Today at lunch we were talking about how badly some kids need a wake up call. Many kids living in suburbia spend their time pining after exotic ipods, designer clothing, laptop computers and complaining about how much their birthday parties disappointed them. We talked about creating a “reality check” life experience where they move to a 3rd world country and help a family subsist for a month. It was great fun thinking of all the places they could go…Mexico, Africa, The Philippines, but then we thought maybe a humble farm family living in Minnesota, Louisiana, even Idaho would be more realistic and much safer. Later that night I was reviewing some photography in my files and a particular photograph of mine reminded me of a “reality check experience” I had with my buddy, Christian, in 1996. I was going to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California at the time. Christian was going to school at UCSB. One weekend he invited Sam and I to his hometown; Visilia California.
I grew up in Idaho. I had never been most places and Visalia, California was one of those places. Sam and I loaded up our ’93 Honda Civic and left the manicured pleasantries of Santa Barbara. We drove north to Paso Robles and then turned East on Highway 46. We drove right past the oak tree that killed James Dean. He wrapped his Porsche Spyder around it in 1955. Then I thought I saw the ocean, but I didn’t. We were descending into a layer of fog that covered the “great central valley”. I’d never seen anything like it. It seriously looked like an ocean. That was the first time I witnessed the central valley. For months after that initial contact I made visits to photograph and explore. I didn’t make that many trips, maybe 5 or 6, but each visit never failed to satisfy my desire to see things, people and situations. That’s at the core of my photography I think, my abundant curiosity.
The central valley of California stretches 450 miles through the middle of California. It’s called “the bread basket of the world”. I read in the book The Great Central Valley that if they could preserve and ship the food that’s grown there they could literally feed the entire world. True or not, you need something substantial to make a claim like that. Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield, Porterville, Visilia, Modesto, Manteca…all cities encompassed by the valley. It’s big, yes, and it’s filled with people from all points of the globe. The history is so fascinating to me. It’s the promised land of the book Grapes of Wrath, where Tom Joad and his family pile in a car and drive from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to wealth and opportunity in California.
Those nice folks; poor, dirty and desperate lived in makeshift camps along rivers and in their cars. They were despised and persecuted harshly upon their arrival to their promised land. I’ve read many accounts, stories, and documents about their fates.
One particular story I remember was an account of a distinguished old woman living in Turlock who took pity on a couple of young Okie boys living in squalor behind her house on the river. She hired them to work in her garden and fed them a generous lunch of bologna and ketchup. Her pity turned to disgust when she caught them rummaging through her dressing room when they were supposed to working. That would be bad enough but she had just tried to forgive them for “drinking” her ketchup straight from the bottle during lunch. In a way I guess I can’t blame the Californians. A major wave of refugees clamoring for jobs, food and property in your quiet town would be difficult.
Christian and I met Ray (pictured above) on a sunny day in Cutler, Ca. He was sitting in his chair, we drove by and I asked Christian to back up. What a scene to work with! I asked him if I could take a portrait of him. He laughed and said “Ya, I guess”. It took me a few minutes to set up my 8×10 camera. He smiled for the photo. His house, mostly decorated on the outside, is a story on it’s own accord.. I didn’t see the inside because I could barely absorbed the complexity of the outside. He told Christian about his life in California. He was an Okie. In his thick accent he told us stories about picking cotton, onions, and his wife’s death. He looked happy and acted cheerful. When we drove away from his house we felt compelled to buy him some food. It was a random decision. We gave him a couple of bags of food and he wept. I’ll never forget it.
I wonder what has happened to Ray. It’s been 14 years. He’s probably gone by now, him and most of his Okie friends.
Photography is a passport if you want it to be. It’s a passport with a perfect memory.