Geographically, California is more than 94% rural. Despite that statistic from the 2010 census, many residents consider rural California the stretch of the 5 Freeway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
That discovery was a bit disconcerting for agriculture writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton. So two years ago she logged close to 10,000 miles traveling from her home in Marin County to the far-flung destinations of Modoc County, Raisin City and Lost Hills. With her infant daughter in tow she gathered stories and photographed locales and landscapes she identified as "places where the culture and the economy are defined by the direct use of natural resources."
"For me, agriculture was this truly fascinating connection to the world around me and has fascinated me for 20 years," said Hamilton, author of "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness."
The results from her cross-state exploration (funded with a grant from Creative Work Fund) were presented in a storytelling website (realrural.org) and an ad campaign on Bay Area Rapid Transit. This caught the attention of the California Historical Society in San Francisco, which was launching "Curating California," a new program that invites artists, poets and historians to dig through their vast collection to find inspiration for an exhibition.
"I See Beauty in This Life: A Photographer Looks at 100 Years of Rural California," through March 24 at the California Historical Society gallery in San Francisco, combines 24 of Hamilton's large-scale color photos from her journey along with roughly 150 vintage images she selected from the society's archives.
A wide range of struggles and celebrations are revealed, from the hardened faces of men working the McKittrick Oil Derrick in Kern County in 1910 to a blue ribbon-winning pig at a livestock show in San Mateo County in 2011. "It was an incredible experience to work with someone who approaches historical materials in an aesthetic way," said Jessica Hough, managing curator.
Hamilton, 37, intentionally excluded familiar images — "nothing with a tractor or teams of horses pulling combines." What interested her were images that told stories differently or challenged assumptions about the people and experiences in these rural, often impoverished areas.
For example, the California Wool Growers Collection caught her fancy. Featured are kooky and campy shots of women dressed in '70s garb grilling lamb while a sheep looks on and a 1968 cheesecake photo of Miss Wool California.