Documentary photography trains its shutter on the “real,” capturing things as they are in a specific moment in time – and that’s what makes it often seem unreal to me, and even more intriguing. Whatever else is going on here on this Earth, time is ticking by and making changes, changes, changes. Look at a Robert Frank photo from the fifties and you will see a world that is so close to ours and yet microscopically, mammothly apart. Hair style, facial affect, furniture – every minute between then and now the details have calibrated away from a norm and developed into another one.
Which is one reason why Ken Light’s photographs in Valley of Shadows and Dreams are so vertiginous. This book, published by California’s own Heyday Books and now an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, catalogs farm workers in the Central Valley over the past five years, as well as landscapes of abandoned housing developments halfway to home sweet home and likely never to arrive there. Light’s photos are seismically different than those of his spiritual mentors, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans – the workers he documents are brown-skinned, from a different culture altogether than the white dispossessed captured by those masters. But so much is the same, so much is reminiscent here; the dancers have changed but not the choreography.
Melanie Light’s sensitive and comprehensive text helps orient us to this world that is so different and so the same. Global changes in food production and distribution have fueled explosive population growth in the last century but hardly moved the dial for the people actually harvesting the crops. Then as now this group of people lives hand to mouth.
And all the fancy technology and intellectual leaps and bounds of recent decades? To feed an ever-burgeoning crowd of mouths, big-Ag has decimated the landscape just like the farmers and ranchers of the past, who brought us the Dust Bowl (stay tuned for Ken Burns’ new documentary on the subject). Yes, we are even worse now because we know better. With climate change bearing down, we can ill-afford such degradation of our precious soil and our life’s blood – water.
I know, what a bummer! But these photographs are so beautiful and beguiling, life as it is right this minute, the changes changes changes invisibly bringing us the future lurking right there, in shadow and in dream. And in a reality that persists across time.