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American Peasantry

Richard Street | California, United States

Organization: Streetshots

In a scene often mistaken for something in the Sudan, the "Mujercitas Mexicanas" [a group of teeange Mexican activists] gather grape vine cuttings on the Mecca Slope in the Coachella Valley. November 1991.

These images are the concluding chapter in a modern visual history of farm labor in California since 1975. They attack the immense advertising system’s facade by reconstructing varieties of labor in the fields. My goal is to underscore the extent to which fruit and vegetable production rests a class of landless peasants (although we never reefer to them with such charged terms) and an American variant of apartheid. Through these images we shake hands not only with people of color and immigrants moving north from Mexico and Central America, but with those traveling east from China, India, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia. Watching 350,000 people pouring their sweat and blood into the fields, we sometimes sense that we have stepped directly into kind of modern analog to a Charles Dickens epic. Appearing at the drop of a hat, dismissed with the flick of a finger, and employed in a glutted labor market, California farmworkers are channeled through the landscape as routinely as if sending irrigation water down the furrows of a field.

Richard Steven Street, Jon Lewis: Photographs of the California Grape Strike (Univ. of nebraska Press, 2013)

Richard Steven Street, Photographing Farmworkers in California (Stanford Univ. Press, 2004).

Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford Univ. Press, 2004).

Richard Steven Street, Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-200 (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Ken Light, To the Promised Land (Aperture, 1988), intro. by Richard Rodriguez, essay by Mary Jo McConahay

Alex Webb, Crossings: Photographs from the US-Mexico Border (The Monacelli Press, 2003), essay by Tom Miller

Herman LeRoy Emmet, Fruit Tramps: A Family of Migrant Workers (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1989), intro by A. D. Coleman, forward by Cornell Capa

Don Bartletti, Between Two Worlds: The People of the Border (The Okland Museum, 1992).

Phillip Anastos and Chris French, Illegal: Seeking the Ameian Dream (Rizzoli, 1991).

Anthony Sau, "The Fence," in David Cohen, ed., What Matters (Sterling Publishing, 2008).

David Bacon, Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration (Cornell Univ. Press, 2006), forwards by Carlos Munoz and Douglas Harper


As a historian completing a multi-volume, comprehensive history of California farmworkers, I ply the archives and unfold the action in heavily footnoted scholarly tomes.  But I also try to amplify what is the most substantial and extended visual account of any group of American workers. Involvement with farmworkers is a defining caharacteristic of photograpjhy in the Golden State. Every California photographer of consequence has at some time, for some reason, photographed in the fields -- Ansel Adams to Max Yavno. Their images have embedded themselves so deeply into the farmworker experience that it cannot be comprehended without contemplating their work. While on assignment, I often find myself seeing the same scenes that Dorothea Lange recorded during the Great Depression. For years I let them pass. Now do not hesitate to record them. Seeing the same scenes today that Lange saw tells us a lot about continuity and change. My goal is to amass a body of work that enters the public consciousness and serves as an organizing tool.  Although I occasionally work in black and white, most of my photographs are in color. To overcome the oppressive midway sun and to document conditions in laborcamps and shantytown settlements tucked deep in ravines and canyons about the state I often employ studio-quality strobe light filtered through soft boxes. I shoot with old Nikons, pre auto-focus, banged-up, one of them still bearing the imprint of a rifle butt, with the black finish worked off the corners and the brass showing through. I remain an analog photographer and still use film. All but a handful of my images are scans from Kodachrome. I will continue to use Kodachrome until November 2010. My technique is problematic. I never know how I’m going to handle a subject, often reverse myself mid-process, and frequently work simultaneously as a commercial, editorial, documentary, and journalistic photographer, even while returning to the academic life as a historian specializing in agriculture and farm labor. My goal is to fracture the artificial truncation of knowldedge that divides us into various camps, schools, and disciplines. 

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