today as a leading expert in Incan architecture, and Christopher Alexander, whose treatises have inspired a broad, popular following of non-architects who are alienated by architectural modernism. Protzen’s scathing review of Christopher Alexander et al’s 1977 book, A Pattern Language, reproduced together with Alexander’s response, exposes a fissure between scientific detachment and neo-romantic calls for healing the rifts of modernity.
Protzen accuses A Pattern Language of being prescriptively rigid, essentially of being a pattern book, and methodologically unscientific, having no grounding in anything other than Alexander’s own cultural and subjective preferences. Alexander’s response is a critique of both scientific objectivity and cultural relativism. Sounding very much like a latter day Victorian critic of industrial modernity, Alexander intones: “In the great medieval period of Christian art and in the great period of Islamic art, the artists were able to express such immense feeling because they worked day after day, modifying what they did … able to come closer and closer to ‘the One’ …” (p. 177). From an empirical, scientific point of view, such statements amounted to nothing less than mysticism, veiling the cultural distinctions, material conditions, and political disagreements among actual users, designers and clients.
It is clear from such exchanges that the immense quantity of interdisciplinary work produced at the College of Environmental Design never led to any identifiable “Berkeley School” but rather to a fascinating set of opposing responses to the economic, political, and technological complexities of architectural practice. While the book as a diverse compilation of discourses makes no unified argument concerning the main episodes, legacies, or failures of the various Berkeley experiments, several moments seem to stand out. First, in the critical period of the late 1960s, there seems to have been an irreconcilable contradiction between the deeply anti-authoritarian, anti-professional ethos of the Counterculture and the ever more highly specialized expertise and methods developed by the various architectural researchers. Second, the reaction against modernism in the 1960s and 70s seems to have taken two opposing directions: towards an advocacy-based immersion in the social scientific study of various users and the development of an anti-modernist (including post-modernist), increasingly formalist design methodology.
Finally, the failure, implied in the book, of Berkeley’s utopian attempt to combine social science with social concern avoids what certainly seems to be at the political and economic center of this failure: namely, that the sophisticated research methods developed at Berkeley added yet another layer to the professional cost of architecture, a cost more likely today to be wielded by international corporations than by under-served community groups. A history has yet to be written on the legacy of the Berkeley experiments in the context of global, and increasingly corporate capitalism.
Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, 2010)
Many members of this year’s multiethnic college-freshman class were born in 1993, the year before Newt Gingrich and John Boehner’s Contract with America, the blueprint for today’s interlinked and seemingly unstoppable abandonment of the public welfare investments of the New Deal, the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, and the sexual revolutions of the 1970s. Even the most precocious and politically aware of these students will likely date their political awakening to sometime during the second term of George W. Bush. They will not be able to vote in their first national election until 2012. When they arrive on campus, however, many will encounter syllabi in American culture and politics courses shaped by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, that bitter era of reckoning with the new attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality that bloomed with the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomers. What their older professors regard as existential questions about the validity and utility of the multicultural accommodation forged in those years, today’s freshmen are likely to view as a mystifying archive of arguments with few clear connections to their own historical context of national economic decline, global warfare, and the surveillance state. For them, the New Left might as well be the Wobblies.
Although few would suggest that the new generation should simply get with the Aquarian program, the loss of political and personal memory from one generation to another presents a serious challenge for the fragile American tradition of leftist political dissent, and the gap between the Boomers and Generation Z is one that must be carefully bridged in the few years left before the Boomers retire from public life. This is not a question of persuading freshmen to declare allegiance to the politics of Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver), Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), or The Revolt of the Cockroach People (Oscar Zeta Acosta); rather, it is the more difficult task of freeing them from the flattened and narrowed representations of their parents’ politics as retailed in pop culture while encouraging them to imagine themselves as similarly empowered political agents.
So, despite the evident surplus of superficial and self-congratulatory Boomer memorials to their youthful radicalism, there is still a crucial place for writing that captures both the feel and the historicity of a politically open moment. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, in a genre all its own somewhere between historical fiction and creative nonfiction, is an inventive attempt to re-present such an era in a way that is simultaneously heuristic and available to the imaginations of the young.
The historical core of the book comes out of Yamashita’s decade-long research into the rise of multicultural politics, particularly the Asian-American Movement, in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s and early 1970s, gathered out of various libraries, archives, geographies, and living memories. From that material, Yamashita has produced a sort of roman à clef of the major and minor figures responsible for the consolidation of Asian-American identity and political power from 1968 to 1977. Readers knowledgeable about the place and time will easily recognize many of the figures thinly disguised behind her pseudonymous and composite characters (Ling-chi Wang, Takeo Terada, Florence Hongo, Richard Aoki, Mo Nishida, S.I. Hayakawa, and dozens of others) as well as actual events (the student protests at San Francisco State, the demolition of the International Hotel, the occupation of Alcatraz, etc.). Those for whom this history is new will be drawn toward traditional historiography of the period (Erika Lee and Linda Yung’s Angel Island; Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai’s The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism; and Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel would make a great trio of background reading).
Reminiscent of her two previous historically-based works about Japanese diaspora communities in Brazil, Brazil-Maru (1993) and the Circle K Cycles (2001), I Hotel naturally lacks the zanier plot elements of Yamashita’s early magical-realist novels, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990) and Tropic of Orange (1997)—no mysterious plastic substances, trialectics, or portable latitude lines here! What I Hotel lacks in the fantastic, however, it more than recoups through its unorthodox form. Composed of ten independent but interlinked novellas, one for each year from 1968 to 1977, I Hotel tells its story through an astonishing variety of technical means, ranging from first-person narration to screenplay to graphic novel (the last achieved with the aid of illustrators Leland Wong and Sina Grace). The multitude of perspectives may preclude the deep psychological insights readers sometime expect from novels, but on the other hand it is not difficult to read I Hotel as a radical form of autobiography (Yamashita was born in Oakland) limning the rooming-house consciousness of the author herself.
Rather than try to locate a single dramatic narrative that condenses the entire experience of the time, as less venturesome novelists might, Yamashita opts to tell ten distinct but overlapping narratives, each involving three different main characters and each told from differing narrative points-of-view, with subchapters delivered in different styles ranging from first-person limited to teleplay script to surveillance file. Each section is primarily set in its given year, beginning with the 1968 tale of a Chinese young man, Paul Lin, whose father has died and left him to inherit the seemingly irreconcilable traditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Bohemian intellectual and political scene coming to prominence in the 1960s. As it turns out—in both Yamashita’s narrative and in the history upon which it is based—the cultures of Portsmouth Square and Sproul Plaza are not so incommensurable after all. This Paul learns when he meets Chen Wen-guang, a Chinese ex-pat professor of Chinese literature at San Francisco State University (then State College). The professor serves as a connection between the young Paul and many of his fellow SCSF students (Edmund Lee and Judy Eng most prominently) and as a link to the radical politics of the 1940s. (After being expelled from the United States for his connections to Communism, Chen headed to China to fight alongside Zhou Enlai during the early Chinese revolution; in the 1960s he remains, despite small misgivings, committed to Maoism). His political experience makes him a natural mentor for students caught up in their own smaller moment of rebellion, and it opens Yamashita’s novel to the broad back-story of the Chinese diaspora in California and its complicated transnational status.
But Yamashita well understands that her story must embrace ideologies outside the Left and Asian-American ethnicities beyond the Chinese. In the first chapter, the complexity of the moment is expressed through the figure of S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and traditional Republican Japanese-Canadian-American president of San Francisco State. His crackdown on student protesters, including the infamous incident in which he literally pulled the plug on a student PA system, helped propel him to a single, troubled term in the United States Senate on a wave of the same antiradical and antistudent sentiment that made Ronald Reagan into a nationally recognized conservative leader. He too is a part of the story of Asian California, albeit ultimately a marginal one.
In later chapters, Yamashita goes on to explore the Japan-Town Collective, a radical San Francisco community organization, and the Third-World Liberation Front, a Berkeley student group advocating curricular changes in support of the world’s indigenous peoples. For 1970, we are thrown into the International Hotel of the title, an aging single-room occupancy hotel (at the edge of San Francisco’s old Manilatown and Chinatown) catering mainly to aged Filipino farmworkers and dockworkers. Slated for demolition by its Japanese conglomerate owner to make way for the construction of the massive highrises that now house the firms of the Financial District, it becomes a squat and an important mixing place for Yellow Power and Black Panther radicals. Later chapters range from a highly experimental meditation on the enmity between the twin origins of contemporary Asian American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin; the connection between the organized Filipino Left and the budding Mexican farmworkers movement; the Native American occupation of Alcatraz; the advance guard of Vietnamese refugees; the Coit Tower murals painted by a Nisei Communist who was for a time the roommate of Paul Lin’s father; and an uproarious pig-roasting contest between Filipino and Pacific Islander cooks.
The novel ends with the forcible eviction of the International Hotel residents and activists and the leveling of the building itself. By this point, the symbolic significance of the hotel is clear: it serves as the crucible in which the many varied traditions of Asian immigrants were temporarily united in defense of the poorest among them. As one activist with a strong sense of the novelty of the “Asian-American” identity produced in that moment remarks: “Goes to show, you can weld anything to anything” (p. 480). Although there is a utopian moment of solidarity, when the I Hotel (wired up with microphones as part of the public protest) becomes a “gigantic organic voice-box of our own making,” Yamashita’s book is equally committed to presenting the shearing and centrifugal forces at work, the divisions and disagreements that remain part of the structure of any particular history and of any individual psyche that emerges from it (p. 580).
And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (p. 605)
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Yamashita manages to capture the combination of continuity and contingency in the making of cultural and political identities, offering dozens of historical rooms (taken, abandoned, and unclaimed) into which her readers, especially younger ones looking for a way to connect to the political past without being smothered by it, might check the unfinished fragments of their own lives.
Richard Steven Street, Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
Jan Goggans, California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).
Rick Nahmias, The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
We are all familiar with California’s privileged relationship to the visual technologies that captured the twentieth century—photography, film, television—but less well-known is the fact that during the same period the state was at the vanguard in the production of equally influential forms of invisibility. As large landholdings were snatched up by wealthy and often absentee owners in the late nineteenth century, California’s agricultural sector became a key site in the broader American shift from reliance on relatively small resident farmers to the post-Civil War reconfiguration of farmwork into a form of wage labor paid by distant corporate owners of land and equipment. The corporate ownership/wage labor model has come to dominate our agricultural landscape so thoroughly that most middle-class Californians today have no personal experience of agricultural labor, regarding it (if at all) as something outdated and alien. Indeed, farmwork is now largely performed by “aliens,” migrants from Mexico and Central America who speak languages other than English and carry Latino cultural traditions.
Chronically impoverished, politically disenfranchised, and largely excluded from the dominant culture, California fieldworkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—historically hailing from China, the Philippines, India, and Japan, as well as Latin America—found themselves in the curious position of living and laboring unseen at the very epicenter of what another immigrant, Theodor Adorno, famously described as “the culture industry.” In the unprecedented concentration of technological and human resources dedicated to producing and distributing visual images, there was a powerful tension between farmworkers’ material presence and their social absence. Still photography, which emerged just as California agriculture was getting established, was particularly well-suited to capturing this paradox, and the long, mostly underground tradition of photojournalism in California’s agricultural interior is a prime study in the relationship between politics and aesthetics.
The three books reviewed here all focus on the century-plus tradition of documentary and artistic photography centered on farm labor to explore its role in the history of professed American ideals like shared economic prosperity and the democratic mediation of cultural difference. Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras is a historically comprehensive survey of visual records of farmworkers over the past 150 years; Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines pursues a narrower and deeper engagement with the most effective photojournalist in that tradition, Dorothea Lange, and her economist husband, Paul Taylor; and Rick Nahmias’s The Migrant Project exemplifies the ongoing personal and political value of taking a camera out among the furrows.
Street’s Everyone Had Cameras is the comprehensive history of the subject, and it is difficult to imagine it ever being superseded. Street has devoted more than thirty years to the history and continued chronicling of farmworkers in California, and his long immersion in the subject shows in the astonishing level of historical detail and analytical good judgment he brings to this crowning work. Richly illustrated with 149 photos, Street’s book spans the entire post-contact history of California. Opening with a discussion of Spanish painters such as Padre Ignacio Tirsch and José Cardero, who recorded distant images of native Californian field hands laboring at coastal missions in the mid-1700s, Street moves on to the drawings produced by American military artists from the 1830s forward. Those panoramic images are geographic and documentary in intent, aiming to inform distant audiences of the geology, people, and agricultural practices of what was then an isolated outpost of European civilization. When photography first came to California, its application was limited to portraiture by the heaviness and delicacy of the equipment and the long exposure times required. During this period, Euro-American (and occasionally Native Californian) farmworkers on trips into town sat for their portraits in one of the studios to be found in every city of size, purchasing prints in the form of small cartes de visite or slightly larger cabinet cards.
As technological changes allowed the camera to move outdoors, California landscapes began to appear in the works of entrepreneurs who took the images on touring exhibitions through the United States and also in the collections of wealthy landowners who commissioned a photographic record of their holdings. Among the most significant of these patronage relationships was the one between Jonathan Bixby, a wealthy landowner with land in Los Angeles, Orange, and Monterey counties, and William Godfrey, a stereographer from the then-tiny town of Los Angeles. In 1872 Bixby invited Godfrey to document his Los Cerritos Ranch (near present-day Long Beach), and the stereographs of the land he produced, featuring Chinese and Mexican ranch-hands, are some of the earliest in situ photographic records of farm labor in California.
The pattern of commissioned work combined with retail stereograph sales persisted through the latter third of the century with Eadweard Muybridge, the technical master and colorful pioneer of moving-image technology. Like Godfrey, Muybridge did not limit his photography to white subjects, taking many neutral and even sympathetic images of the mostly Chinese field hands who brought in the grape harvest at Buena Vista, the massive and storied Sonoma vineyard of Agoston Haraszthy. In the 1880s, photographer Carleton Watkins was drawn into the infamous Lux v. Haggin irrigation dispute when he was hired by the attorney for Miller and Lux, Hall McAllister, to document the Kern River and its associated sloughs. Watkins later returned to Kern County, where he advertised his services to local farmers who wanted images of their operations. His photos from this commercial tour, which number over 750, contained many images of the Chinese and Mexican workforce, and his negatives were printed and perhaps also captioned by his Chinese American colleague, Ah Fue, in a San Francisco studio. Godfrey, Muybridge, and Watkins never intended anything in the way of an overt political statement by such inclusions, but in retrospect the mere presence of these poor and nonwhite faces is of great significance, given the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and the resulting systematic exclusion of the Chinese from California society and from much of the historical record of the late nineteenth century.
Photographers became more firmly allied with the perspectives of big growers and their marketing associations as commercial demand for their work grew alongside the expanding national markets for California produce and the accompanying advances in printing and packaging technology. The major images from 1890 to 1910 tended to be promotional rather than documentary, and they downplayed the social questions associated with the modern farm economy. Instead of an exposé of conditions in the raisin-packing sheds, for example, we see the carefully managed image of Lorraine Collett, a packer who became the face of Sun-Maid raisins. Mexican workers, who by the 1910s had largely replaced the legally excluded Chinese, often appeared on marketing labels of the era in the form of caricatures of malingering campesinos purportedly representing the obsolete culture of the region before annexation. (“Lazy Peon” was one brand of avocados in the era.) Women, who in this pre-bracero era contributed significantly to the agricultural work force, especially in the sorting sheds, also found themselves represented in cartoonish, highly sexualized images emblazoned on the fruit crate labels of brands like “Buxom,” “Squeeze Me,” and “Nudist.” These images were part of a larger branding of California as a wealthy, fertile, and white agricultural paradise during the first half of the twentieth century.
“Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California” by Dorothea Lange, 1937. (photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)
Contradicting this image were photos of much more limited circulation, such as those associated with the trial of the 1913 Wheatland hop rioters, or the series of criminal mugshots and case histories recorded by Clara Smith between 1900 and 1908. These photos reveal the racial diversity, extreme poverty, and poor living conditions of a California demimonde the agricultural marketers were eager to suppress. The advertising men were aided in their effort by the outbreak of the first World War, when agricultural labor shortages were met with government campaigns to bring women (The Women’s Land Army) and children (The Boys’ Working Reserve) from the cities into the fields at key points in the growing season. These atypical workers were frequently photographed in the smiling attitudes of picnickers in the countryside, a living version of the illustrations of contented laborers on boxes of fresh fruit shipped eastward decades before. Beneath this veneer, however, was the advent of the labor system we know today: in 1917, immigration restrictions and taxes that had somewhat restrained the northward migration of Mexican workers were lifted, and these workers, fleeing the disruption caused by the Mexican Revolution, came by the thousands to work in California fields. The racial and cultural divisions between the Mexican agricultural labor force and the Anglo middle class deepened over the next thirty years, so that by the mid-1920s a subgenre of newspaper photography emerged that recorded lurid images of the rural poor whose lives and deaths increasingly took place beyond the experience of the average newspaper reader.
The Great Depression both interrupted and ultimately reinforced the disappearance of the migrant labor force from the concerns of the urban public. In the aftermath of the worldwide economic downturn after Black Friday, two remarkable German immigrants, Otto Hagel and Joanna (“Hansel”) Mieth, emigrated to California and began to tumble aimlessly across the American Southwest, travelling and working with migrant laborers, documenting their lives with an intimacy and sympathy unmatched by their American colleagues. But it was a transplanted Iowan, Paul Taylor, who first exploited the power of the photographic image in the service of a larger vision of social and economic justice. A WWI veteran who came to California in the 1920s to rehabilitate lungs damaged by mustard gas, Taylor was driven by a now-rare sense of patriotic obligation to his less fortunate countrymen. Pursuing an academic career in labor and agricultural economics at UC Berkeley, he put the plight of the largely Mexican migrant population at the center of his research. Taylor sought early on to record some of his field experiences in California and Colorado, and as photography became a more common element in academic social science publications he included his images to illustrate the more abstract principles and data sets in his essays.
Hagel, Mieth, and Taylor were being swept along in a greater change in the relationship between workers and their employers. In the 1930s, the laboring classes in California began to assert their political, economic, and physical power, organizing across agricultural and industrial lines to put pressure on the ownership class. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, formed in 1930, called for a farmworkers’ strike in 1931 after a grower-imposed wage cut. This was followed by a large and bloody cotton strike in 1933. Such strikes, key moments in the consolidation of both union and anti-union organizing, were directed by Communist organizers aiming to create solidarity among workers of all types and backgrounds in order to secure higher wages, better conditions, and greater control over decision-making from the politically powerful owners of land and capital. In the summer of 1934, dockworkers in the San Francisco office of the International Longshoremen’s Association called for a waterfront work stoppage and, eventually, a general strike. Although violently put down by private corporate militias, city police, and the National Guard, the strikes heralded a new balance of power between labor and capital that would play out in New Deal policy debates. Recognizing their significance, Taylor coauthored an article in the progressive journal Survey Graphic offering historical context and political analysis of the strikes. While waiting for an editorial response, he attended a photography exhibition in Oakland, where he was struck by a set of images depicting workers during the 1934 General Strike. At the last moment, and without knowing the photographer, he sent photos of the strike from the Oakland show to the publisher as replacements for his own illustrations. The photographer responsible for the photos was the young Dorothea Lange, a transplant from New York, studio photographer, and budding chronicler of life on the streets of Depression-era San Francisco, and this conjunction of the photographer’s art with the economist’s science was just the first chapter in what would become a lifelong professional collaboration and personal romance between Taylor and Lange.
While Street’s book devotes much of seven chapters to Lange and Taylor, providing crucial historical details about the context of their ascension as national spokesmen for the poor, Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines tells their remarkable tale with a storyteller’s ear for all of its human dimensions—as a key moment in the development of activist art, a rare and inspiring example of political ideals being realized in one’s work, a major chapter in California’s long-running struggle over how to pursue agricultural development, and as the subtitle suggests, an important prelude to national reforms implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. This last element, which perhaps owes its prominence to the publisher’s need to address a national audience, is in fact the least original and convincing strand in Goggans’s argument, as the evidence points toward a fortuitous convergence among Lange and Taylor’s interests and the needs of Roy Stryker, head of public relations for Rexford Tugwell’s newly established Resettlement Administration, tasked with reconstructing the country’s devastated farm communities from 1935 forward. As much as we now associate Lange’s famous photos with the Depression and the New Deal programs designed to alleviate it, the evidence is thin that the photos led to any major coalescence of public opinion, or that Taylor’s work was picked up by FDR’s Brain Trust and incorporated into national policy. These were largely parallel phenomena that are all too easily read, in retrospect, as cause and effect.
“In a carrot pullers’ camp near Holtville, California” by Dorothea Lange, 1939. (photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)
Fortunately, Goggans provides a wealth of other interpretive handles for us to take hold of, the most striking and unexpected of which relates to the gender roles and sexual mores at work beneath the surface of the Taylor/Lange collaboration. Their advocacy of better physical living conditions for migrant laborers had, of course, a common-sense rationale: social justice includes indoor plumbing, access to clean water, and protection from the elements. But as Goggans makes clear, Taylor’s politics in particular were deeply informed by a domestic ideology that went beyond a simple pragmatic interest in physical conditions, to the point that he regarded the traditional household as the moral basis for egalitarian social relations. His embrace of this ideology may have stemmed in part from the updated Jeffersonian ideal so often invoked by farm and labor activists of the time, but it was also reinforced by contemporary factors operating in the society at large. During the Depression, when pressure rose on women to leave the work force so that male breadwinners would face less competition for scarce jobs, the traditional domestic “women’s work” that had been increasingly outsourced to the market was now reabsorbed into the informal, and unpaid, economy. The vision of a self-sustaining family farm, operating smoothly along old gender divisions of labor, became all the more broadly appealing. There were also strong aesthetic conventions at work for Lange. The documentary photography of earlier urban reformers, like Jacob Riis or Margaret Bourke-White, often had relied on images of decrepit or incomplete houses to compel the attention of audiences, and many of Lange’s photographs of migrant camps followed suit in highlighting the relation between maternal subjects and their distressed or dysfunctional homes.
This element of Taylor and Lange’s photojournalistic project becomes more complex and interesting when we broaden our scope to include their own romantic entanglement. At the same time that they were making strategic use of traditionalist iconography to broadcast the plight of farmworkers, Lange and Taylor began an affair that would culminate in their marriage in 1935. Lange’s first marriage was to Maynard Dixon, the bohemian scion of an established California family and an artist whose long painting expeditions Lange subsidized with her studio portraiture. There was a long foreground to Lange’s decision to engage in an affair with Taylor: frequent separations, difficulties at home, and political differences wore down the Lange-Dixon marriage until at the end it was little more than an economic partnership. Taylor’s situation was even less traditional. His wife, Katharine Whiteside (his college fiancée), aware of their sexual and temperamental incompatibilities, proposed that they establish an open marriage. Taylor, however, could not abide so radical a challenge to the domestic structure that organized his world view, and after an awkward period of quasi-open marriage, he insisted on a divorce (and marriage to Lange).
An undercurrent of feminist liberation and a halting revision of sexual mores is thus a significant part of the Taylor/Lange story, and with a little imagination we can use these currents to enrich our understanding of Lange’s iconic images. Take Migrant Mother, the most famous of her photos. The most common version of the photograph shows an intent migrant woman from Oklahoma clutching her two shy children and staring anxiously into the distance. Other images from the same roll of film show the context of the portrait (a worn tent in a temporary pea-pickers’ camp). The most striking image, however, is of the woman, Florence Thompson, preparing to breastfeed her youngest child, a pose in which Lange often placed her subjects. It is an allusion to the Madonna, of course, but Goggans argues that it partakes in another visual tradition, that of the glamorous modern woman whose sexuality is a part of her strength rather than a defect in her character. If Goggans’s hunch is right, then images like Migrant Mother draw their power in part from the contrast between an ancient image of traditional femininity and a heterodox image of a strong, unrepressed woman unaccompanied by any males, a figure often demeaned as a “whore” but here celebrated and promoted. Lange’s frequent identification with her female subjects may go beyond their shared interest in economic reform to an underlying feminism that is not usually stressed in treatments of the period. Of her encounter with Florence Thompson, Lange recalled that “there was a sort of equality about it.”
Paul Taylor’s major academic focus had always been on Mexican migrant farm labor, which had risen in the first decades of the twentieth century to become the linchpin, alongside large irrigation projects, of dramatic growth in the Western and Southwestern agricultural sector. Almost alone among economists in studying what would become a lasting phenomenon, Paul Taylor integrated cultural and ethnographic insights into his more traditional economic methodology. He learned Spanish and recorded corridos during his trips into the field in California and Colorado. The presence of white farm laborers in California fields was an anomaly of the 1930s created by the economic and environmental catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, which led to the deportation of vast numbers of Mexican migrants (regardless of their immigration status) and the influx of immigrants from Oklahoma. Even then, the rural work force was significantly nonwhite, and a substantial proportion of the “Okies” were themselves of native, Mexican, and/or African American ancestry. Florence Thompson, the woman pictured in Migrant Mother, was born on an Indian reservation, was married to a native man, and perhaps—there is some dispute about this—was herself part Native American.
César Chávez addressing strikers at DiGiogio’s Sierra Vista Ranch, March 1966. (photograph by Gerhard Gscheidle, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)
As Goggans reveals, the apparent whiteness of the iconic images of Depression-era poverty was deliberate, a strategy to disassociate the white Okies from the “gypsy field hands,” whose race, culture, and domestic habits (conditioned by legal discrimination) kept them from becoming viable objects of sympathy for the middle-class voting public. John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle are to the literary history of Depression California what Lange and Taylor’s works are to the photojournalistic tradition, was quite explicit about this, frequently drawing sharply racialized distinctions meant to benefit whites at the expense of nonwhite migrants. After public and private publishers passed over many images of native and Latino workers, families, and children in Lange’s early work, eventually Lange herself obliged this appetite by seeking out young, white, often very beautiful mothers for extensive portrait sessions.
During and after WWII, the Bracero program radically altered established patterns of Mexican migration to the fields of California. Although they had a laundry list of rights on paper, braceros proved readily exploitable. Delivered in groups to isolated farms where they had no independent means of shelter or sustenance, no family or social support, and no recourse against those who would short their pay, overcharge on rent, or ignore unsafe conditions, they represented the legal codification and institutionalization of the farmworking underclass. The photographic record of this era is relatively thin, owing in significant part to an increasingly aggressive campaign by growers to sue or otherwise punish photographers, filmmakers, magazines, and distributors guilty of what they termed “libel by visual innuendo.” The most famous of these campaigns was pursued by the DiGiorgio Company against the makers and backers of Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, a National Farm Laborers’ Union film that was shown to pro-labor audiences and aired on a few public television stations before being suppressed and destroyed per court order. With the DiGiorgio case, a new era of sophisticated visual campaigns began, culminating with César Chávez’s careful cultivation of news photographers in his successful attempts to organize and advance the United Farm Workers.
Street’s history carries us all the way up to the end of the millennium with more images and anecdotes than can possibly be conveyed here, and the visual chronicle of farm labor has continued to evolve in the work of contemporary photographers drawn to what Street calls the “picture of how the system of farm labor developed [and] . . . the price it extracts from a class of people.”
Rick Nahmias’s contribution to this body of work, The Migrant Project, is notable not for any special aesthetic achievement or unusual subject matter, but rather its sheer lack of artistic or sociological distinctiveness. Struck by his deep ignorance of the sources of California’s famous food culture, Nahmias set out on an adventure of self-discovery in the fields of his home state and underwent a conversion from blithe consumer to impassioned advocate for the people he found there. The photos he took along the way might have been taken by anyone with a camera, a roll of black-and-white film, a smattering of Spanish, and the desire to cross the boundaries that history has made. By the time one has finished leafing through The Migrant Project, one grasps that in our moment the mediocre snapshots and secondhand history are beside the point, and what really matters is only that last quality—the interest in finding out how our fellow Californians are faring.
The power of the photographic image to produce icons and influence policy appears to be on the wane, the victim of the dilutive power of a fragmented public sphere so saturated in arresting images that even the most effective photos often find no significant audience. But if Nahmias’s work suggests that the value of twenty-first-century agricultural photojournalism lies not in the images produced but in the photographer’s experience of crossing the linguistic, cultural, economic, and geographic lines that separate most of us from migrant farmworkers, the democratic access enabled by cheaply available digital cameras may be something to embrace. Everyone really does have a camera now: the average Californian has on his or her person a pretext for undoing the century-long isolation and invisibility of California farmworkers. You, too, can become a part of a tradition that is as much about sharing a world with the disempowered and keeping them in your thoughts and actions as it is about capturing the perfect image. Because they have few political rights and exist in innumerable jurisdictions, migrant farm laborers will never be able to directly secure their own just treatment, social inclusion, and prosperity. But those visual images of them in our cell phones and on our hard drives might, if we let them, act through us at the ballot box, the grocery store, and the meeting hall.
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management
of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
Ira Jacknis, Food in California Indian Culture (Berkeley: Phoebe Hearst Museum
Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parrish, California Indians and Their Environment: An
Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)
The road from Sacramento to Yosemite takes you up into the mountains and back into the history of human subsistence in California. South of the capital city, Highway 99 roars with semis carrying agricultural equipment and produce—the inputs and outputs of laser-leveled fields and industrial food factories. The junction with 120 East is in Manteca, whose name (“lard”) recalls Spanish California’s tallow-and-hide operations as well as the modern region’s association with feedlots and dairies. In the eastern part of the valley lie fruit and nut orchards that have been part of the landscape since Yankee and Japanese settlement. As the road begins to rise into the foothills, ranchettes give way to large private cattle ranches. Closer to the park, scraggly state and national forests bear the scars of timber and mineral extraction. To the north is Hetch Hetchy, a reservoir and hydropower station for the city of San Francisco. When you finally cross the boundary between Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park at Crane Flat, however, most outward signs of the economic exploitation of California’s material abundance cease and the recreational and spiritual aspects of the backcountry come to the fore.
This break from the trammeled landscape is a major part of the appeal of national parks and other wildlands, of course. The problem is that our dependence on produce, meat, lumber, ore, water, and energy does not really disappear at the park gate: the need for food and shelter in fact remains as strong as ever, even as we distance ourselves from the messy circumstances of their procurement. The fruits of our domination of the natural world outside the wilderness boundaries must be trucked into the Yosemite Valley and the high meadows, where their presence often registers as an affront to the principles of “leave no trace.” A Snickers wrapper dropped by an eager backpacker in the parking lot near Tenaya Lake or the cappuccino served at the Lodge cafeteria in the valley can seem like both a sacrilege and an acknowledgment of our fundamental distance from the natural world we are attempting to enjoy.
For just these reasons, environmental ethicists have long recognized wilderness preservation as a problematic approach to the relationship between modern civilization and the nonhuman world. Taking large swaths of land out of economic use and designating them for limited recreation, they remind us, is a complex cultural and political act, and one filled with questionable presumptions. In making certain landscapes sacred, for example, don’t we implicitly make all the rest into an environmental sacrifice zone, as in those photographs of intact forests on protected lands that abruptly give way at their edges to vast clearcuts and tree farms? In basing our decisions about what to protect on aesthetic grounds, don’t we miss biologically more significant lands, such as the lowland marshes that have all but disappeared from the state? And in removing wilderness from human history, don’t we both exacerbate the alienation of the modern citizen from the natural world and disrespect the long and deep aboriginal connection to particular environments? For several decades now, the consensus among those who contemplate such problems is that yes, we do.
And yet, for all the problems with wilderness, few are willing to follow through on the logic of this argument and repudiate the system of wilderness preservation we have in this country, sensing that backing away from wilderness absolutism, however intellectually shaky its foundations, will open the door to aggressive elements of the mining, grazing, and timber industries already pushing up to the borders of protected parklands. When I introduce the wilderness paradox to my undergraduate students, asking them to consider the pros and cons of doing away with the wilderness designation for all public lands, the invariable result (after several productive hours of debate) is a stalemate: we come to recognize both the deep problems of the wilderness model and the pronounced lack of any satisfactory alternative to it. Is there any way out of Californians’ warring conception of our land as either untouchable wilderness or ecological free-fire zone, where the most profound kinds of violence to natural systems are the norm?
This question was on my mind recently as I visited the Yosemite Museum in the heart of the Yosemite Valley, one of the few places that showcases the connection of the park to specific human histories. There I gravitated towards an empty room filled with local native art carefully preserved inside Plexiglas cubes. I stood alone for a full five minutes contemplating the skill and labor that went into the centerpiece of the collection—an enormous woven basket, 60 gallons or more in volume—and quietly bemoaning the loss of a world that was capable of making so much out of so little. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a slight movement from the corner of the room. Seated on a very small stool, leaning slightly against the wall, was a tiny, deeply wrinkled old woman patiently winding a length of deergrass around the ribs of a newly begun basket. Startled by her unexpected presence and a bit baffled by her obsolete project, I stood for a moment pretending to read a curatorial label and trying to think of an appropriate thing to say. It is one thing to recognize Yosemite as a place of historical human settlement, represented by black-and-white photographs and archaeological specimens, and quite another to find that the original occupants are still in some form of possession. I was soon rescued from my fluster by a large class of fourth graders herding into the room to listen to the woman talk. Her name, it turned out, was Julia Parker. She is a Kashia Pomo and Coast Miwok who has taken up the basketweaving tradition of the Mono Lake Paiute, the people of her husband, and a former apprentice of Lucy Telles, the legendary basketmaker responsible for the immense and beautiful basket I had just been admiring. Now in her early eighties, Julia is herself a living legend of sorts, having spent nearly her entire life in the Yosemite Valley preserving native traditions and interpreting them for the park’s millions of yearly visitors. I listened as she began patiently to explain the techniques of basketweaving to the children, delving into the materials she collected from the wild lands in the park at specific seasons with her daughter and granddaughter, now weavers in their own right.
As the children began to ask more and more questions, the relevance of Julia Parker’s answers to the problem of wilderness began slowly to sink in. The baskets on display, which I had thought of as anthropological relics, art objects, or “crafts” in the contemporary American sense of the word, are in fact evidence of a long and continuing reciprocity between human beings and the montane ecosystems around them. The baskets were and are made of willow shoots, deergrass stalks, redbud twigs, and other materials carefully collected from areas that Indian women manage— through careful weeding, transplanting, and burning—in order to encourage the right kind of growth of the right kind of plants. The native makers of these baskets constructed them as tools to support their own subsistence, in particular for the processing of acorns. The acorn, a nutritious major staple of native California, owes its ubiquity in part to the natives’ deliberately timed fires, which suppressed both insect pests and the natural succession of oak woodlands by shrubs and conifer forests. There were baskets for collecting acorns, baskets for storing them, baskets for holding the crushed meal, baskets for leeching out the bitter tannins, and baskets for cooking the final product, acorn mush. A well-equipped native household might have thirty or more different woven vessels for a variety of domestic tasks. As I walked out of the museum with Julia Parker’s words ringing in my ears, the baskets, the people responsible for them, and the landscape itself seemed changed in fundamental ways. No longer trapped within an archaic wilderness ethic—take no specimens, leave no trace—that is continuously belied by the alien material culture (popcorn, chocolate bars, Gore-Tex) trucked in and out daily for the benefit of tourists, it could be again what it still was for a few members of the native tribes, an active garden that both reflected and sustained their claims on the land.
Reintroducing such native Californian knowledge and practices into the management of public lands on a broader scale is the express goal of M. Kat Anderson, an ethno-ecologist who argues in Tending the Wild that the wild landscapes for which California is famed come primarily from the labor and accumulated experience of native occupants who took charge of their home ecosystems to produce the materials they needed to survive. If heeded, Anderson’s claim would have major significance for both the philosophy and the practice of environmental preservation and restoration, not to mention the status of native peoples in directing public environmental projects. No longer simple hunter-gatherers passively dependent on the bounty of wild nature, historical native Californians would have to be seen as manipulators of their environment no less ecologically significant than the large, centralized agrarian societies found elsewhere in native North America (though quite different in the specific techniques they applied and the effects they produced).
By the same token, wilderness would no longer be understood as a place defined by its indifference to the hand of man and instead would have to be viewed as a tended agroecological zone that historically has required the intervention of humankind to help it retain its pre-contact biodiversity and fertility. More concretely, the state of California’s environmental laws, policies, programs, and practices would need to be shaped by the memories and experiences of native peoples as much as by the farming, industrial, and scientific research communities that now dominate such discussions. To back up her claims, Anderson draws upon a huge repository of texts, oral interviews, and field research, demonstrating how nearly every component of a given ecosystem played a key role in the material economy of the local tribes, providing ample documentation of native practices—like irrigating, pruning, coppicing, tilling, sowing, transplanting, and especially burning—that contributed to sustaining the resource and creating places like Yosemite that we now try to preserve, ironically, through questionably low-impact policies.
Anderson’s book represents one of the high points in a marked scholarly reappraisal of native Californians and the worlds they lived in prior to and after colonization. Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish’s new collaboration, California Indians and Their Environment, appears as a commissioned volume in the California Natural History Guides series, but it has an ambition grander than the typical guidebook: to synthesize new research on native California tribes that takes seriously their capacity to help resolve some of the state’s seemingly intractable environmental problems. The scope of this task is daunting in part because of the notorious diversity and complexity of native California. Yet despite the challenges posed by the eighty or ninety different linguistic groups in the state at contact and by the decimation of native communities thereafter, a lot of information about native environmental practices has survived into the present. Perhaps the greater stumbling block has been a conceptual one: the models developed by American anthropologists in the study of other regions of North America are often quite misleading when applied to the aboriginal societies of the West Coast. In particular, the standard division between “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies and larger, more “advanced” agricultural societies (like the Cherokee or Hopi nations) does not fit California facts. Although primarily made up of very small “tribelets” (as Alfred Kroeber called them), native Californians displayed highly advanced forms of material and social culture as well as sophisticated trading networks. Of particular interest is native California’s oblique relationship to traditional agriculture. The “three sisters” so commonplace elsewhere in North America— corn, squash, and beans—were not cultivated outside of a small sliver of what is now the southeasternmost part of the state, nor were any similar agricultural staples. Calling native Californians hunter-gatherers, however, obscures the wide range of deliberate interventions they made in their environments. Lightfoot and Parrish make clear the need for a new category of subsistence in the extensive introductory portions of the book, which are highly recommended for Californians who want to begin their study of native peoples with the most up-to-date synthesis available. The remainder of the guide is given over to six sections—one for each of California’s major geomorphic provinces—detailing the specific animal, plant, and mineral materials used by various tribes in the region. The Central Valley/Sierra Nevada section, for example, describes the use of Mariposa Lily bulbs for food, of jimson weed as an analgesic poultice, and of soapstone for dishes. Walking through an uncultivated portion of my home turf in the Sacramento Valley, I began to see the land anew as a granary, medicine chest, and outfitter.
Bringing this kind of change in perspective out of academia and into the broader popular culture of California will likely require something more than either Anderson or Lightfoot and Parrish can supply, for after they had inspired me to a new awareness of the useful materials around me, I still lacked detailed knowledge about how to actually go about using them. What we need, in order to act on the lessons Anderson and others are teaching us, are instructions that will help connect their insights into native food cultures developed in California over millennia with the widespread interest in local, ecologically appropriate food, medicine, and clothing.
The work of Ira Jacknis, an anthropologist at the Phoebe Hearst Museum, may become the founding text of any such future movement. Bringing together for the first time dozens of obscure anthropological and Indian texts on native foodways, Jacknis’s book offers a systematic culinary and gastronomic consideration of early food practices after generations of studies that focused primarily on either the nutritional or the social dimensions of subsistence and exchange. Not a cookbook in any traditional sense, Jacknis’s work nevertheless provides an extraordinarily fine degree of detail about various native California food practices. Modern Californians searching for an engaged, sustainable, and historically aware relationship with the California landscape through their own kitchen-table practices should start here.
To move toward a new vision of public land, one in which human intervention (guided by the experience of native Californians) is not regarded as a defeat of preservationist principles but as an affirmation of our necessary bond with our environment, requires a careful transition away from the ideological legacy of wilderness. The demise of that outdated vision, however, need entail no diminishment in our attachments to our state’s famous natural landscapes. According to Jacknis, the sugar pine we now appreciate for its beauty can also yield a resinous native candy that would perhaps be an even more durable connection between the coming generation and the natural world they are partly responsible for. And perhaps someday the injunction to eat what is fresh and local will extend beyond introduced cultivars grown in the stripped fields of the Salinas Valley even to roasted armyworms, a favorite Pomo dish consumed in celebration every few years when the population of these caterpillars spikes in the ash groves of the northern Bay Area. The continuing process of reinhabiting California in a sustainable and responsible way will have to proceed through our foraging grounds, gardens, palates, and stomachs. Thanks to the natives and scholars working to reveal the agriculture and foodways of the first peoples of California, such a goal no longer looks like sheer fantasy.
No doubt modern Californians will long continue to car-camp in Yosemite Valley, making s’mores over the fire pit. But I wonder whether one of our California mallows (perhaps the appropriately named Malva neglecta) might take the place of the gelatinous corn-syrup puffs we are used to, whether we could make a graham cracker out of carefully leeched, pressed, and baked acorn meal, and how much coaxing it would take to get our children or grandchildren to replace a square of chocolate with the roasted pith of a green pine cone.
It’s the other point of entry, this eastern spine of downtown Los Angeles, along the Alameda corridor where Union Station thrums with passengers departing, arriving, connecting. And drifters, who hover somewhere in between coming and going. This is the juncture, the elusive middle space, that writer/photographer Kevin McCollister loses himself in. He has become eloquent in visually evoking the poetic hang-time of the destinationless.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, amid the flow of flip-flopped and sun-hatted weekend travelers, McCollister looks like he, too, could be coming or going. With quick, hard-to-read eyes and a taut, reserved energy, he blends into the ambience of anticipation, looking for something that’s not a train or taxi or a “score”—but something. He has arranged himself at one of the concourse’s small tables at the edge of the flow with an iced coffee and his two cameras, a Panasonic Lumix and his Canon D40, still zipped away in their soft black cases. His face relaxes in a greeting, not quite a smile, but welcoming and forthright.
He’s already working, scanning possibilities: the resigned mother with the hysterical six-year-old; the bent woman on a walker fed up with panhandler sob stories; the timid security guard she’s buttonholed who nods between his “yes ma’am”s. McCollister’s eyes finally pause on a man with a dramatic flounce of dyed blue-black hair and a wool scarf flung not-so-nonchalantly about his neck despite the eighty-degree heat. He’s holding court at a table with three other men—all of whom look like they’ve walked out of another era or circumstance. McCollister risks another surreptitious glance, but doesn’t make a move for either camera. Something’s missing, not quite right—the moment. “That one has a story,” he says. “If I wait long enough I’ll find him again.”
What is a train station if not a point of departure? A gateway into stories. But you can’t buy a ticket to the places McCollister takes you. His Los Angeles is not the high-gloss of turquoise pools, movie stars, and mile-high, listing palm trees. Rather, it’s the city’s broken seekers, its mix-and-match architecture, its abandoned asphalt roads—the beauty in its lonelier, hidden contours.
While he is certainty documenting LA, his images evoke something chambered and contemplative, startling in their quietude.
His book and the blog that inspired it, East of West LA, elicit a Los Angeles that feels personal, like memory and fantasy fused, a Los Angeles that is private but not at all exclusive. “Kevin is seeing what’s not seen about LA,” says Brooks Roddan, who found the images compelling enough to publish in book form. “He’s seeing, I think, the differences between the perceptions of LA and the realities. The story is: there’s more here than you imagined, and what you imagined is not here at all.”
The blog, which McCollister launched five years ago, has built a small but loyal following (well over 100,000 visitors, and a steady hundred views a day). It wasn’t conceived as one of those photo-a-day exercises. And he has some rules: “No Rolls Royce convertibles. No swimming pools. They seem to be covered adequately. But,” he elaborates, “I don’t want to get too lofty about what I understand or don’t understand about LA. It’s much more of a model or muse to me than an object I’ve studied to enlighten anyone. If you’re an artist and you’re able to sketch somebody’s thumb, that doesn’t mean you understand their childhood.”
That thumb, in McCollister’s work, is an apt metaphor, full of clues. The fine particulars—an empty farmácia bathed in aqua fluorescence, a Hollywood Boulevard James Brown impersonator, wig slightly askew, flashing a set of ruined teeth—sketch a far more complex LA story of struggle, blind faith, and persistence. By isolating an object—a single, soft-lit doorway, late-night street musicians serenading empty sidewalks, a transient’s forlorn tent—McCollister “finds” LA by holding onto something we might gun past in a rage on the 110, or something we linger beside every day but see past. We observe Los Angeles through his prism, an LA edited down to an oblique gesture, to a wry, visual non sequitur. It’s an LA only seen in stop-motion, an LA that uncharacteristically can only be navigated, McCollister knows, with patience and by foot.
A case in point: This stretch of the Alameda corridor just outside the station doors is a complex nexus. In the amber light, compositionally, it’s loose, messy, and full of possibilities. Downtown’s chessboard of skyscrapers gather to the west; the central jail looms northeast; and the old Pueblo de los Angeles, from whence this all sprang, is only a crosswalk away. This is one of those locations where the city’s standard operating definitions, east of the world’s imagination of Los Angeles, don’t quite work. “From here,” McCollister says, “I can walk to Boyle Heights or Lincoln Heights. Or maybe I’ll just walk up to Broadway, it just depends.”
When you step off into one of his images, you realize it isn’t that Los Angeles is mysterious; it’s been misread, its elegance and edginess elided from our imagination. The images, particularly those emptied out of humans, force a new reading. He knows he’s channeling ghosts—Fitzgerald, Chandler, even Bukowksi—a certain sort of discontent which writers have for so long attempted to express.
He cordons off Saturdays and Sundays for shooting, mornings before 10 a.m., evenings after 4 p.m., the off time from his full-time job as an administrative coordinator at the Writer’s Guild. “LA is tricky for photography because it’s so much sunlight, so much glare,” he says. He rarely photographs late at night, yet his images of an emptied-out LA convey a sort of nighthawk quality. What makes McCollister pause is not just the image, but what’s tethered to it: “Definitely a mood. Not adulterated too much. It’s just whatever emotional content [is there].” He admits that what speaks to him is often “pretty melancholy, pretty singular.”
We reach Olvera Street, usually an explosion of tourist-geared sound and color. Today it’s overrun by television vans, heavy cables, and sun canopies—all quite contrary to what he’s after.
The quiet, unembellished city he seeks doesn’t always make itself known. “I may come back with nothing,” he warns me. “I can spend hours and hours and think I have something . . .” he says, letting the thought trail off. He makes a quick survey and the camera comes out, the small Lumix, bumping against his chest, ready.
He crosses another narrow street and into the busy courtyard at the old church—Nuestra Señora de Reina de Los Angeles—la Placita. People trade pleasantries with him, the regulars he’s come to know: men and women selling bottled water, wooden bracelets decorated with religious figures, simple rosaries. Still others, crouched on the sidewalk, ask for change. He pauses near a fountain at an altar crowded with votive candles, scattered prayers, and mementoes—a child’s shoe, a hazy sonogram, silver milagros. A woman, her black hair slated with gray, stands near the fountain. He sees a possibility, something in her face, the incline of her head. He raises the camera, then stops. “There’s this feeling,” he explains later, “that photographing someone praying might be just a little too distracting or intrusive.”
He presses on.
If you’d asked him twenty years ago, McCollister would have defined himself as a writer—a poet, primarily. He had come from elsewhere, winding from Cleveland to New Orleans, where he worked on a river boat, Delta Queen, then Boston, where he studied film and screenwriting at Harvard Extension. Photography hadn’t been on his radar. Neither was Los Angeles, which upon an early visit in the ’80s he had dismissed as crowded and unlivable.
Just six years ago, when he set out on this endeavor, this little side project (“call it creative practicality”) was pure hobby, not vocation. His brother had married a woman from Taiwan and relocated. “She had a blog and I didn’t know what a blog was,” McCollister recalls. “I just wanted to have a dialogue with her and perhaps a half-dozen other people—just pictures of LA.” It was a simple plan. “I thought it was going to be [a] ‘This American Life’ thing where I would . . . talk with people, but it’s not that way at all. It just sort of mushroomed.”
He bought himself a hundred-dollar camera and set up his blog, christening it, with a wink, The Jimson Weed Gazette. He started posting, sometimes just text—lists, observations; or a combination of image and reflection. Over time, as he learned more about his camera and its potential, McCollister says, “[It] took on a life of its own without me even making a conscious decision.” He was writing less and less, he says. “The photos were just doing all the work.”
The poetry is still evident. The power of a single object, the oblique framing, the ratio of dark to light, and the elliptical situations in his photographs reveal his emotional awareness. Los Angeles isn’t just sunshine and excess. He has put his stamp on the place. The name-shift—East of West LA—was part of the project’s evolution, as was the blog’s initial brazen claim, now its tagline: I’m photographing LA—All of it.
That vow caught Brooks Roddan’s eye. Roddan was already familiar with McCollister’s writing through a mutual friend, the poet Micahel Lally, and had asked for some poems for a possible book. “The poems I’d responded to, the best poems, were all walking poems; a man walking through neighborhoods as if he was seeing LA for the first time,” Roddan says, “seeing things only a poet both aware and innocent could see.”
Time passed, and Roddan learned that McCollister had stopped writing poems and had refocused his energies. He began visiting the blog, stowing away the images in his head. Once they reconnected, Roddan had a different plan. “‘Kevin,’ I said, ‘I think your poems are now photographs and your photographs are now poems. Let’s do a book of your photographs.’”
Precisely what Roddan saw in the poems filtered directly into the images: an open-ended seeking. McCollister says, “I don’t usually have a plan, I just walk with the traffic lights—whichever one is green.” We wind over the hard, hot concrete through Mei Ling Way, past crowded souvenir shops, restaurants smelling of hot oil and scallions, gentrified art galleries side by side with retro furniture stores, and finally onto an empty courtyard on Chung King Road, canopied by hanging cherry-red paper lanterns.
The only business open at this in-between hour is a shop with a pulsing red neon sign announcing FONG’S ORIENTAL WORK OF ART. But what has enraptured McCollister isn’t the retro neon, or the curiously tangled name, or the gathered men playing cards near its front doors, or anything at all telegraphing Chinatown. Instead, he has installed himself before the shuttered doors of what looks to be a recently vacated business. Its cloudy window reveals nothing but scattered newspaper, trampled cardboard flats, and a chair and table shoved against a blank wall. The sight stops him cold.
He raises the Lumix, snaps once and then again. He keeps going. Finally, he shows me the image on the camera’s screen, and I see what he sees: not simply an abandoned table and chair, but something painterly, something out of the realm of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth—a silvery hint of sunlight, a ghost trailing on the wall. There’s sadness there. The frame is full of questions. What do all these remnants mean? Was this the end of someone’s story?
It feels like something in that frame, and he’s relieved. “There are some nights where the sky is the limit, where I’ve taken four hundred or as little as ten. But of those four hundred there can be zero,” he says. In other words, he knows to be cautiously optimistic. It’s the waiting that’s nerve-racking—that drive home hovering between anticipation and result—the hope that he has captured what was conveyed. There’s a piece of mood that has to go with the image, some essence of LA escaping.
What the work seems to most skillfully convey about LA is that it can’t be both destination and dream—though we all struggle to make it so. These images, procured through patience, through slowing the city down, reveal that conundrum.
“LA has this real end-of-the-road feel to it,” McCollister reflects. “It’s such an undeniable destination point for so many types of people—rich, poor, talented, untalented. You come because you need something. And sometimes you have to wait a very long time. And sometimes the waiting can drive you crazy.”
Brenda Hillman, Practical Water. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, 124 pp. $22.95
William T. Vollmann, Imperial. New York: Viking Press, 2009, 1,344 pp. $55
The preeminent California missionary Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) is famous for his erudition and religious zeal, but we might never have heard of him (or been here to hear) had these qualities not been combined with a keen nose for water. Serra, who spent decades in the arid expanses of Baja California and Querétaro (home to a massive aqueduct) before coming north, applied the hydrological wisdom he had acquired to finally make a success of Spanish colonization efforts in the upper part of the state. As records of his labors reveal, he was careful to site his California missions to take maximum advantage of the comparative abundance of fresh water that poured into the Pacific from coastal rivers, even going so far as to relocate the San Carlos Borroméo mission from Monterey to a better spot along the Rio Carmel. Irrigation was as much on Serra’s mind as salvation, and these twin obsessions have come to define the territory and state whose mythic purpose is to water the parched hopes and germinate the dreams of wave after wave of immigrants from north, south, east, and west. From the hydraulic mining that underwrote the gold fever of the 1850s to the massive drainage, flood-control, and irrigation projects that commandeered vast human resources and laid the groundwork for the agricultural fortunes of the twentieth century to the ongoing legal and political contests by municipalities, developers, and agribusiness for shares of a water empire that now extends far into the territory of other states, the Golden State has always been understood through its other official color: blue.
That we are utterly dependent on the presence and proper management of freshwater resources is something Californians have frequently been told, in tones by turn bureaucratic, boosterish, and apocalyptic. The explorer John Wesley Powell, surveying the far western territories in the 1860s and 1870s, was clear-eyed about the value of surface water for transport, power, and limited irrigation, only to be outlobbied by the railroad barons, who stood to profit from more optimistic views of the habitability of their vast landholdings (over 180 million acres). The writer Wallace Stegner, historians Donald Worster and Norris Hundley, Jr., and journalist Marc Reisner have since drawn upon Powell to tell widely read cautionary stories about violence, graft, and disenfranchisement associated with struggles to control water in the West. Collectively, these authors and others like them were responsible for a shift in conventional wisdom away from the boom mentality that fueled nineteenth-century projects of drainage and levee-building and massive twentieth-century investment in the Central Valley Water Project. From them we are fortunate to have inherited a growing cultural emphasis on conservation of both water resources and the often wild lands where they originate.
It remains for twenty-first-century water writers to find a means for the state’s citizens to come to terms with damage that has already been done, to learn how to live in the hydraulic mess that now defines contemporary California. The best place to begin that task is with David Carle’s contribution to the California Natural History Guides series, Introduction to Water in California, which offers the most concise summary available of the state’s current water situation. Helpfully laying out the entire story in fewer than three hundred small and copiously illustrated pages, Carle presents the fundamental geological and ecological facts underlying our waterscape before conducting an eye-opening tour of the reengineered system we have built atop it. All of the major water issues are here-from giardia parasites to global warming, soil subsidence to selenium contamination-briefly but accurately conveyed in accessible prose. Want to know what water supplies your community depends on? Check Table 3, which lists them in order of importance for the 400 or so largest cities. Ever wondered how water from the far northern part of the state makes it over the mountain ranges south of Bakersfield? Carle includes graphic charts and photographs detailing the massive penstocks that use 7.5 billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water to southern coastal and Mojave communities. If California high-school students were required to study this inexpensive treasure as part of their fundamental curriculum, the state would be well on its way to more effective water policy.
For more advanced courses, though, we need the humanities. The poet and teacher Brenda Hillman’s most recent collection is the third installment (after Cascadia, 2001, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, 2005) in her series of meditations on the four elements. Practical Water is just what its title proclaims: a staged confrontation between our traditional and even mythic understanding of water and the reality of California’s endlessly plumbed, intensively managed, and anxiously watched water systems. Mindful of the powerful vision of untroubled human oneness with an interfluent Nature— “whate’er / I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream / That flowed into a kindred stream,” wrote Wordsworth—Hillman starts by establishing the conventional connection between the stream of consciousness and the flow of water:
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
But this commonplace analogy (linked by Hillman to the Romantic version of modernism favored by Wallace Stevens) quickly transforms itself into a dare to take the metaphor with utter literalism, to accept the often tragic and absurd career of those water molecules as they flow around the geological, architectural, historical, and political facts that are conventionally excluded from the poetic page. As Angela Hume Lewandowski has elaborated in her penetrating discussions of Practical Water and the phenomenon of “contaminated” poetic form, the reader of Hillman’s poem is asked not to indulge in a flight of fancy but to face facts: to prepare, in Hillman’s words, to be “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it.”
Hillman embraces this challenge most directly in the longest poem in the collection, “Hydrology of California: Toward an Ecopoetical Alphabet,” in which she travels across the state watershed by watershed, meditating on the future of poetry while coming to grips with the environmental and historical details of its rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Mattole, the Navarro, the Trinity, the Sacramento, the Feather, the American, the Putah, the Cache, the Cosumnes, the Napa, the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Owens, the Mojave, the Kern, the San Joaquin, the Fresno, the San Gabriel. . . . Along the way, the speaker of the poem limbers up her mind and tongue to cope with the paradoxes and complexities of the hydroscape before her.
They had to shower / They had to eat i said to main Brenda
Now don’t start just ignorantly criticizing state dams the
You drink gallons of it you know you do
There have been moments before in nature writing of this kind of unanswerable self-indictment, but Hillman’s goal is not just to register the banality of her (and our) complicity in the disruption of the environment but to steep her poetic practice in it, to really think through the ways that poems are made of stoppages, cataracts, and trickles of breath, the tongue damming and diverting the often polluted spirit like the levees, check-dams, and irrigation ditches that define our physical landscape. Something rare, the voice of poetry here is in sustained alliance not with the pure and wild nature so easily imagined but with the far less picturesque and perhaps ultimately incomprehensible reality of sewage-treatment plants and algal blooms coexisting with sulphur butterflies and fluff grass. The “future of poetry,” a refrain through Hillman’s poem that ties the aesthetic avant-garde to the environmental status quo, lies in imagining the real flowing and pooling of the world we already inhabit:
Future of poetry there’s a stream between a & b as i write
this a dream
of a west that would outlast us
To judge from William Vollmann’s Imperial, time is already running out on the West our plumbing has created. Sprawling over 1,300 pages, hundreds of informants, and several genres, the most recent book of contemporary American literature’s most excessive author focuses on the precipitous rise and steady decline of the vast agricultural region surrounding Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California. This was a sparsely populated corner until 1901, when the first in a long series of projects diverting water from the Colorado River capitalized on its fertile soil, perpetual growing season, and nearby railway to turn it into a major food-exporting district. Within a decade investors and immigrants—from Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and later Oklahoma—began to pour into the area, launching a classic California boom, this one in lettuce and other warm-season row crops. The All-American, still the world’s largest irrigation canal, was built in 1930 to bring more water to the southern end of the Salton Sink, where it begins a gravity-fed journey northward through ditches and aquifers and two manmade rivers (the New and the Alamo), watering cantaloupe and cotton fields en route to the saline basin of the artificial Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level. “WATER IS HERE,” crowed the boosters of the time, a phrase Vollmann repeats in lamentation and irony throughout the transcript of his ten-year exploration of the world this water made possible. Within a few generations irrigation projects led to overproduction, soil salinity problems, and labor exploitation and unrest. The consequences of the boom and slow bust are written all across the physical landscape, from the border fence erected to keep out Mexican workers drawn to the onion fields and date groves to the communal ejido farms south of it that are drying up because of water diversions to San Diego to the maquiladora factories and the narcotraficantes that have become stock figures in representations of the borderlands. As a social and environmental experiment, the Imperial Valley has few rivals even in a state as radically transfigured as twentieth-century California. And though Vollmann surely owes some of his popularity to the public’s impulse to voyeuristically consume the misery of the underclass, the true value of a work like Imperial lies in the way it witnesses and documents the human and environmental consequences of our gritty water history.
Vollmann’s accomplishment lies partly in his documentary depth and extensiveness (his report on the longstanding Chinese community in Mexicali deserves its own book-length treatment), but it is also in the perspective that slowly emerges from his disciplined unwillingness to screen out centrifugal personal histories, literary citations, or historical details in surrender to the requirements of argument and narrative. In the numerous and prominent reviews of Imperial there is a shared note of disappointment at the sheer bagginess of the book, its uncouth manner of repeating itself, revisiting its own toxic history apparently without much regard for the patience of its readers. Our understandable desire to round off the problems Vollmann confronts, even if only in aesthetic terms, can breed irritation not just at the interminability of the prose but at its stubborn refusal to dig deeper into causes and possible solutions. But—and here is the lesson that the new writers on California water are bringing to us—there is nowhere left to dig. We have tapped the accessible aquifers, dammed the available rivers, built the impossible canals, tiled the vast marshlands. There is no Carmel River down the way where we may begin again with our grand mission. Imperial does not tediously attend to the minutiae of raw sewage, pesticides, and border crossing in order to prescribe a solution that will rinse them away and allow us to go back to our legendarily carefree form of utopianism. Its unprecedented feat is rather to forcibly immerse us in the turbid waters of our shared California, present and future. Whatever we do after such a rebaptism, there can be no more evasions of the past.
These new writers on California water have begun to recognize that, for all of its age-old associations with the stream of time’s endless renewal, the purification of the body and the soul, and the mysteries of the unknown, water ultimately speaks to us of the inescapability of history, our unavoidable contamination by the world, and the patient accumulation, somewhere, of all that we have pretended to discard. In the world that Father Serra set in motion for us, water molecules descend like a heavenly host to dissolve, transport, and redeposit the unattended truths of our existence—the flushed pharmaceuticals, bits of rubber tire, heavy metals from border factories, the sweat of migrant workers—and then, evaporated by that storied sun, abandon the desert to us. B