|George Ballis took this photo of a boy clearing a makeshift high-jump in a labor camp on the west side of Fresno County
in 1958. It joins 280 others in a book about photographing farmworkers.
Photo from "Photographing Farmworkers in California"
By Guy Keeler
The Fresno Bee
Few shoppers give much thought to the human toil that goes into growing and
harvesting the fruits and vegetables that line central San Joaquin Valley
grocery store shelves. But photographers have always been drawn to the
people who do this basic work.
"It's the substance of what you're photographing," says Richard Steven Street,
author of "Photographing Farmworkers in California," the first of two books offering
a comprehensive history of farmworker photography. "We're talking about the
300,000 people who bring us our food. What they do is basic to who we are. That is
the reason every photographer of consequence has photographed in the fields."
Street, a historian by academic training who became an agricultural photographer while
writing his doctoral dissertation, has spent more than 20 years doing freelance
photography for California's agricultural industry.
During those years, he found ample opportunities to photograph farmworkers up and
down the Golden State and to seek out images of farmworkers captured by other
photographers. His tireless efforts ultimately produced a collection of 10,000
photographs, which serves as the raw material for his two-book set.
The initial 329-page volume (Stanford University Press, $39.95) contains more than
280 black-and-white photographs and a fascinating account of how photographers
have approached their work from 1850 to the present. The second volume, due
out next year, will contain an additional 95 photos, plus 700 pages of text on the
photographers who did the work.
"From 1850 to the late 1920s, photographers were not concerned with showing
farmworkers as human beings," says Street, who lives in San Anselmo.
"Farmworkers were used as decorations."
One photograph from this period, taken by an unknown Fresno photographer, spotlights
wooden raisin trays loaded with fresh grapes. The farmworkers who picked the grapes
are shown kneeling amid the vines, as if posing for a yearbook picture.
It was not until the late 1920s and early 1930s that photographers began to focus on
the work and plight of California farmworkers. Dorothea Lange produced some of
the best-known images from this period, Street says, but she was not alone.
"There were several photographers before Lange who helped get this change
under way," he says.
Those photographers include the late Ralph Powell of Hanford, who, as an 18-year-old
high school student, produced a compelling photo essay on the 1933 San Joaquin
Valley cotton strike.
Lange's husband, University of California economics professor Paul Taylor, was
photographing farmworkers long before the couple met. Ansel Adams, known primarily
as one of the nation's foremost landscape photographers, ventured into the fields on
several occasions in search of human subjects, and German immigrant Otto Hagel
traveled with migrant workers to document their work and lives.
"What we see is modern photographers building on the tradition of Lange and Hagel,"
Their documentary style, focusing on farmworkers, their labor and their struggle to achieve
better wages and working conditions, had a major impact, Street says.
"I don't think César Chávez [co-founder of the United Farm Workers union] could have
been successful if not for the photographs taken by George Ballis, John Kouns and
Ernest Lowe," Street says.
"Their images helped shape how the public perceived things."
Often, the photographs were shocking. Street includes a haunting picture, taken near
Pixley in 1933 by San Francisco Chronicle photographer Fred Smith, which shows a
mortally wounded cotton picker trying to rise from a pool of his own blood.
Other photographs in the book capture the violent confrontations between striking
farmworkers, nonstriking workers and police.
Street said the farmworkers union needed to shift the scene of its conflict out of the fields,
and it launched a grape boycott in 1968 to achieve that tactical goal. Photographic
coverage of the boycott helped shape public perceptions.
"These photographers never declared themselves to be neutral," Street says.
"They were activists."
Ballis, a former Fresno resident who now lives in the mountains near Tollhouse,
started photographing farmworkers while he was editor of the Valley Labor Citizen
from 1953 to 1966.
Both Lange, from whom Ballis took a seminar on the philosophy of photography, and
Taylor, who provided background on irrigation issues, influenced his views.
"I took my camera out to the fields, determined I was going to help farmworkers and
make changes," Ballis says. "But these people didn't remain subjects for long. They
became my friends."
While others were filled with pity for farmworkers, Ballis was intrigued by
their human spirit.
"They were amazing people," he says.
"They had strength and dignity. I wanted my photographs to reflect to them the power
and dignity they had."
Ballis looked for opportunities to capture images of hope, even in circumstances that
others might consider hopeless. One of his most memorable photographs was taken
at a west side farm labor camp in 1958.
Though living conditions at the camp were deplorable, Ballis noticed a boy testing his
high-jumping ability with makeshift poles and bar.
"Here he was in this terrible place, doing his high-jump thing," Ballis says. "He was using
an old car seat for his landing pit. I caught him going over the bar. In the background, you
can see the camp shacks. But in the picture, the boy is above the shacks. You have
to look up at his spirit."
The youngster -- barefoot, fists clenched, tongue planted between his lips with
youthful determination -- appears to be soaring above his circumstances.
Street selected the high-jump photo and several other Ballis shots for inclusion in the first
book. Another Ballis photograph -- one that many experts consider the defining image
taken during the Chávez-led march to Sacramento in 1966 -- will appear in Street's next book.
During the march, Ballis says, he was inspired by the people walking in line. The day
before the group reached Sacramento, he noticed a pair of marchers carrying a 10-foot-high
cross. The pair had fallen behind the main group, and Ballis took their photograph in the
late afternoon light.
The image seemed to symbolize the self-sacrificing qualities of the marchers.
Retired Fresno schoolteacher Vincent Lavery found himself on the other side of John Kouns'
camera during a dramatic moment in farmworker photography. In the photo selected for
Street's first book, Lavery, wearing a suit and tie, is standing side by side with farmworkers
behind Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Chávez on March 11, 1968, the day Chávez
ended a 26-day fast.
Lavery was living in Merced at the time the photo was taken. He was involved in union
activities and was Merced County chairman of a grass-roots political organization
seeking a Kennedy-Fulbright ticket for the 1968 presidential election.
"I went to Delano to support farmworkers and to ask Senator Kennedy to run for
president," Lavery says.
Lavery figures it was his suit and tie, plus the fact he was carrying a tape recorder, that
enabled him to get close to the senator. After the photograph was taken, Lavery asked
Kennedy if there was any chance he might run for president.
"He turned his head to the right, looked at me with his deep, penetrating eyes, and said
something to the effect that he would give it some thought," Lavery says. "Seven days
later, he announced he was a candidate."
"Ballis, Kouns, Lowe and Jon Lewis are the great saints of farmworker photography,"
Street says. "They worked under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions at a time
when there were few outlets for their photos."
Ballis took more than 30,000 photographs during the 1950s and 1960s. The other three,
all from Northern California, came to the central San Joaquin Valley to photograph
farmworkers at various times.
Lowe spent a year in the central San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1960s photographing
the unincorporated black community of Teviston, between Pixley and Tipton.
His 1961 photograph of a farmworker tilling with a short-handled hoe was selected for
the cover of Street's book.
Kouns photographed farm labor strife in the central San Joaquin Valley during the 1960s.
Lewis was a freelance photographer who lived in Delano for nine months in 1966, surviving
on $5 a week from the farmworkers union and whatever food he could find.
Though conditions for farmworkers have changed since the 1960s, Ballis laments the lack of
change in one fundamental regard.
"The hope is still there, but one basic element is missing," he says. "Our society still
does not hold farmworkers and their labor in respect. We could get along without
computers, but we can't get along without food."
Ballis and Street agree that helping farmworkers, in the minds of many people, means
assisting them in finding better jobs outside the fields.
"But somebody has to do the farm work," Ballis says. "They deserve our respect."
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