Greetings from the Land of Little Rain. Death Valley had a flood last month. California's farmland is still dry.
ABOUT the Series: Words and Pictures
Inspired by California's farming history and current drought, LAND OF LITTLE RAIN is a series of six manipulated photographs that blend image and text. The title comes from Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain, essays about the dry lands of the Eastern Sierra she first published In 1903, and all the texts in the pictures are drawn from that book. (The actual words and their accompanying photographs can be found below.)
ABOUT the History: Contested Waters
Austin's family came to California in the 1880s to homestead, but a drought wiped them out. In 1892 she settled in the Owens Valley with her husband, an irrigation specialist. Over the next decade they watched the valley transform from pioneer community to potential agricultural powerhouse. Land that had been irrigated by ditches built on the centuries-old Paiute model was, in 1902, designated as a federally funded reclamation site. The dams were coming, and Austin wrote with the mixed feelings of a farmer and a wilderness lover, detailing a past in the act of vanishing.
What she didn’t know was that another deal was going down by which Los Angles was acquiring the rights to Owens Valley water. The federal reclamation project died on the drawing board, river water was channeled south to the city via aqueduct, and the Owens Valley became drier than ever.
In late 2013 and early 2014 Richard Matthews and I took several raod trips up and down California. He drove; I shot. Drought was beginning to make itself felt, and fields were left fallow, but the Owens Valley, its water rights restored and its agriculture expanding, was greener than we'd ever seen it. We too had mixed feelings.
ABOUT the Process: Pouring Text into Images.
One option in photo editing software allows an image to be saved as a "pattern." I began to explore using language to create these patterns in REGARDING WAVE, a series of water pictures inspired by Gary Snyder's poetry collection of the same name. In those pictures, the word-pattern was made from Japanes kanji (Snyder, a Zen Buddhist, lived and studied in Japan for 12 years.) I printed out blocks of a character--the one for fog, or float, or pooling waters, scanned them as photographs and saved them as patterns. These I applied to images of waves, wakes and ripples-- all abundant in my coastal California life.
In Land of Little Rain I wanted to use Mary Austin's terse but sonorous English and the problem was to find sizes and arrangements of type that could be transformed into an element that was neither wholly text nor utterly texture, but rather a blending of the two. A confluence. Each picture records a different compromise between form and content, with the length of the quote and the complexity of the composition both playing parts in the outcome.
What I didn't anticipate was the extraordinary exhileration--like opening a flood gate--when, with a tip of the Paint Bucket tool, a text poured down a track between groves or raced across a hillside. Words were running off the page, soaking into the paper and going where I never wanted them to go. This necessitated a lot of reengineering. During it, I was amused and chagrined to observe that just like Mulholland and California's other water czars, I was determined to be the one to control the flow.
LAND OF LITTLE RAIN texts and images (Larger versions viewable HERE)
#1 “It is the proper destiny of every considerable stream in the west to become an irrigating ditch “
#2 "It would seem the streams are willing. They go as far as they can, or dare"
#3 " —but how much farther in the man-made waterways"
#4 "It is difficult to come into intimate relations with appropriated waters"
#5 "One needs to have known an irrigating ditch when it was a brook, and to have lived by it"
#6 “Here you have no rain when all the earth cries for it, or quick downpours … for violence”
CODA: Still Dry
We retraced our 2013 route though the Central Valley this July. Groves were dead, hills no longer golden but a pale dust tan. Evidence of the drought was everywhere. There were no words for me to insert. The land was speaking for itself.