California Dreaming

November 15, 2012

By RF Staff

 The overarching tale of American history is largely a story of westward expansion—advancing the boundaries of this nation until it eventually filled out the landmass between two oceans. Practically all of the United States’ successes, failures and conflicts have their roots in that process. The endpoint, as everyone knows, was California. It was the pot of gold at the end of this country’s proverbial rainbow, with an ethos that’s completely unique among the geographic and cultural patchwork of our transcontinental quilt. Beyond the Mississippi and the Rockies and the flat-as-cardboard plains, California was as far as you could go—the edge—where the American Dream came to flourish, and in some cases, where it came to wallow and die. 

Much of California’s story has been told—and continues to be told—photographically. Legendary image makers such as Eadward Muybridge, Dorothea Lange, landscape maestro Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Look magazine virtuoso Paul Fusco, to name a few, have probed the soul of this complex stretch of mountain, desert and cityscape at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. This year, photographer Ken Light, along with his co-author, Melanie Light, has added to the California image library with a serious black-and-white collection, Valley of Shadows and Dreams, under the auspices of non-profit, independent Berkeley, California, publisher, Heyday.

 The Third California

A sort of unwritten decree loosely divides California into two distinct regions that are more like different states of mind than they are features on a map: The north is dominated by the uber-hip San Francisco Bay area, green in the extreme, national capital of political correctness, home to Silicon Valley and genetically engineered Pinot Noir. In the south, beyond the Bakersfield oil fields, you find the relentless hazy sunlight of Los Angeles and San Diego and their vast environs. Southern California is the rowdy home of the skateboard, the remnants of a once-booming 20th century aerospace business, the motion picture industry, rollercoaster tangles of freeway overpasses, and thoroughly maxed-out  hucksterism. (“Hundreds of miles wide and an inch deep,” goes the customary put down). 

But there’s another, lesser-known, and frequently dark theme that meanders through California’s photographic persona. Running perpendicular to the line that separates the two Californias is a third topographical and sociological feature—another California, if you will—euphemistically known as the Great Central Valley. In the Golden State’s public image, it’s nowhere close to a marquee attraction (it’s not on many tourist maps), and with good reason, as anyone barreling 80 mph up Interstate 5 can attest, squinting out at some of the most lackluster landscape in the country. The only water in sight is the homely meandering concrete of the California Aqueduct, resembling a 700-mile storm drain. It’s also the only sign of life from the towns that dot the valley floor, visible merely as off-ramps leading to the dusty horizon. This is the valley in Ken Light’s Valley of Shadows and Dreams, and despite the dreary face it puts on to the casual observer, its 42,000 square miles, fringed by the parallel cordilleras of the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the east, and the Coast range to the west, count among the most important spans of real estate in the world. If there is a place that deserves to be called “America’s bread basket,” this is it. Close to 12 percent of America’s farm revenue is generated in the Central Valley. Melanie Light compares it to “a farmer’s theme park…the 81,500 farms and ranches pull in $36 billion annually for over four hundred commodities, making California the number one state for farm revenue…California produces nearly half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, and is the country’s largest dairy producer…”

But Valley of Shadows and Dreams is not a hymn to this national cornucopia. It dissects in poignant, sometimes shocking and occasionally sardonic images, the persistent irony of the lives of the valley’s marginalized rural labor force. Eight years after the onset of the Great Depression, farm workers in the Great Valley—many of them like two generations of their forebears—still live in spartan, often destitute circumstances against the background of a vast, lucrative agricultural industry. There are close-ups of strained, weathered hands and faces, the shards of homemade religious shrines, dead cattle in a drought-plagued creek bed, laborers in their straw norteño cowboy hats waiting in a communal food line or slow-dancing in a dusty improvised cantina. The overall motif of these photographs, if not the individual images, is reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s depression-era  studies in the valley, as well as the work of Horace Bristol, who collaborated with John Steinbeck in 1938 on an illustrated book project that eventually became Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath

Rope Swing, 6 p.m.

A Modern Feudalism

Appropriately, Steinbeck’s oldest son, Thomas, was recruited to write the foreward to Valley of Shadows and Dreams. In it, he raises a chilling spectre implicit in the images that follow: the ancient feudal economic model that still pervades the Great Valley. He cites its roots in the 16th century quasi-pious Spanish conquest of Alta California, which was “neatly sliced up into a series of massive land grants that were parceled out to the richest of the [Spanish] king’s subjects, with additional land and forced native labor gifted to the Church…” It’s an interesting intellectual stretch to read these words and then flip to, say, the shot on page 9—an aerial view of dark, hard-furrowed soil abutted by a tidy clutch of neat, newly built suburban homes that the local workforce would never be able to afford. Paradoxically, since the Lights began this book, nobody has been able to afford those houses. Foreclosures have been as rampant in the Central Valley as in many depressed communities across the country. But the adjacent farmland, most of it in the hands of powerful agri-business, remains pure gold to the corporate entities that, like a gaggle of feudal barons, continue to reap its profits. That story is suggested as well in the powerful imagery of Valley of Shadows and Dreams. As manifesto and photo essay, the book goes well beyond the “workers of the world arise,” plaints of the depression era. The harsh black-and-white images have a retro feel, but the idea is not reworked social discourse. It’s a fine sample of how documentary photography can still be used to examine and re-evaluate our treasured clichés and shared fantasies. Such as the one suggesting the Dream is alive and well in sunny California. 

Valley of Shadows and Dreams

Photographs by Ken Light/Text by Melanie Light


176 pp.

Southern California-based writer and commercial photographer Jim Cornfield ( is a regular contributor to Rangefinder.