El Valle: Photographers Aim at the Central Valley

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Dried lakes and abandoned farm equipment, Cesar Chavez and the Salad Bowl strike, farmworkers and their quinceañeras—these and more make up the images of The Valley/El Valle: Photo-essays from California’s Heartland, an exhibit on display in City Hall until September 19.

This collection of 100 photographs in nine photo-essays offers a diverse look at California’s Central Valley, from the labor agitation in the 1970s to the boom of the 1990s and the bust of 2008. Two photo-essays, those by Mimi Plumb and Mission resident Lou Dematteis, show Chavez and the United Farm Workers organizing in the Central Valley. Plumb said she took a more documentary approach that followed the farmworkers over several years.

Mimi Plumb, Downtown, from Pictures from the Valley 1974-1975.

Mimi Plumb, Downtown, from Pictures from the Valley 1974-1975.

One particularly striking picture shows a man carrying a tall pile of boxes that stretch up and out of the frame, impossibly balanced on his back. The boxes are marked “Downtown”. “I think it shows what they have to do. It’s where the produce is going,” Plumb said. “It’s what it looks like. This is how labor works.” There’s a tendency to forget where food comes from, she said, and this image perfectly captures the toil of a region that feeds the state but has largely been ignored.

Dematteis, a photo journalist, took a slightly different approach. “I shot it as a news photo assignment for my class.” The assignment had certain requirements—a wide shot, a close-up, a medium shot, a detail—that are all present in Dematteis’s photos of Chavez and the farmworkers on the day of a march. Chavez, he said, “was a great motivator. He was just so open and available and tranquilo. In ’75 he was already a celebrity, but he didn’t have that celebrity persona.”

Plumb agreed. “He could make a difference in their lives,” she said about the labor leader, who died on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona. This charisma is readily apparent in photos that include the march against the E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto, the rallies in support of the boycotts, and the discussions with Chavez cross-legged amongst supporters.

Sam Comen, Basketball at dusk in Lost Hills, CA. March 7, 2011. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Sam Comen, Basketball at dusk in Lost Hills, CA. March 7, 2011. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

For his part, Sam Comen’s work focuses on profiles. “I try to make icons out of the people I shoot.” His photographs offer a personal glimpse of the farmworkers. “This approach,” he says, “has rewarded me with a lot of access.” One photo shows this particularly well: A group of sweating youngsters play basketball at night, with the ball so high in the sky that, from a distance, it can be mistaken for the moon. The companionship of the players is clear, but Comen also sees the individuals as part of a sweeping story. “I think these people are embodying the American frontier experience. They’re the classic Jeffersonian farmers.” Except they’re not, he said, because many are undocumented and marginalized.

Ken and Melanie Light’s work investigates the Central Valley in a series of photographs and text snippets from their book Valley of Shadows and Dreams. “It’s a look at five years in the Valley, before the downturn and after.” Things imploded after the 2008 recession, said Ken Light. The drought and an increased use of pesticides also meant more asthma and both these natural elements and the bust are captured in the photos.

Ken Light, asthmatic man, from Valley of Shadows and Dreams. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Ken Light, asthmatic man, from Valley of Shadows and Dreams. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

As the people of the Central Valley face tremendous challenge, so too does the environment. Charlotte Niel’s landscape collection portrays both the destitution of the Central Valley—long empty silos and dried-up lake beds—and its unique serenity. “There’s something special about the light,” Niel said. “It’s like in the south of France. There’s an agricultural feel—the afternoon light coming in through the trees.”

While Niel started with landscapes—and some in large format hang on the first floor of City Hall—she moved toward the people as well. “I had to stop, get out of the car, take a deep breath, and go into the community.” Spending time in cafes and restaurants, Niel learned more of the local history, taking photographs of the owners of a second-hand shop, for instance, whom she visits when she’s in the area.

You can view more of the photos here. 

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