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Reviewed by:
  • Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000
  • Eric J. Sandeen
Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000. By Richard Steven Street. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2008.

Everyone Had Cameras is a remarkable, timely book. Street brings together a startling array of photographs of California farm workers, establishing a continuity of image-making beginning in the earliest years of photography in the American West. From this tradition spring two iconic representations of farm laborers—the Dust Bowl-era Okie and the present-day, Hispanic migrant worker. Street performs important work by making the migrant worker visible, not only giving this large population a history but also tracing the engagement of these workers by photographers increasingly committed to this social justice cause.

Street's depiction of pre-Dust Bowl agricultural work establishes themes that run throughout the volume. Through the fictionalized Ramona and the artistically embellished portrait of Lorraine Collett, the first Sun-Maid raisin girl, Street shows how the romantic figure of the field worker was constructed by the agricultural industry. Carlton Watkins is the first of many famous photographers to picture conditions in the fields. Watkins' perspective—a 15-foot platform elevating the frame to include human action in the foreground and agricultural context behind—is replicated by a more than a century of photographers who did not confront individual workers and their circumstances face-to-face. Beginning with Watkins' logistical challenge of a wagon full of equipment and chemicals, Street takes pains to show the craft of the photographer: the deployment of cameras, the preparation of film, the dynamics between aperture and exposure, and the setting up of the shot. He substantiates that the fields are fertile, multi-cultural ground from Watkins's photographs of Chinese workers to the present day: Chinese, Japanese, Native American, Filipino, and even Yemeni labors populate ground more commonly associated with generations of Hispanic farm workers. Above all, he begins the naming of those [End Page 284] who bear witness to the struggle for visibility in the fields, the amateur and transiently engaged professional photographers who risked their careers to document the struggle for visibility.

There are wonderful details in this massive work. Street provides biographical information for dozens of photographers whose compelling work, in many cases, had lain in obscurity for decades. He does not hide his animus for photographers who simply will not engage the social ills that surround them—art photographers such as Edward Weston, who prefer to focus on shape, texture, or composition, instead of turning toward scenes of social inequity; professional photographers who parachute into a complex scene of labor unrest to capture salable shots and then depart.

The challenge of Everyone Had Cameras is that at least three books that have been combined into one massive, compelling tome—hard to put down but almost equally hard to lift; teachable in the passion of its themes and vignettes and yet unusable for most classes because of the sheer weight of its argument.

The first and most compelling book is a history of images of California farm workers which he begins generations before the appearance of the refugees fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. Cesar Chavez, whose career dominates the last 100 pages of the text and concludes this history, is, in Street's portrayal, a complex, charismatic leader who always knew the value of a good photo opportunity.

The second book presents the California career of Dorothea Lange. Several chapters detail Lange's troubled relationship with Roy Stryker and New Deal federal agencies. Street follows many of her shooting itineraries in meticulous detail, in some cases providing a great service to those interested in how Lange constructed her reading of the social disaster unfolding before her lens, and in other instances repeating well-known details of individual shots. Street's portrayal of Lange carries the reader through the 1930s and shows the cost of commitment to a social cause. This extended attention comes at considerable cost, attenuating portraits of equally committed but lesser known photographers like Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel.

The third book emerges on page 498 of Street's scholarly and engaging study. Here the author...


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pp. 285-286
Launched on MUSE
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