Richard Steven Street: The photographer as historian

Historians in the News

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....

Read entire article at Richard Steven Street in "The Photographer's Double," Visual Communication Quarterly (Fall 2007). (Article is not posted online)

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