Beyond Hollywood: New Exhibit Features Photos from Rural California

Tara Taghizadeh


In many people's experience, California consists of Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, and the highways that connect them. In reality, these urban centers make up only a fraction of the whole. According to the 2010 Census, geographically the state of California is more than 94 percent rural. Surprise Valley, Lost Hills, Raisin City, Mecca -- these are the communities that make up "the rest" of California.


Over the past two years, writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton has been telling the stories of these rural communities in her multimedia work Real Rural. Lisa has delved into the collections of the California Historical Society to connect these present-day stories with the past to create I See Beauty in This Life: A Photographer Looks at 100 Years of Rural California.


I See Beauty in This Life, which recently opened at the California Historical Society, features approximately 150 photographs, is a combination of large-scale color prints by Hamilton and her selections from California Historical Society's vast photography collections -- material dating from the 1880s through the mid-20th century, much of which has never been exhibited before. Hamilton has selected images that are not predictable views of pastoral windmills or heroic mule teams, but rather images that reflect her own keen interest in revealing the unexpected.


"This is a remarkable exhibition that helps connect rural California to urban areas with photographs that tell unique stories about the beauty, struggles and contributions of rural California to our rich history," said Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "I applaud the California Historical Society and the supporters of this project for bringing these stories and photographs forward and sharing them in such a unique way that is both provocative and educational."


Hamilton, who focuses on agriculture and rural communities, is the first scholar in a new program of the California Historical Society called Curating California through which artists, writers, historians, poets, activists, and other remarkable Californians are invited to explore the rich collections of the Historical Society with the goal of inspiring a project or exhibition.

"We are proud to inaugurate our Curating California program with Lisa Hamilton, whose keen eye, sharp mind and embracing spirit embody CHS's new vision for an open, accessible sense of history," said Anthea Hartig, Executive Director of the California Historical Society. "Taken by amateur and mostly unknown photographers, the photographs Lisa selected are remarkable for their beauty and unusual perspective and the meaningful, everyday stories that each tell."


"These press prints, snapshots, and publicity stills are intimate records of struggle, celebration, community, and the endless work required to wrest a livelihood from the land," added Hamilton. "Together, they tell a complex -- and sometimes humorous -- story of the many different individual lives and landscapes comprising the vast mosaic that is the Golden State.”

The title of the exhibition, I See Beauty in This Life, is taken from an interview that Hamilton did with Modoc County rancher and poet Linda Hussa who says, "If your poetry isn't based on something that's important to you--family, place, the purpose of your life -- well then it's kind of empty, isn't it? Because it has to have that passion to

affect other people, to make other people care about what you are saying. They have to hear that there is something there; I always wanted people to understand what was going on in the rural routes. And that there certainly should be some regard for the people there. Because I see beauty in this life, I don't think it is lonesome. And I don't think it is dumb."

According to Hamilton, there are many ways to define what is "rural." For the purpose of her work and this exhibition, she has used the term to describe "places where the culture and the economy are defined by the direct use of natural resources." This manifests in myriad ways, something reflected by the works in I See Beauty in This Life. We see gushing oil spouts and the faces of the men who work them, as well as graffiti left by trapped miners who were not rescued in time. A 4-H girl guards her prize sheep under the scrutiny of a Los Angeles television camera, and a rodeo queen applies lipstick from the makeup kit in the horn of her saddle. Given the great range of experience presented by these photographs, even those familiar with rural California are likely to be surprised.


The ‘I See Beauty in This Life’ exhibition will be featured in the galleries of the California Historical Society located in San Francisco at 678 Mission Street until March 24, 2013. 

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Courtesy of the California Historical Society
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