Thinking about the “why” of the years I invested a great deal of my time, energy, and resources into making photographs, I find myself wondering about what I really wanted to get out of pictures. In the beginning, I think, I was trying to figure out what I thought about the landscape around me. It felt to me as if I was sleepwalking. It was simply there, and it seemed like it always had been there— and it was strange. Or, perhaps better— I was estranged from it.
My family moved to Bakersfield in March of 1963. I turned five years old that year, and we moved into a house on Melody Lane, next to the runway at the airport. By September, we moved to a new tract house on the west side of Highway 99, but my father spent most of his time in the oilfields up on Round Mountain Road.
Looking it up on Google Streetview, it looks different. On the driveway side, there was chain link fencing and tall climbing rosebushes, as well as a row of oleander bushes that went all the way back separating the houses. There was no fence and no palm trees on the other side. We were friends with the neighbors, the LaFoys— he worked in the oilfields with my dad.
It was hot in Bakersfield, so hot that it was painful to walk on the street in bare feet. My brother was walking home from Norris School and strayed off the street to walk in an irrigation ditch with a little water in it because it was cooler. He stepped on a broken coke bottle and collapsed. He severed an artery and was bleeding profusely. A local family saw him and put him in their pick-up and brought him to our driveway. My mother was understandably panicked, and called my dad in the oilfields to come home. They drove Stephen to the emergency room, and my dad took me with him when he left from there to go back to work in the oilfields on Round Mountain Road while they stitched my brother up. I remember having a good time playing in the shack he worked from, maintaining steam injection oil wells. I have a vague memory of him hosing down the driveway when we got home, washing the blood down the driveway into the gutter in front of the house.
I have a lot of memories set in the oilfields. When someone in Oildale decided they needed my cameras more than I did and broke into my apartment there in 1982, I was forced to move in with my brother Stephen in a Tenneco Oil lease house on the western end of these fields. Because of strike activity, I had to check in with a security guard before driving up the non public roads. Round Mountain Road is public, though, and gives expansive and otherworldly views of the ancient sea floor that is the basis of this corner of the valley.
My friend Slim often said that what made the valley special was the dirt. Near where these photos were taken, there’s an archeological dig at where the locals call Sharktooth Hill. Millions of sharks teeth have been dug out of these hillsides, once around 200 feet underwater in an inland sea. In a sense, when you stand there you are on a killing field where whales were being devoured by sharks. Even the megalodon swam here. Though I have so many memories of this place, it never seemed “right” to me. There is a coldness to my relationship with these fields, and I think that’s a big reason why I always wanted to drive back from time to time to test and see if my feelings had changed. I think from the moment I arrived here, I could think of very little beyond leaving.
There is a long tradition of connecting memory with the senses, with vision, with smell, and with taste. This has never been relevant to my experience. If pressed, I can smell the oil tar baking in the sun, or the chemical stench of the pesticides constantly sprayed on the fields and hills. But for me, I think it always comes down to touch— but a special sort of touch— the touch of the somnambulist.
When I wake up in the night, I generally try not to open my eyes when visiting the bathroom down the hall. It’s never a problem really, I can feel the space around me and negotiate it without walking into things. If I am uncertain, I reach out my hand or foot to touch something. Even when I’m on the road and in an unfamiliar room, it takes little time to become accustomed to the layout and be confident navigating it with minimal interaction. Bakersfield was always like that to me. I could just feel it, and move through it without touching it or it touching me very much. It’s as if I spent 32 years of my life sleepwalking there, and because of that it will always be a special place. The dirt never washes off, really— so you try not to touch too much.
I remember getting really irritated once when a well meaning viewer looked at one of my photographs of a musician and said “but I can’t really hear the music.” I never wanted anyone to smell the dirt, or hear the music, or much of anything else with a two dimensional photograph. I suppose all I ever wanted to do was give someone (myself mostly) the chance to revisit the feeling of what it felt like to be somewhere else or give them the chance to trace the contours of a hole that’s been left behind. Witnessing so many musical performances over the years, I think the thing that I usually remember the most is that feeling of almost lurching forward when the music ends because a majestic thing that has once filled the room is suddenly gone. You feel yourself lurching forward into the vacuum left by an absence.
Turning the page often feels like that to me.