A common subject for the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs was bars, both active and abandoned. The bar exteriors were frequently poetic, and I fondly remember the Last Resort, on the outskirts of Arvin, California on Bear Mountain Boulevard.
I’m not sure exactly where it was, but as I recall it was on the far side of town as the highway headed into the mountains. It’s gone now, I’m sure. I looked around on google maps and located similar buildings in the area, but nothing quite the same as “The Last Resort.”
The view, btw., just on the other side of this building, pretty much looks like this:
That view, which I didn’t record on that day, is the reason why I remember the approximate location so vividly.
Nonetheless, many of the bar exteriors I took in those years are hard to locate in memory. The Central Valley is full of them. For example, I have no idea where the El Cha Cha Cha bar was. Best guess is McFarland or Delano, but I can’t really be sure. I do remember a second version of this photo with a woman crossing the front of this bar which is better, but I haven’t been able to locate it.
However, after writing about King Lumber Company and doing the research, I located the Estrella bar: it was just down the street from there on 166 W. Perkins street in McFarland (the address is above the door).
Flanking the door, the Estrella bar proudly proclaims “live music” and identifies itself as a dance hall. No doubt there were countless Saturday nights passed by people who had worked the fields all week. The location looks a bit different these days, according to Google street view, but the “pole” motif is still in evidence.
That’s the curious thing about the fog of progress; sometimes you can see for miles and still not know what you’re looking at. All the lost dreams, all of the songs, disappearing along with the world that used to be. We depend on an increasing array of memory devices, like photographs and stories, which we summon as a last resort, like maypoles to wrap our dreams around.
I suddenly remembered that I could look for signs of a street address on the Last Resort photo. Bingo! My memory was within a block of the original location, which is now a Chinese restaurant.
And, locating the negative strip I can now say that the El Cha Cha Cha bar was also in McFarland. The sequence of photographs, King Lumber, Estrella Bar, El Cha Cha Cha, etc. was taken in March 1993.
Bakersfield is famous for its tule fog. It’s literally a low flying cloud that just can’t escape the ground. Lots of people die in automobile accidents during the fog season, but growing up there, I loved it. Fog days!
Fog is a powerful metaphor, and random google searching brought a short summary lecture on YouTube to my attention. The fog of progress, a final lecture in an online class on machine learning and neural networks, describes why it is so difficult to predict the future in quite meticulous and scientific terms.
It occurs to me, though, that it’s just as difficult to see through the fog of progress to understand the past.
Looking through some more of the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs, I started scratching my head trying to figure out where I took a particular photograph. It isn’t one of my favorites from the series, but I distinctly remember trying to make it work (visually) but thinking of it as a failure. Intellectually though, it’s a new favorite.
The project I undertook in the early 90s to photograph odd bits of landscape in the Central Valley was inspired by a musician friend, Scott Sturdevant (a.k.a Slim the Drifter) who recorded a cassette called “Songs from the Valley Towns.” Most people thought of the valley disparagingly (as far back as 1873, it turns out), but when Scott looked around he saw the hopes and dreams of the people who lived there. I saw those same hopes and dreams in the landscape. When dreams are in ruins, it’s hard to see them through the fog. There are a lot of ruins along Highway 99.
This photograph was one of the first I can identify from the series. I drove up Highway 99 from Bakersfield to the first real exit worth getting off at, which might have been McFarland— yes, the same McFarland immortalized by Kevin Costner in the 2015 track movie. I remembered vaguely, revisiting this one, that it was King Lumber Company (hard to forget, given the “crown” cut in the sign.) Nothing much remained but the “Co.” One of the great innovations, in my opinion, of photography in the 21st century is GPS data. It’s hard to remember where you actually took photographs as the fog of years rolls in.
King Lumber was a big clue, it turns out. Looking further into it turned up this photo from Bakersfield, captioned as being a location on Union Avenue (old Highway 99, actually) from 1911:
A bit more research turned up that King Lumber was founded by twin brothers Everett and Elmore King, circa 1904.
The California Lumber Merchant from April 1, 1923 tells a story of Elmore King slipping out of a posh dinner to exchange clothes with the chef, in order to confront his host and demand payment up front for dinner.
His lumber empire grew to be huge. He founded a brick company as well, and I found notices that he became an importer of straw hats, clearly a great opportunity given the Bakersfield sun.
The trade publications also noted that he loved to play golf, and there are multiple references to his performance as a golfer. He expanded King Lumber to at least five different locations up and down the valley.
I located the address of the McFarland location from an old ad from 1961. This is what it looks like now, courtesy of Google street view:
The telephone poles are still there, and Highway 99, but not much else. King was the founder of a huge empire that is now largely gone. One thing seems to have survived from the King empire, at least in spirit. Although it’s a different organization from the Kern River Country Club King helped found (which died in 1935) The Bakersfield Country Club is located on the same spot.
Bakersfield Country Club is the area’s most exclusive golf club offering a limited number of full equity memberships and non-equity tennis and social memberships. It has a friendly tradition that started with its founding members. These were families with great pride and values born out of the farmlands and oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. These same values and friendliness have survived into second and third generation memberships since the inception of Bakersfield Country Club. There are many golf, tennis, and social events that keep the calendar busy year round.
I visited the Bakersfield Country Club once around the time that the photograph at the top of this post was taken, somewhere between 1980-82. The club is located near the Kern River, next to Lake Ming in a fairly deep valley, traversed by Alfred Harrell Highway. In the early years, the highway lead right to the golf course that the King brothers were instrumental in founding. Elmore King contributed redwood saplings from Eureka to the project. But when I was there, the highway ran from the bluffs on Panorama Heights to Highway 178, the Kern Canyon Highway. Notably, the county dump sat midway between, with oil fields on the other side of the river to the north, where my father worked until he retired in late 1982.
I wasn’t a member of the country club, but the lumber and hardware store where I worked, Sackett and Peters, threw a Christmas party there. I remember that party well, because it was the first and last time they ever booked the country club in the fog season. Down in the river basin, the fog was about a hundred times worse than it was in the city. By the time we stumbled out of the party around 2am, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t, without exaggeration, see the end of your own car from the driver’s seat.
Most people gave up and slept in the parking lot. However, my girlfriend Lisa and I braved it, along with Jim Powell, a nursery salesman and good friend of mine. Lisa and I were in my old Ford, and Jim had a small pick-up truck. It seemed like it took around an hour to locate the exit to the parking lot. I was reduced to driving with my door open, following the curb around the perimeter. Jim followed my tail lights, because my car was lower to the ground and it was easier to see the curb. When we got out of the parking lot (the toughest challenge of the night) the road up to Alfred Harrell Highway was easier; as you got higher, the visibility improved slightly.
Jim and I parted ways at the highway. I remember trying to convince him not to go his normal route back to his house in Panorama Heights (because the road dipped down lower from there), but he decided to brave it anyway. I turned left, toward the relative safety of the mountains. Jim headed towards the dump. I knew those roads like the back of my hand and felt like even if I couldn’t see, I could still drive them, and I’m sure Jim felt that same confidence of youth. Lisa and I made it home fine, as did Jim.
It dawned on me, as I went through the trouble of remembering this foggy story, and using arcane resources to locate addresses lost decades ago, that “the fog of progress” works both ways. While we are in constant danger, moving forward, of hitting the car that rides just ahead of us, we also flirt with the problem of running into the cars we used to be in, colliding with the past just as surely as we might crash into the future. After all, today is yesterday.
Oddly enough, this also implies the rota fortune, a distinctly medieval, rather than progressive, concept.
Scanning some photographs I took in the mid 1990s, I located an interesting detail. There’s a B-17 parked near the edge of my photo. In twenty years, I never noticed that before. I might have, when I took it, but I’ve slept since then.
What always intrigued me more was the name of the hotel, adjacent to Highway 99 in the Central Valley of California. We’ve all stayed at mom’s motel, haven’t we? Growing up in the Valley, I spent a lot of time driving around, and quite to this day I feel that the highway is my home. It’s the landscape I know, and in most ways, my favorite book. There’s always something interesting to read.
Before I could drive, I used to ride my bicycle down to Milt’s Coffee shop, just across Highway 99 from Oildale, California to sit and read. One of the books I distinctly remember reading there was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Milt’s seemed like the natural place to read it; the view was perfect.
This was always my landscape— weeds and freeways. It’s been a strange transition, to go from this to the mid-south, to the upper midwest, and finally to the east. I’m going to visit Maine next week, for the first time. It’s a long way from Oildale. I’ve never understood why others weren’t as fascinated as me by the man-altered landscape. I never found it ugly at all.
I feel as if I’ve really discovered a kindred spirit in J.B. Jackson. His obituary in the New York Times spells it out succinctly. I look forward to reading the next chapter out there on the highway.
Whenever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?
The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.
John Brinkerhoff Jackson, “The Need to be Versed in Country Things,” Landscape , Vol. 1 No. 1. Spring 1951
These books taught me to pay attention to something besides pornography. Landscape porn, in particular, has overshadowed the way most people look at the world and I find it awfully sad. This was the primary lesson I learned as a young adult, staying at mom’s motel.
I’ve been researching the foundations of Arts and Crafts as a social movement off and on for over a decade now; a decade ago I didn’t even have that label to place on it. At the center, for most people, is John Ruskin. The problem is that I find Ruskin to be deadly dull. This year I figured out that William Morris wasn’t dull; I also realized that Thomas Carlyle also factors into this train of thought and I never found him dull either. Why does Ruskin bore me so? I still can’t answer that question. I can handle his thought when traced to other people, but by itself my eyes just glaze over.
I reached a bit of an epiphany the other day on one part of these questions—why is feudal art the golden age for these people, starting with Ruskin? It dawned on me that it could likely be a symptom of the anxiety over democracy and rule by the rabble which flows from Carlyle forward. The guild system is a system of maintaining authority over the production of goods. The “master” craftsman directs the workers under him in a system that makes sense to these aristocrats in a way that laissez faire capitalism or democracy doesn’t. It answers the anxiety without (in their opinion at least) resort to despotism.
That makes for a really easy connection in the early twentieth century with nationalism and all its calls to authority, making “culture” the central arbiter of quality in goods. For all its populism, it is fear of the crowd that drives these movements. Further, rebellion against “culture” by the modernists results in exchanging the aesthetes for technocrats/engineers/designers thus cloaking the “management” of the population by an oligarchy instead of taste-mongers and power brokers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Never do we achieve a satisfactory performance. Things are simply not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery, and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose yet. Every thing we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But even at that we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance we will have it in appearance.
David Pye, The Nature and Aesthetics of Design (1978, 1964) p.14
I knew that I had run across this concept before, and it finally dawned on me where: Claude Lévi-Strauss. It’s curious, because his discussion of the bricoleur occurs in The Savage Mind, first published in French in 1962, and then translated into English in 1966. It’s certainly possible that Pye’s colleagues at the Royal College of Art were talking about it, but he didn’t arrive there until 1964; but it’s more likely that it’s just the case that there was “something in the air” that drove very smart people to think about the contingencies of human existence in similar ways. Different fields, different languages, and completely different ends in sight.
Lévi-Strauss conceived of bricoleur as a way of contrasting underdeveloped civilizations derivations and deployments of myths. Throughout, he used craft metaphors that I’m just now remembering. I think it really puts a finer point on Pye’s contributions and deviances from the anthropological theorizations of craft as a model/metaphor for human society. The bricoleur, or as footnoted in the English translation, handyman, is contrasted with the engineer. While much of what Pye is describing and attempting to theorize is closer to engineering than tinkering about like a handyman, it has a curious similarity to Lévi-Strauss’s bricoleur.
I’m not sure if that’s just a coincidence; the time-line is just too close to call. For Lévi-Strauss, the designer or craftsman, particularly of modern scientific products, wouldn’t have much in common with the bricoleur, only the “repairman” would. Revisiting The Savage Mind has reminded me why I though his treatment was interesting all those years ago.
Attempting a summary of some key points, it is important to note that bricoleur has the overtone of extraneous motion (not unlike Pye’s assessment of decoration as ‘useless labor’). The label is deployed by Lévi-Strauss to try to quantify differences between the “scientific” and “savage” mind; the savage mind consists of a limited and heterogeneous set of resources that are deployed to meet various needs, whereas the scientific mind has at its disposal groups of tools specifically gathered and grouped to meet human needs.
Pye might argue that the scientific tools are just as arbitrary and haphazard as the savage’s tools; indeed, that’s pretty much Paul Feyerabend’s contribution. Against Method was published in 1975 so it’s fair to say that such questioning was not unusual at that time. I’m not sure if the Pye’s “castaway” passage is present in the 1964 edition, or is added to the 1978. But, accepting for the moment that at least the bricoleur/castaway side of Lévi-Strauss’s formulation has merit, just what does the opposition illuminate?
The ‘bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of the game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (17)
This reminds me greatly of Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest; Schwarz went so far as to analyze the tool lists across the ages to give a sort of historical weight to his tool selections within a tradition. The “finite and heterogeneous” tool set is contingent, but not arbitrary. Lévi-Strauss’s unusual turn from here is extruding it into a linguistic framework.
He gets there by calling a bricoleur’s tools and materials objects “a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type” [emphasis mine]. Defining tools and materials in this way, as relations, means that they can be used and reused only within limits. In short, their uses are finite, and they are intermediates in a potential transformation, in other words, signs:
Signs resemble images in being concrete entities but the resemble concepts in their powers of reference. Neither concepts nor signs relate exclusively to themselves; either may be substituted for something else. Concepts, however, have an unlimited capacity in this respect while signs have not. (18)
Lévi-Strauss proceeds from here to deploy his argument from analogy with a craft example:
A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal— which would allow the grain and polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as an extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already posses a sense which sets a limit for their freedom of manoeuvre. (18-19)
I’m not interested here in the argument that Lévi-Strauss is making as much as I am the way that he’s making it. Tools and materials for a bricoleur are constrained; the tools of the engineer/scientist are not because he has access to the concepts behind the situation. A bricoleur/handyman is force to deal with things by using a system of predefined symbolic relations—as Roy Underhill would have it, regarding woodworking, it’s all wedge and edge. The set of tools we have at our fingertips as craftsman are defined by custom, tradition, materials, and physics.
In short, like David Pye, Claude Lévi-Strauss is looking to define the function of societies and practices by identifying their constraints. That’s really quite remarkable, given the contemporaneous nature of all this. I missed this the first time that I read it, but then I wasn’t a woodworker then. Instead, I was a photographer looking at the semiotic dimensions of this argument, which are equally fascinating:
Images cannot be ideas but they can play the part of signs or to be more precise, co-exist with ideas in signs and, if ideas are not yet present, they can keep their future place open for them and make its contours apparent negatively. Images are fixed, linked in a single way to the mental act which accompanies them. Signs, and images which have acquired significance, may still lack comprehension; unlike concepts, they do not yet possess simultaneous and theoretically unlimited relationships with entities of the same kind. (20)
In its own way, this excursus on images is also about constraints; One might argue that an image, say Dorothea Lange’s image of Florence Thompson, must sever its fixed link to the person it references to become an open concept: “The Migrant Mother” which is then able to be set in unlimited relationship with other madonna class images. Only by defining itself as not Florence Thompson can the image acquire symbolic currency.
No experience can advance the cause of the handicrafts more than the cultivation of the habit of seeing beauty all along the way of life. An increasing number of our people are cultivating that habit and are practicing in their homes the sound and satisfying principle expressed by the great craftsman, teacher, and philosopher of art William Morris, who said “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
It is the homemakers of America scattered throughout all the states, in cities towns, villages and open country who are, as has been said, the hope for the fireside industries of the Southern Highlanders, and, it may be added, for the handicrafts of all the rural areas of our country. These homes are more than temporary markets, more than recipients of whatever may be offered for sale to them; they are in a very real sense partners with the makers in conserving and developing the extraordinary range of handwork with which the United States is so richly endowed.
Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (1937) p. 331-2
It’s been hard to figure out how to write this, but I really feel like I need to write down exactly how I became more comfortable with studying political theories. I’ve avoided them my entire life, largely because I thought of myself as an “artist” and felt that these things were best kept separate. It isn’t that I didn’t understand the truism that “everything is political”, it’s just that it seemed like a sure way to avoid the really considering issues rather than confronting the state of the world.
Most political art, in my experience, is really boring. There are exceptions, to be sure, (Guernica comes to mind, and Ben Shahn) but mostly I was more comfortable just changing the subject when things went that way. Most political discussions, inevitably, lead to preaching to the converted.
A while ago, I was invited with my wife to a sort of “going away party” for an activist that was seriously ill: Leslie Feinberg. I don’t get out much, and I hadn’t met Leslie before. I wasn’t simply a “plus one” according to my wife, who had been working with Leslie and her partner for quite some time on a variety of projects—Leslie really wanted to meet me. Apparently, my wife has been known to talk about me a bit.
When we arrived at the gathering, everything was just, well, friendly. I could see the Leslie showing some pictures on a TV screen to someone, and I was immediately struck by the images. They were not the usual amateurish cliches you usually see— no weird filters, nothing that resembled advertising at all. The pictures were quite “real” for lack of a better word. They were all taken from a high perspective (an apartment balcony, turns out). They reminded me a lot of Andre Kertez’s photographs of Washington Square in the last years of his life; somewhat sentimental but not forced at all, natural and touching.
I watched for a while, and then went over and spoke to Leslie briefly; I talked about Kertez (one of my lifelong heroes) and decided that I really needed to send over a copy of one of my monographs for her to look at. Though Leslie was weak, she really seemed interested. She looked the book over when I sent it, and expressed thanks when she returned it, with the gift of one of the photos that I had admired so much.
There was just a vital energy surrounding Leslie, you just felt better about everything being around her. When she passed, I just felt like the world was a poorer place. Her last words, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist” have stuck in my head.
As I read more and more about William Morris, and have conversations with Leslie’s partner Minnie Bruce Pratt, the more I become interested in the politics behind radical movements. E.P. Thompson’s book, as a matter of fact, was specifically crafted to rescue Morris from the land of bourgeois tapestries and fine books and place him squarely in the center of radical politics.
The problem I’ve always had with politics also centers on a corollary to the truism that “everything is political.” The old saw that “groups are always formed to exclude people” has always seemed to be more significant to me. A perennial outsider and a white heterosexual in the land of gender activists, I fully expected to feel at least a little uncomfortable when visiting Leslie. I wasn’t in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcome anywhere as I was that day at the “going away party.”
Minnie Bruce, when detailing the fascinating history of the movements that she was involved in over dinner a week or so ago, noted that there were always strong currents of isolationist thinking among the activists she was involved with. I never sensed any of that from Leslie; she was a radical bent on bringing people together, at least in my limited experience of her. The dissolution and fracture of social movements has become increasingly fascinating as I read about William Morris. The pattern seems to be quite familiar.
When Leslie chose to make the most important aspect of her life to be her revolutionary communism, it changed me. Suddenly, it felt more important to pay attention to politics and strive to understand the systems better. They wouldn’t have been my choice of parting words, but they were hers. What I remember about Leslie was her warmth, and sensitivity, and above all else her energy on her way out. The world got smaller when she passed.
Solnit: I feel a great affinity for photographers and I was told gently early on that I wasn’t good at interpreting paintings and I never had a real affinity for them. You have to get into the cult of painting, both the craft of it and the lineage of it, neither of which interest me very much. Photography and non-fiction feel very close because, as you say, there is a very direct relationship to subject matter, which was taken in earlier eras as meaning they weren’t creative. There is a tremendous responsibility that goes with that. As a photographer I know if I take a photograph of you and I make it public, people will expect it to be true. If I Photoshop it so that you look like you are snorting coke, I know that will impact what people will believe, the historical record, and your life. Therefore I have tremendous creative possibility but I also have tremendous creative responsibility. When that responsibility is seen as confinement it bugs me—when people who are supposed to be doing non-fiction tweak the facts I feel that is a creative failure. You do not have to make shit up or misrepresent what happened to tell a fantastic story that has literary form. You just have to be good at it, be good at your job and let the constraints give you a more interesting solution. Constraint is often read like the word compromise, but there is a way of compromising that is like collaborating, finding common ground, where you serve truth and vision both, and those feed rather than sap each other.
I sense, just beneath the surface of this response, the core of the “Q” question— can rhetoric be defined as “a good man speaking well”? I hadn’t really thought of “truth” as a constraint before, but yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always felt that constraints are often a good thing.
I was thinking a day or so ago about some issues that used to be on my mind. I had endless debates with a mentor in photography, Harry Wilson, about the relationship of art and politics. Harry’s work carried with it a degree of political charge, though it wasn’t necessarily jingoistic or even overt. I felt that political posturing is responsible for a lot of bad art. For example, it has taken me decades to warm to Robert Adams. His photographs always reeked with judgment about the man-made landscape, usually making it out to be an entirely negative thing. In contrast, in a more contemporary example, I don’t find that to be true of Edward Burtynsky. He photographs the man-altered landscape as well, and you are free to judge it as beautiful or ugly, necessary or a blight, depending on your own politics.
I’ll never forget a conversation with a director of the Kern County Arts Council around that time, where she related to me (to the best of my recollection) this statement: “I don’t mind politics in art as long as I agree with the politics.” Makes sense, I suppose, but it’s hardly that simple. For example, Harry always loved Les Krims (because of his humor, I think, rather than his conservative politics) while I hated his work. I never cared that much for the contrived. I was interested more in the real world as a thing in itself, rather than judgment of it. When I shifted my emphasis to photography in rhetorical studies, I wasn’t interested in politics for much the same reason. I didn’t want to produce any sort of writing that judged people for their political opinions and/or failings in that regard.
It dawned on me what the central issue for me is. While it’s possible to accept that we live in a political world, everything is not “hers or his.” I reject the idea that people and their relationships are the entire universe. There is a world, surrounding and dominating the political, that is far more interesting than the people who pass through it. People have an impact on it, to be sure, but understanding the world as it is (which includes people but also things) frequently involves agents and forces that are not human. Things matter more than politics, at least in my opinion. When politics distracts us from things, I think politics detracts from a complete understanding of the world.
The usual dodge “everything is political” is simply wrong. No, it isn’t. Everything can be savagely misunderstood and treated as a pawn in the pursuit of the political, but because the world is not merely of the people, by the people, or for the people— it isn’t exclusively or even dominantly political.