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.