Review by Douglas Stockdale •
While reading one of John Steinbeck’s many novels did you at one time attempt to visualize his Salinas Valley landscape that was seriously impacted by the pervasive drought conditions of the 1930’s? Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother may have come quickly to mind or perhaps the Dust Bowl photographs of Arthur Rothstein as well as the other FSA photographers and their stirring images of this pivotal time in American history.
Regretfully natural history does repeat itself, with mankind as much a part of the issue then as it is now, such as the recent drought conditions of the years spanning 2014 in California. We know that similar environmental conditions are also occurring elsewhere through-out the United States and across the globe, thus this photobook is a microcosm study of greater looming events. Bruce Haley has documented the impact of a contemporary draught, set in the San Joaquin Valley, adjacent to the Salinas Valley, in his photobook Home Fires Vol. 1: The Past. For Haley, this project is also part autobiographical, as he was raised in parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
In part he is observing this landscape with poetic youthful eyes while now cognizant to all of the ensuing changes that have occurred since. As Thomas Wolfe stated “you can’t go home again…back to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and fame…back home to the escapes of Time and Memory”. This is not by any means a nostalgic body of work.
Haley, like Steinbeck, is a ‘social truth-teller’, providing a searing documentation of what actually is, leaning into his decades of photojournalistic practice. He observes a hard scrabble and stark landscape, mostly an agricultural rural area mashed-up with the small urban centers that sparsely populate this region. The large corporate commercial agricultural operations are highly dependent on water and the associated politics are likewise. A protracted draught, as occurred in 2014, can have dire economic impact on the surrounding communities.
As to the documentary of commercial agricultural operations, I am reminded of Paul Hart’s poetic black & white photography and photobook, Drained, investigating the flat English lowlands which deals with another water issue in which it is ever-present.
Haley utilizes the bleakness of the overcast winter light to provide a subtle undercurrent to his body of work that resonates with me. This choice contrasts with the usual blazing brightness of the shimmering summer heat of this region. There is also the absence of any individuals in his lonely landscapes, a departure from his photo-journalistic practice, but whose presence is strongly felt by what tangible attributes remain as well as what is left abandoned.
I enjoy his wry observations, as evident of the defunct and down trodden Eye Wash station. Likewise, the last photograph of the book, End, signifying the abrupt end of the road and urban civilization while a desolate expanse extends beyond. We sense that this does not signify the ending to the continuing San Joaquin Valley saga. His photobook is classically designed, one photograph per page spread, ample white margins around each image and the photobook is a large enough size that makes reading the image details a real pleasure.
Bruce Haley was previously featured on PhotoBook Journal: Sunder
Home Fires Vol 1: The Past, Bruce Haley
Photographer: Bruce Haley, raised near Lemoore in San Joaquin Valley, CA and currently living in Modoc County, California
Publisher: Daylight Books, copyright 2020
Essays: Bruce Haley & Kirsten Rian
Hardcover book, litho printing, sewn printed by Ofset Yapimevi, Turkey, ISBN 978-1-942084-88-4
Art Director: Uarsula Damm
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).