Richard Steven Street: The photographer as historian
In his quest to become the best possible scholar of California farmworkers, Richard Steven Street put academic life on hold and spent 30 years as an agricultural photographer. This memoir recounts how Street developed his method for gathering visual and verbal information for his books. Street argues that when a person strays from the anointed path, one surprise follows another, no formula fits all, and one acquires an appreciation for life’s contradictions.
I am no hero. I present no transcendent profile in courage. A season of 20-hour workdays in the sun leaves me tanned to the color of an old walnut and feeling like a dried prune. At the end of the wine grape harvest I’m so exhausted that I take to bed and sleep for a week.
Stubborn and plodding, I fumble and bumble along. Decades of using Kodachrome to document the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), the U.S.– Mexico border, organic agriculture, and wine making have resulted in a 50,000-image file of agricultural subjects.
Over the past 30 years, I have built Streetshots into a successful photography business specializing in agriculture, defined broadly—that is, everything from big peaches to undocumented workers, mainly in California, but ranging from Hawaii to Haiti and places in between.
Along the way I have photographed men living in holes in the ground, people kept as slaves, transsexual B-girls catering to farmworkers, and photographers specializing in cows. I have also documented field hands shooting up black tar heroin, mass arrests of UFW pickets, the bleached bones of immigrants who did not make it through the Arizona desert, and Oaxacans stooped over in the shape of a question mark while using the shorthandled hoe to weed fields 25 years after that evil tool—el cortido—was banned.....
Gritty and exciting, [my... ] first photographic efforts were also expensive and exhausting. Not an hour went by when I did not ask myself if I should just sit down to write, not to mention return to a “normal” life.
As the fellowship money dried up and the odd jobs
began to eat into my research time, the powers
that be at the University of Wisconsin began pressing
me to turn in my dissertation. I sat down and
carved out a 750-page manuscript on the beginning
of agriculture in California. Titled “Into the Good
Land: The Emergence of Agriculture in California,
1850–1920,” it was immediately accepted by my
dissertation adviser and just as quickly rejected by
two other dissertation committee members. Two
months later, a carbon copy of the manuscript won
the James D. Phelan Award for Literature from the
San Francisco Foundation. I also received a book
contract to publish the manuscript (Street, 19XX).
Soured on academic life and suddenly considered
an expert on agriculture, I found myself overwhelmed
with calls from magazine editors, all of
whom wanted good pictures to illustrate stories.
Knowing little about photography, I learned the
rudiments as quickly as possible by convincing
Pacific Sun, a sprightly weekly published in Mill
Valley, to sponsor a series of feature stories on the
best photographers in northern California....
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