A hot August afternoon, the temperature in excess of 100 degrees as I slowly walk through the Central Valley farmland. I reached the halfway point, Pink Floyd singing about The Machine, and start my return home when I stumbled across something in the weeds. Two pink, sequined shoes rest on the side of a lightly traveled road, the left big toe worn, the word “Angel” in the heal of the right shoe. Ballet shoes that belong, or once belonged, to a little ballerina. I picture a small girl, her hands above her head, straining to stand on the tips of her toes, trying to make a turn. The shoes have been there awhile; the weeds were growing over the right shoe. “What does she look like in these shoes?" I paused the music and asked, "why in the hell are they here?”
I imagine scenarios. Worn out and time to be replaced, Mom is lazy and just tosses them out the window. That pisses me off - there is just too much trash along the side of our roads. Then a more likely scenario pops into my mind. “Recalling my own youth, I imagine a slightly older bother taking the shoes from her and teasing her by hanging them out the window. She watches nervously as they fall, whether accidentally or intentionally, and they slide to the side of the road. She cries, but Mom is so used to their arguing and fighting that she dismisses her crying and tells her to be quiet because she is on the phone.
Plausible. I take a few pictures and start walking. Pink Floyd sings about a shining diamond. The little ballerina’s shoes rest in weeds along a Central Valley farm road. How sad was she? Is she alright now? I imagine her next lesson. It's time to go, but the shoes are missing. Were they replaced? Does she still dance?
I started taking pictures of these crosses one afternoon when the deceased’s family had decorated them with colorful artificial flowers to mark the location of their family member’s death. His name was Christopher Montoya. I searched the Internet to see who he was and how he died, but I have been unable to find any information. On October 3, 2010, the family marked the eleventh anniversary of his death by placing a large, white metal cross on a nearby telephone pole. His family wrote his name, birth date (August 24, 1974) and the day he died (October 3, 1999) on the horizontal bar and his family roles (brother and son, but he apparently had not married or become a father) on the vertical bar. The cross was decorated with colorful artificial flowers and a handwritten sign from his older sister that told us Christopher had died in an automobile accident at the age of 25. Her note declared their love for him and she wrote that he was not only her baby brother but also her knight in shining armor and her best friend.
New flowers were placed at the cross on later anniversaries of his death, but over time the writing on the cross has faded in the severe Bakersfield sunlight and heat. At some point the flowers fell off the cross and there have been no new ones added for a few years (though someone, presumably the people who work the land, have “planted’ the artificial flowers in the ground below the cross). I assume the family has moved away. Though passerbys can no longer read who he was and the circumstances of his death, Christopher may be gone but he has never been forgotten.
Wegis at Reina
I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico in August 2007 with a good friend, our second trip in consecutive years that has now become an annual tradition. At the recommendation of a friend, we visited a lounge in the La Fonda Hotel for a couple of excellent margaritas. Afterwards, we visited Photogenesis, a gallery that specializes in black and white photography. I was immediately taken by the work of Nicholas Trofimuk. There was a picture of him with his large view camera, standing with the New Mexico landscape in the background. We began our return to the ordinary world two days later, traveling south along The Turquoise Trail, driving the long way to the Albuquerque airport. About seventeen miles from Madrid I spotted this image; Highway 14 snaking across the desert and disappearing into the distant mountains with intense afternoon clouds in the deep blue sky. We stopped the car, and trying to mimic a Trofimuk picture, I pulled out my little Panasonic LX-3 and snapped a few shots while Steve watched for traffic. That moment was a turning point in my photography, the birth of my passion for black and white images and a fondness for road pictures.
When I got back to Bakersfield I realized I didn’t have to be in an “exotic” southwest location to capture a good black and white road picture. I started to take pictures of the worn-out roads in and around the farmland, especially when clouds were in the sky.
Farmland Road gallery
The thirty-eight palms lining the almond grove along Renfro Road near Reina Way have attracted me since my earliest walks in the farmland. At first the palms were my turn-around point. Later they became a key milestone in my youngest daughters early biking riding abilities.
I have taken hundreds, if not thousands of pictures of these unkept palms. The attraction was simply that palms represent a certain lifestyle and geography I enjoy - a tropical, somewhat carefree lifestyle. After years of walking by and photographing them, I realized they represented more than just geography and lifestyle.
When I was young my cousins lived in the rural, farming area of the Rio Grande Valley. My family made annual trips to Harlingen, my Mother and Father’s hometown, to see my grandparents and cousins. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived outside Harlingen on land surrounded by farmland. I slept on the seven hour drive to the valley and wake up as we drove into the land surrounding their home. Along one of the roads to their house was a line of palms (evidently palm trees lining farmland is somewhat universal).The palms represented our arrival and once there we had days of freedom, leaving early in the morning and coming back late in the afternoon after hours of exploring the surrounding land and arroyos with my cousins. Perhaps I subconsciously feel that freedom every time I walk by these thirty-eight palms.
Note: It is April 2020. I was walking in the farmland during the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. The weather was Spring-like and it felt good to be out of the house. As I approached these palms I noticed crews on the side of the road, a tree service, trimming the dead fronds that had accumulated for at least two decades. I thought it was very strange to groom the trees - who cares what they look like out here? They looked very good a few days later when the crew finished. A week later another crew moved in. Someone must have purchased the palms. One by one they were removed, loaded on tractor trailer tucks and hauled away. I looked across the farmland on my walk yesterday and the land looked very empty where the thirty-eight palms once stood.
Clouds Over Tumbleweeds
Lunch time. First big clouds of the season rolling into the valley. I haven't seen clouds of any significance since May. Their presence transforms the scenery. I grabbed my 20D and headed to the farmland to take a few shots before I had to go back to my cube. I was there for only a few minutes, pressing the shutter at least thirty or forty times before it was time to go back. Whether it was the clouds or the act of capturing them, my afternoon was much more upbeat.
A few days later I sat down at my computer and began processing the images. On a whim, perhaps with New Mexico and monochrome images fresh in my mind, I converted several pictures to black and white and sent them to a friend. The subject line in the email was a sarcastic "Beautiful Bakersfield," or something to that affect. Her reply startled me – "that's a really attractive image."
Since that moment I have favored monochrome images; much of my early work was converted to black and white. That moment was also turning point with regard to my farmland photography. Up to that time I had taken my camera out to the farmland to capture special moments with my daughters or to simply enjoy the process of composing an image and pressing the shutter. From that point forward I realized I might capture some interesting images even though the land does not have classic beauty.
clouds over farmland
I grew up in Houston, Texas where the cloudy skies are normal. Clouds were part of the background of my life. Clear skies were less common. Clouds were often an ominous sign, a strong hint of the rain that was sure to come, driving us back inside the house, often with booming thunder that shook the house and lightening that shattered the sky. I’m sure it is not true, but it seemed that the clear, blue skies, those that were friendly to baseball and wandering around the neighborhood on my Schwinn banana seat bike, were more common on the weekdays while we were at school and the rain clouds came on the weekends. As I grew up I realized that the clouds formed throughout the day, saturate around 4:30 and pour rain on the afternoon commute on Houston’s packed freeways. As a child, and later as a young adult, clouds were not my favorite part of nature.
My job took me out to Bakersfield for a three-year assignment in 1985; I have been here ever since. After twenty-five years in the hot, humid, rainy Houston climate and a three-year stint in the even more humid New Orleans area, the desert climate in Bakersfield felt like a Godsend. It is hot, but it is a “dry heat.” The average annual rainfall is approximately six inches and most of that comes during the “rainy” season as the winter storms roll off the Pacific Ocean from November through April.
For six months a year the sky is effectively cloudless and rainfall is insignificant. The weather remained a Godsend for the first few years, but after some time the cloudless sky became monotonous, compounded by months of very hot weather. The world seems different when the clouds start to show up in Fall. Once I renewed my interest in photography the aesthetic quality of an image with white, puffy clouds or a powerful winter storm far exceeded the blue, featureless skies for much of the year.
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