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[Book Review] California Exposures

by A.M. Larks

California Exposures, by Richard White and Jesse Amble White, is not what you expect, but that of course is by design. Richard White, in his own words, finds it simpler to discuss this book by eliminating the things it is not rather than by what it is:

It is not a photography book, although photographs are at its center and without there would be no book. It is not an art history, which would focus more narrowly on the photographs themselves and on the photographer. Nor is it a conventional history, for in no histories I know does the narration proceed from the photographs. Usually, photographs illustrate the historical text. They are decorative.

And yet, the fact that Richard White, with the help of his photographer son, Jesse, would create a work that would defy expectations is not wholly unexpected as the former is known for his comprehensive dismantling of the lore surrounding the transcontinental railroads. According to White, “this book is a collaboration between a historian and a photographer who happen to be father and son.” Out of that collaboration was born a chimerical narrative with the head of a photography book, the body of a history book, and the tail of social criticism.


California Exposures is guided and driven by the photographs that are contained within it. Each one acting as the fulcrum around which a myth is relayed and consummately examined and often disassembled. Myth being the operative word:

Myths are not so much falsehoods as explanations. Myths, as Richard Slotkin has written, are representations that collapse into a single emblematic story the assumptions and values of a culture. History and myth both aspire to tell why things and people are the way they are. But where historical stories tend to be particular, contingent, and relatively open-ended—anything can happen—myths seek universal meanings and claim to explain why things have to be how they are.

The myths that the white men brought to California extend back to who first “discovered” California Sir Francis Drake’s landing in June or July 1579, and all the way through the mission era into today with the idea of the California Dream. Photographs have the unique ability to alter time because “photographs capture the isolated moment and present it for scrutiny. That scrutiny reveals a past and tempts us to imagine a future. Each photograph is a report from the trenches. We need to think about them not just sequentially but also relationally.” In other words, how does this moment sit in time? How does it relate the past? What does it hint to the future? That we are perpetually linked to the past is part of the lesson of this book; consciously or unconsciously our actions today stretch back to what has happened before. What happened on the ground beneath your feet? How did this ground become your ground? Who had it before you? What happened to them?

"At first I only saw cheerful horses on a playground carousel at a shuttered elementary school south of Hanford. It was winter of 2013, and the horses were frozen in a cartoon gallop before the bare valley oaks in the background. History can steal a photograph and alter its meaning, moving it beyond the photographer’s intention. The horses, quite unwittingly, gestured toward terrible things that happened near here. But I didn’t know that then. The photograph led me there. I followed the horses."

Who decided the shape of things? When did that happen?

The photograph shown here is organic and relentlessly geometric, largely a collection of living things arranged in ranks and rows, squares and rectangles. The uncultivated land appears unkempt, but it too lives within right angles. The young trees in new orchards march off into the cultivated distance. Everything is natural; nothing is natural. The photograph captures an American landscape that began to take shape with the gold rush. The logic of the cadastral survey that created this landscape was to turn conquered land into private property.

"The photograph shown here is organic and relentlessly geometric, largely a collection of living things arranged in ranks and rows, squares and rectangles. The uncultivated land appears unkempt, but it too lives within right angles. The young trees in new orchards march off into the cultivated distance. Everything is natural; nothing is natural. The photograph captures an American landscape that began to take shape with the gold rush. The logic of the cadastral survey that created this landscape was to turn conquered land into private property."


What California Exposures unmasks is that the traces of the dead surround us. The dead have made things, broken things, planted things, and killed things…Our societies, economies, politics, and cultures are composed mostly of what the dead have done. We, like our world, are their progeny.” When we feel we have moved on, moved forward from the past, we fail to realize that what has been built around us is a direct result of past actions. White argues that photographs are not only integral to this examination but uniquely qualified to help us see “because photographs allow us to concentrate. They corral our attention away from the flux of vision that is always rushing us to the next scene.” Photographs make us stop and stare, but we need a historian to make us realize and confront. “A photographer composes a picture as a whole, but a historian fractures it, dividing it into different elements that lead to different regions of the past.” A photograph of a California mission shows how this breakdown works:

"The freight train in the background of the photograph of San Gabriel Mission completes a complicated temporal layering. The mission, with its statue of Father Serra, has eighteenth-century Spanish and Indian roots. The railroad, which runs along the old Southern Pacific tracks, helped create nineteenth-century American California. The paved road and the automobiles are quintessential twentieth-century California. Together they constitute a twenty-first century photograph."

Confronting our past means exhuming our dead and their possessions and examining them under the light of our day. It is not enough to attribute histories to their authors, or to unearth how a myth began, but we must trace those effects into the modern day. What have we inherited from the past? This examination is a universal demand; we all must scrutinize what we have been told. White is not exempt from this responsibility:

I watched Margaret Byrne stare at me for twenty years without ever wondering who she was or where the picture came from or the terms of the [academic] chair I occupied. This is an embarrassing thing for a historian to admit, particularly in a book devoted to insisting on the importance of understanding our daily lives through visual representations that capture the past. Portraits as well as photographs lead into the past.

One such pervasive and enduring myth is of the California missions. The myth of the missions alters slightly depending on the era or author, but remains a positive, often idyllic world centered around kind priests and grateful Native Americans—referred to as Indians—but in actuality, “[t]he missions were like pumps that sucked in displaced Indians and depopulated the surrounding country in wider and wider circles year by year.” Ultimately, “[t]he mission myth made Spanish rule an idyll, blamed the decline of the missions—and with them, Indians—on Mexico’s decision to secularize them and redistribute their lands.” And then later, “American succession turned the mission story into an account of paradise regained. The mission myth became at once nostalgic and progressive. It salvaged a Spanish/Indian past for American use, but it left Indians behind. It maintained a disdain for Spanish-speaking Mexicans and made California white.” It is then that we realize that modern missions are monuments made not to accurately reflect the past, but to celebrate the Americans who have preserved them. They are a fun-house mirror, not a reflecting pool.


The tales we tell ourselves are at the heart of our identity, as people, as a state, as a county. In America, we like to tell stories of American conquest, “martyrdom, innocence, bravery, and self-defense.” And in California, we often tell “stories about the relations between those who did the work and those who owned the land. They are stories about labor and capital. There are also stories about movement.” Without close examination of these stories, we are unwittingly complicit in its pervasion, predation, and obfuscation. “As we scavenged fruit, my brothers, sister, and I ran through a history that we did not know. We inherited elements of a nineteenth-century version of California every time we picked a Valencia orange: growth, Anglo-Saxonism, and the promise of the mission myth. We were innocent of any knowledge about the place where we lived.” White’s book asks the reader to examine their own knowledge about California, yes, but White’s focus is not that narrow. White is asking about the place you live, about what shaped that landscape, about how you got there. What are universal meanings derived from the stories of your life and the place you live? How are they explaining why things have to be the way they are in the present? White himself is not exempt from this social obligation, as he so readily admits, “I thought I was examining the beast from above, but I was reclining comfortably in its belly.” White wants you to scrutinize the stories that answer these questions, just as he has for himself and his state, and answer this one ultimate question: are they myth or fact?

The purpose of this examination, this excavation, is to facilitate change. White notes that “[w]e can only think in the present moment, but the present moment is always awash in the memories and ideas produced by the past.” And like the present, the sordid and the progressive often mix in the past. Not all of California’s past is sordid, but we need to separate those ideas we wish to keep and those that have expired. Nothing is more apparent of this sentiment than the photograph of the Allensworth school house:

"In the photograph the schoolhouse seems to be in motion, pushed forward by the same winds that drive the clouds above it. The place where the lands meets sky in the photograph’s middle ground to the left of the schoolhouse was once the water of Tulare Lake."

Allensworth was a race town, a place for black uplift with a strain of antimonopoly politics that sought to extend the movement beyond white people. It was intended to provide black homes and black advancement. It would be a black version of urbs in horto [the city in a garden]. No building embodied more uplift than the school.

The preservation of this history, the telling of this story, not the well-worn legends and myths, is vital to our future. We must remember that “photographs remind us that there will be incessant and sometimes hopeful change among both the horrors and the seemingly enduring and familiar. Drake’s Cross wears away. Azusa marches into the canyon. We proceed forward despite and because of the dangers.”

AM Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel TimeAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughsharesblogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current Fiction Editor at Please See Meliterary magazine, the Photo Editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and she is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She lives in Northern California.


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