California Historical Society showcases fantastic farm photos of state agriculture

Courtesy PhotoThis anonymous photo is one of many archival images on view in “See Beauty in this Life” at the California Historical Society.

Significant, profitable and divisive, California’s agricultural industry is powerful. That reality is reflected in “I See Beauty In This Life: A Photographer Looks at 100 Years of Rural California,” a show of more than 150 photographs from the 19th century to the present depicting the nit, grit, pomp and circumstance of farming culture.

On view at the California Historical Society, the exhibit is a collaboration between the CHS and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton.

As guest curator, Hamilton combed through CHS archives digging up photos of herders, hunters, rodeo cowboys, auctioneers, packing plants, canals and cornfields to hang next to her own large-format portraits and landscapes.

The show, on par with major museum exhibits, is a superb then-and-now showcase of farm life and photography.

It’s easy to mistake the older images for works by Works Progress Administration photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine or Walker Evans — they’re that good. But most of the archival pictures, including albumen and silver gelatin prints, are by anonymous photographers who took them for documentation purposes.

The result is evocative and the photos glow with an unassuming sincerity, while Hamilton’s full-on, contemporary portraits — often in the vein of Katy Grannan, Rineke Dijkstra or Alec Soth — have a more self-conscious, if no less earnest, air.

Pageantry surrounding agriculture, including prize-winning heifers and bucking broncos, is a strong current running through the show, as is man vs. nature and the inherent violence involved in taming land and beast.

“Miss Wool California” from 1968 shows a brunette with a high bouffant in a white sheath dress holding a sheep at the neck. While her smile reduces the tension, it’s an awkward image — hardly Little Bo Peep.

“Gloved Hand Gripping Sheep,” the unofficial, semi-erotic title for a closely cropped, black-and-white shot from 1950, echoes Guy Ritchie villains and slaughterhouses.

“Rabbit Drive,” from 1890, shows two dozen men in Kern County standing atop a mountain of dead rabbits. Men tether coyotes in assorted photos from a ranch in San Benito County.

Complementing the vintage images of lassoing, lipstick-wearing rodeo queens is Hamilton’s oddly sexual shot “Warm-Up, California Rodeo” from 2011. Two men in cowboy hats — one clutching his crotch in a pelvic thrust, the other pulling a frayed rope taut — both have their left arms up, spanking their imaginary broncos.

Hamilton’s eye for wackiness peppers the show. In a 1965 photo, a woman in curlers and cat-eye glasses cackles into the camera next to her shrieking pig, Sir Francis Bacon.

In another humorous image, a man smoking a cigar charges through a corn field that easily dwarfs him by five feet.

lgallagher@sfexaminer.com

Just Posted

SFUSD going back to basics with school lunches made from scratch

Upgraded culinary center could serve as model for expanded in-house food production.

Sliding doors could open up more space on Muni buses

A simple engineering change could soon make Muni’s 900 buses roomier across… Continue reading

City struggles to find alternatives for inmates in seismically unsafe jail

Mayor London Breed has given City Hall a deadline to close down… Continue reading

E-scooter company Skip announces layoffs after losing SF permit

San Francisco-based e-scooter company Skip this week announced pending layoffs for roughly… Continue reading

Juul suspends sale of flavored e-cigarettes

San Francisco-based e-cigarette maker Juul Labs announced Thursday that it is suspending… Continue reading

Most Read