I See Beauty in this Life: A Photographer Looks at 100 Years of Rural California
In many people's experience, California consists of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and the highways that connect them. In reality these urban centers make up only a fraction of the whole; according to the 2010 Census, geographically the state of California is more than 94 percent rural. Surprise Valley, Lost Hills, Raisin City, Mecca—these are the communities that make up "the rest" of California.
Over the past two years, writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton has been telling the stories of these rural communities in her multimedia work Real Rural. For this exhibition she has delved into the collections of the California Historical Society to connect these present-day stories with the past. Featuring roughly 150 photographs, I See Beauty in This Life is a combination of large-scale color prints by Hamilton and her selections from California Historical Society's vast photography collections—material dating from the 1880s through the mid-twentieth century, much of which has never been exhibited before. Led through CHS's vast collection of historic photographs by the Director of Library & Archives Mary Morganti, Hamilton has selected images that are not predictable views of pastoral windmills or heroic mule teams, but rather images that reflect her own keen interest in revealing the unexpected. Her approach to the Historical Society's collections is different from that of an historian in that her first priority was to choose images that are outstanding for aesthetic reasons. Taken by amateur and mostly unknown photographers, the photographs are remarkable for their beauty and unusual perspective. These press prints, snapshots, and publicity stills are also intimate records of struggle, celebration, community, and the endless work required to wrest a livelihood from the land. Together, they tell a complex—and sometimes humorous—story of the many different individual lives and landscapes comprising the vast mosaic that is the Golden State.
The title of the exhibition is taken from an interview that Hamilton did with Modoc County rancher and poet Linda Hussa:
"If your poetry isn't based on something that's important to you—family, place, the purpose of your life—well then it's kind of empty isn't it? Because it has to have that passion to affect other people, to make other people care about what you are saying. They have to hear that there is something there… I always wanted people to understand what was going on in the rural routes. And that there certainly should be some regard for the people there. Because I see beauty in this life, I don't think it is lonesome. And I don't think it is dumb."
There are many ways to define what is "rural." For the purpose of her work and this exhibition, Hamilton has used the term to describe "places where the culture and the economy are defined by the direct use of natural resources." This manifests in myriad ways, something reflected by the works in I See Beauty in This Life. We see gushing oil spouts and the faces of the men who work them, as well as graffiti left by trapped miners who were not rescued in time. A 4-H girl guards her prize sheep under the scrutiny of a Los Angeles television camera, and a rodeo queen applies lipstick from the make-up kit in the horn of her saddle. Given the great range of experience presented by these photographs, even those familiar with rural California are likely to be surprised.
Hamilton, who focuses on agriculture and rural communities, is the first scholar in a new program of the California Historical Society called Curating California through which artists, writers, historians, poets, activists, and other remarkable Californians are invited to explore the rich collections of the Historical Society with the goal of inspiring a project or exhibition. She is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. Her work has also been published in The Nation, The Atlantic, McSweeney's, and Orion. In 2011 she turned her focus to California, traveling over 10,000 miles around the state, exploring its rural communities and landscapes in the multimedia work Real Rural. The work has many forms, including an ad-art campaign on BART and a storytelling website (www.realrural.org) that weaves portraits from photographs, audio, and text. As with all of her work, Hamilton considers questions of identity and community in I See Beauty in This Life, this time using photographs from throughout rural California's rich history.
A tour is planned to bring this exhibition to venues across the state.
This exhibition has been generously supported by our partners and sponsors: Stephen and Barbara Hearst; California Rangeland Trust; Bill Lane Center for the American West; Julie and Craig McNamara; California Alliance with Family Farmers, California Bountiful Foundation; the California Department of Food and Agriculture; California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom; California Wool Growers Association; Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA); Community Alliance with Family Farmers; Cowgirl Creamery; Full Belly Farm; Hafner Vineyard; Herglotz Public Affairs; Lagunitas Brewing Company; Sherwin-Williams; and T & D Willey Farms.