Review by Wayne Swanson •
Bruce Haley is a photographer known for his international coverage of war and its aftermath. His work during Burma’s bloody civil war in 1990 earned him the coveted Robert Capa Gold Medal. Yet in his quiet personal work he keeps the home fires burning. The lands of his youth and his present are the subject of his two-volume Home Fires study. Vol I: The Past, reviewed here earlier this year, focuses on the place where he grew up, the San Joaquin Valley of central California. The just-released Vol. II: The Present takes us to his current home in the far northeastern corner of the state, on the edge of the Great Basin.
Both in their own ways reflect a family affinity for off-the-beaten-path places. The connection dates to the “Okie migration” that brought his father and family to California in the 1920s, eventually settling in the vast agricultural Central Valley. Haley’s current home is in one of the most isolated areas left in America. As he notes in his wry and engaging introduction to Vol. II, “If you drew a line east from my front porch, it wouldn’t hit a town for over 400 miles.” Yet Haley’s lens finds visual appeal in both places. There is a quote from Camille Pissarro that he likes: “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”
The two books share a similar dark aesthetic based on overcast winter light, but the focus of each is slightly different. Vol. I is more documentary. The book examines the effects of drought on this important agricultural region while also remembering Haley’s childhood rambles through the fields and irrigation canals of his “wilderness.” It documents the winter of 2014, which was the height of one particularly bad drought.
Vol. II is more pastoral and the imagery is broader in scope. The photos were made over a seven-year period, and they cover the arc of seasons from fall to spring. The book begins with images of burn scars and cattlemen bringing the herds back from their high desert grazing allotments. It continues through autumn, the hard winter, and melt time. Along the way we see the contrasts of the picturesque and the mundane in this rugged and remote land. There are stunning Western vistas and dilapidated buildings. Subtle fall colors and stark empty branches after a beetle kill. Still lifes of farm implements and of dead livestock. And plenty of scenes of bone-chilling ice and snow. As Haley notes, “Geologic time smacks you in the face everywhere you look out here. Human history, on the other hand, appears shallow-rooted, tenuous, and susceptible. We build our lives in harsh places and trust to fate or faith or some combination of both, while cyclical Nature dictates destiny.”
The unromanticized aesthetic could be characterized as Andrew Wyeth meets the New Topographics. The straightforward, well-composed images may not be conventionally pretty, but they capture the harsh and rugged reality of his world. Vol. II shares the same simple classical design as Vol. I, featuring one photograph per page spread with ample white margins around each image. The large size of the pages (11 x 12.5 inches) makes it easy to appreciate the subtle details in each image.
Haley acknowledges that many people would question why anyone in their right mind would choose to live “in the middle of nowhere.” The answer can be found in the quiet, understated appeal of his images.
Contributing Editor Wayne Swanson is a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
Home Fires Vol II: The Present, Bruce Haley
Photographer: Bruce Haley, born Alameda, CA, resides in Modoc County, California
Publisher: Daylight Books (Durham, NC, USA, copyright 2021)
Essay: Bruce Haley
Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 11 x 12.5 in., 120 color images, printed in Turkey
Creative Director: Ursula Damm
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