As Christmas approaches, bookstore tables are piled high with oversized volumes, including many that feature the works of gifted photographers, from Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson to Bruce Chatwin. Few of the season’s offerings, however, are as enticing as THE GREAT CENTRAL VALLEY, one of those rare phototexts in which text and photos are truly interdependent.
More than 430 miles long and averaging fifty miles in width, California’s Great Central Valley takes up an area roughly the size of England. In the early 1980’s, photographers Stephen Johnson and Robert Dawson began to work together on a long-range project to document the character and diversity of this unique region. In 1985 they were joined by Gerald Haslam, author of many works of fiction and nonfiction set in the West, who agreed to write the text for the book they were planning. This volume is the fruit of their collaboration. In addition to Haslam’s text and Johnson and Dawson’s photographs, the book includes historical photographs, posters, and other materials; there are also several maps and graphs. The entire volume is exceptionally well designed and produced.
The stories Haslam has to tell are often admonitory, from the decimation of the Indians who once populated the Valley to the depredations of modern agribusiness. This is no predictable screed, however, but rather an attempt to present a particular place in all its complexity. Haslam’s nuanced text is matched by photos of the Valley’s gas stations and dams, its rivers and fields and groves, its tacky roadside attractions. The vision of these photos is Whitmanesque, embracing the mundane, the absurdly incongruous, and the hauntingly beautiful. In his introduction, Johnson quotes photographer W. Eugene Smith, who said that the strength of artists is “to cause awareness.” Whether you’ve never been to the Valley or have lived there most of your life, you will finish this book with a new awareness of California’s heartland.