Alcatraz Island in Full Colour: On Taking the Plunge into Photography

A year ago, living in California, I headed to the infamous Alcatraz island — a rite of passage for all bay area Californians locals and tourists alike. And thankfully, sunny (for once!) San Francisco did not disappoint in providing a good experience.

We think of Alcatraz as it is portrayed culturally — black and white, bleak. We think of the inside of the prison walls, of the stories which have been passed through oral tradition by way of campfire stories and through the big-name Hollywood media machine. We think of the cell block, of sensory deprivation and stark interiors, and of the stories of the haunted pasts of the people whose lives often ended on the island (sometimes, of the stories in which these haunted pasts surpass the limitations of the grave). We think of the “ghost hunting” shows with artificially-tanned, muscle-bound hosts, castigating the dead for their perceived inadequacies in life and jumping at the slightest indication of something which could evidence their own black-and-white, apocryphally-informed opinions. Often, we think of the tourists as perhaps the most colourful addition to the site.

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Our imagination captures the idea that our experience in visiting such a place will be the same as our inner vision so permanently that anything which suggests the contrary can come as a shock — and sometimes, a cultural faux-pas, perhaps seen as “glossing over” the darker side of its representative means. For how can a place beset with memories of such pain, darkness, and sometimes, the worst examples of humanity and best examples of poor choices, be anything but what we have heard?

When I visited Alcatraz, I had been grappling for weeks with the decision to buy my first professional camera (beyond my prized, pink, first camera given to me by my father at age fifteen). I had just finished my undergraduate course in art, and was struggling with which direction my heart wanted to take it. While I was fortunate enough to be in a financial position to make the investment, the final push to press “buy” was still off-putting.

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In the past, I had been told by people I was close to that I photographed “too much”, that it consumed me, and retrospectively, they were right. I stopped the pursuit of my earliest endeavours into the photographic arts for this reason, and picking it up again carried with it the fear of being chastised. But everywhere I went, my eye would reel for a camera in my hands, and ultimately, providing myself a momentary lapse in self control to snap a photo here or there was simply not working. As a young child, I had prayed for a lens in my cornea which would close the shutter when I blinked a certain way — a prayer which had turned into a lamentation at that point. I knew I could not wait another month, but the final push came from my Alcatraz photo series, however small and comparably low-resolution they may have been — for finding colour in a place I had, perhaps ignorantly, viewed as purely black and white.

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I took the guided tour. I stood inside the cells. I shuffled along the halls with tourists wandering aimlessly in every direction. I had read intensely in weeks prior of the island’s acquisition by Native activists in the late 1960s, and of its tribal significance as a place of evil and malcontented spirits prior to its acquisition for correctional purposes for the United States. History abounds from every angle over this tiny rock of land in the San Francisco harbour. The tour of the interior seemed not bleak, desolate, or illustrative of an inmate experience, but like a side show at a carnival.

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But as I walked around the grounds of Alcatraz, among the gardens which, previously maintained by inmates enabled to do so on the basis of good behaviour, were as much a testament to the island’s heritage as anything.

On the outside looking in, and in viewing the outside in portals and windows from the inside, a more authentic experience emerged — yes, life on the inside was bleak, desolate, and at many critical junctures, probably an affront to human rights.

But to portray it in this light alone — through the lens or otherwise — devalues the fact that an ‘outsider’s perspective’ is all most visitors will ever have, and lessens our ability to empathise with those who did, in fact experience life on the block — sometimes with a temptingly technicolor view of the world they were cast away from.

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My eye was drawn, increasingly, to these more colourful aspects of the Island for that reason — the rusting keyhole, the blue ocean viewed through a broken window with white sailboats drifting ever out of view, the irises lining the steep steps to an observation point, staring back at my own and imploring the pursuit of one of my most natural inclinations. It was windswept, it was heartbreaking, but it was beautiful, and it was in full colour. I bought my camera the next day, I have stopped every five minutes since to shoot, wherever I am, and I haven’t looked back since. I never will again.

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“At the Edge of the World”: First Publication with Edge of Humanity Magazine

This is not a drill: I am thrilled to share news of the publication of two pieces of my work by @Edge of Humanity Magazine, a website specialising in photoessay, documentary photography, investigative cultural journalism, and memoir. This marks my first piece of published work outside of collegiate opportunity.

I could not be more honoured to be featured amongst the other artists and writers who contribute to Edge of Humanity, many of whom travel all over the world seeking out adventure, reflecting on photographic perspectives, all while bringing light to important cultural issues. I have been enamored of this publication for some time, which brings this milestone particular significance.

This piece, which I wrote and photographed in the Spring of 2016 while living and working in Northern California, is a journalistic photoessay which aims to document and discuss the often very visual dissimilarity between one of California’s most affluent University towns and the outlying farmland communities which support California’s economy — including the huge and internationally-critical agricultural industry — often, at the educational expense of those communities.

I send big thanks to Edge of Humanity, everyone who has encouraged me, taken the time to read my work, challenged me, and learned with me as I have grown over the last two years. I am incredibly grateful ❤

Sink or Swim: The Postgraduate Artist Life

You know, it’s sink or swim. You choose which.

…they say to you, once you’ve moved to a new place three thousand miles across a continent, know only your apartment manager, grocery clerk, and mailman, are fresh out of your long-pursued and hard-won undergraduate liberal arts honors degree (which is proving about as helpful in a job search as you expected it to be in the society you live in), and have started to understand what true friendship is at an often-painful cost.

In the moments immediately following graduation, you believe in the fervor behind this concept wholeheartedly and charge ahead, ready for anything… and in your attempts to tread water, as it were, you quickly find yourself feeling as exhausted as you were at seventeen, a freshman in college… and you may be just as disturbed by the prognosis. You bob in and out of exhaustion and look to your loved ones for moments of clarity, comfort, and respite.

You still have no idea what you want from life, because you want to do it all and believe that the degree you now hold will allow you to have it all. Unfortunately, as you proceed into the real world, you are to realize that it does — to a degree — but only to that degree.

A degree will not lengthen your life. Statistically, it may contribute to better chances of having better resources through your work. But it will not do this independently. A degree will not reverse the structure of the week, giving you five days in which it is socially acceptable to read and pursue supplemental knowledge instead of just two. Statistically, it gives you a better chance of one day having this ability if you are to miraculously self-employ and make smart financial moves in an economy which is volatile, ever-changing, and impacted by so many macrocosmic factors out of your control… but it will not do this independently, either. A degree will not make you a better you. Statistically, it has allowed you the kinds of contacts, coursework, and exposure which is required fuel for understanding the intricacies of the world around you… the immeasurable need for compassion and kindness in our world. But it has not done this independently.

And of your art… A degree will not serve as a fuel cell for artistic inspiration. The pursuit of that degree was a challenge for a reason, a challenge which may well have fueled the feeling behind your artwork: the entire breadth of work you completed during that time. But it will not alter the comings and goings of muse, of inspiration, and it will not alter the progression of your own inherent artistic ability. It will not force you to expand your artistic horizons, it will not grant you the ability to master a new medium with ease. It can not do this independently.

Sink or swim. If you don’t start producing art again, you’ll lose the drive — it’s a talent that must be nurtured”, some will say. Adults… educators. Friends.

Remembering that you are at this point a pseudo-adult, and are equally capable of producing opinions on topics (which you may feel you really know nothing about) I propose the following, moderative option:

Float.

Instead of fighting so hard — or not fighting at all to work through the depth of new issues, new problems, and new ideas circulating in your mind at any given moment, coming and going like a violent tide — just float. Rely on yourself to go at a pace which is a healthy compromise to the warring speeds in your mind… When you are dragged under, or when you are pulled back to shallow, calm water. Focus on knowing yourself well enough to understand when your mindset and body are in the right place and time for expression, and through this you will accomplish what you are capable of doing. When you’re tired of treading water, or when you feel like letting yourself drift to the murky unclarity of the bottom for a while, remember both that your buoyancy will cause you to ultimately resurface no matter your intention on sinking, and that you are capable of resting on your own ideas without their existence permanently evaporating… the water will still be there tomorrow.

And once you begin to adapt to this strange new world where somehow the other adults have mistaken you for one of them… once you are over the immediate difficulty and the ensuing pride that you have fooled them all with a blazer and a framed and very expensive piece of cardstock representing the totality of your academic pursuits to date… once you realize that the moral remuneration behind your work is not dependent on what others value it at… it’s a lot easier to swim.

✶ ✶ ✶

Last year after relocating to California from the East Coast post-graduation, I reflected on the experience of being in a new environment, qualified with the degree which denotes a societal misconception of the artist’s permanent responsibility of creation. In so doing, it was my hope to convey a belief to which I still accord: that others do not have the right to dictate the artist’s personal decision how, when, why, or what to create, and that the constant struggle to keep your head above water will result in greater detriment to the creative process than will stagnation as inspiration is a fleeting, necessary element of artistic composition. 

I have posted it today as an opportunity to reflect further as I wrap up my time in California this week and will be traveling back east prior to leaving for my graduate program. 

 

At The Edge Of The World: Socioeconomic Disparity Between Davis, California and Outlying Farming Communities

The farmlands of the flat, sun-crisped central valley region provide both the amusing illusion of a flat earth and the ethereally haunting, surreal feeling that beyond those plains, perhaps the world really does just… stop.

Falling off the edge of the world, Brooks, California, June 2016
Falling off the edge of the world, Brooks, California, June 2016

For many residents of these outlying farming regions, this is the end of the world: micro-communities thrive here around the agricultural industry and, as many are so intimately tied to tending fields and maintaining machines in order to make a living, breaking away from this life is next to impossible. Crop management, maintenance of irrigation systems, employment and management of labor resources, and land stewardship are demanding tasks with the severity of California’s drought, and just as in the days of government-incentivized, manifest destiny farming, agricultural responsibilities resound their timelessness: someone has to feed ol’ Betsy.

"Ol' Betsy" grazing peacefully in the fields outside of Davis, Yolo County, California, May 2016
“Ol’ Betsy” grazing peacefully in the fields outside of Davis, Yolo County, California, May 2016

While contemporary situations certainly mirror the agelessness of responsibility within farming communities, the differences in today’s agricultural situation in California’s Central Valley are most noticeable by virtue of the startling and very visual disparity of wealth and privilege between the glittering University towns where resources abound and the outlying farmland.

By virtue of the great distance between residential dwellings due to the sheer pasture and field size, homes are often offset at great distance to one another, isolating members of these communities even further from assembling for gatherings and events. Grouped in small clusters, or standing solitarily amidst a great expanse of crops which serve as constant reminder of trade responsibility, these homes offer variation in style, but a vast majority are in some state of decrepitude. In fact, they often present a state of grave disrepair, and all too often, the schools and public works facilities which serve these homes appear to be in similar condition.

Farming equipment, dying trees, and old barn, Just Outside Davis, California, May 2016
Farming equipment, dying trees, and old barn, Just Outside Davis, California, May 2016

Photographic documentation of these outlying regions is of utmost importance in conveying these differences — improving visibility through artistic interpretation of culture, education, and social dynamic promotes a visibility which seeks to define the significance of every cracking board of every barn and present it in contrast to the idea of seamless, gleaming structures which so often surround University communities.

California’s economy rests not unsubstantially on the backs of those who contribute to the agricultural industry: in 2014, the state exported $50 billion in agricultural revenue. With over 75,000 farms and ranches registered with the government in this time frame, state economic dependence on California’s agricultural culture is understandably well-founded. On paper, business is booming — crops are selling, providing goods to export and upping California’s status on the international business spectrum. But in reality, while agriculture is in the black, the state of many of the Californian farming communities remain effectively in the symbolic red — a difference which remains at stark contrast to another of the state’s major cultural identifiers — the University of California system.

Window to the world: an open barn provides a framed view of the minimalist landscape, Brooks, California, June 2016
Window to the world: an open barn provides a framed view of the minimalist landscape, Brooks, California, June 2016

With a $14 billion dollar endowment, the state’s University system is also booming, drawing talented professionals, academics, and researchers from all corners of the globe to contribute to the production of some of the most elite research, cutting-edge technologies, and most novel theories in the modern world. The towns which surround these Universities — especially the larger ones like UC Davis — are thriving, athenian visions of socially-conscious, epicurean ideals centered around community and family.

Davis is a wonderful (if strange and very expensive) town to live in from the perspective of an East Coast native, featuring a bustling farmer’s market complete with accordion players covering Cyndi Lauper, Bryan Adams, and ABBA; art galleries; and small businesses thriving as permanent fixtures of the community here. It is the West Coast equivalent of an East Coast University town (with a deficit in overall majority of the telephone poles given the West Coast tendency to bury the power in affluent communities).

The University’s success provides economic ground to stand on for the ‘immediate family’ of the town; shops, businesses, and cultural centers. Most residents ride bikes, carry cloth grocery bags, and are generally very ‘crunchy granola’ — but occasionally, a beat-up truck with mud caked onto tire walls, windshield, and mirrors, Cummins Diesel Engine roaring and dual exhaust humming, will roll through with a “Hillbilly Dream” sticker and put things in perspective.

A local emblem of patronage to the arts and an icon of University power, the Mondavi Center in Davis, California, stands as a multi-million dollar, glimmering beacon of humanism and economic might with carefully crafted, slick sandstone tile coating the exterior of the building almost entirely — it is the University equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, situated directly next to the welcome center, beckoning all to the best the town has to offer, and itself partly a gift from a wealthy donor. It is, by multi-million dollar design, insurmountably beautiful, and the crown jewel of the Davis campus; but its slick, pricey walls are perfect architectural metaphor for a glass ceiling for the outlying towns.

Side of building in Esparto painted with fading letters, Esparto, California, July 2016, Caroline C. Evans Abbott
Side of building in Esparto painted with fading letters, Esparto, California, July 2016, Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Higher education is often much more easily accessible for these students through local community colleges, from which many students transfer to the ‘UC’s’, as they are colloquially, affectionately called, but getting there is a longer — and more daunting — journey. With many local students’ families intimately tied to the pursuit of agriculture as a way of life, the temptation to stay and contribute to this community through similar lines of work is often reinforced sociologically, and when the difficulty factor is accounted for, students may be less likely to end up with a quality, well-rounded education: less likely to see any more of the world than what they have been given.

"Dinner and a Movie", Esparto, California, July 2016, Caroline C. Evans Abbott
“Dinner and a Movie”, Esparto, California, July 2016, Caroline C. Evans Abbott

The University system makes vested, well-intentioned efforts to attract students from farming communities in the hopes of their contribution to academics fields related to agriculture, but the ability of those students to cross over to other areas– specifically in the arts, humanities, and sciences — is more difficult purely by virtue of University focus on this ‘like attracts like’ idea.

While there is no shortage of agricultural tourism, an industry dependent on the need of urban-dwelling professionals to escape the pressures of city life, there is an apparent deficit in data collected which reflects travel destinations of those within agricultural communities. Given that any social question is a complexly multifaceted issue, it cannot be blindly assumed that education alone is a distinguishing factor for this discrepancy. There is, however, basis to hypothesize that the pursuit of quality higher education may contribute to the accessibility of international and domestic leisure travel significantly. Whether by increased income due to qualification, expected norms within educated communities, or countless other multidimensional factors, travel is undoubtedly more accessible to those with a traditional nine-to-five position.

The entrance to the 505 near Esparto, California, July 2016, Caroline C. Evans Abbott
The entrance to the 505 near Esparto, California, July 2016, Caroline C. Evans Abbott

The traveling process exposes the human mind to cultural stimuli which serve to expand the thought process and to cerebrally stimulate the creative and academic development of the mind– doing so is instrumentally important in managing a well-rounded education, a luxury not afforded to these farming communities due to aforementioned social construct and educational inaccessibility.

This concept, illustrated by such poignant examples of cultural detritus reflects regression to near fiefdom levels of social construct: extensive resources are pooled within privileged communities, upper class members have better access to more intricate, liberal arts or research-based educations, and lower class members often pursuing trade-based education or labor, supporting the economy throughout with their contributions to the agricultural industry but with lessened access to the resources available to the privileged as a result of their commitment. The Athenian values of Davis, California are contrasted by the Spartan imagery of surrounding farmland.

Powerlines overshadow a residential piece of property and collection of bovine friends, Brooks, California, June 2016
Powerlines overshadow a residential piece of property and collection of bovine friends, Brooks, California, June 2016

The socioeconomic disparity represented by a simple drive through this part of the country potently illustrates certain discrepancy between two worlds — imagery which is effectively captured through artistic, photographic accounts of this region. This breadth of photography seeks to demonstrate both an intimate account of California farm and farming community life, suggesting a sharp cultural disparity between two worlds which are unique in their incredibly close geographic proximity to one another, seeking overall to echo the necessity for reallocation of resources to benefit members of these communities at a level which is as academically beneficial as it is monetarily remunerative.

In order to improve community; education, not industry; must be considered and doctored with appropriate accessibility for farming community members to liberal arts courses if for no other reason than to allow those members to visualize and comprehend the benefit their trade (and contributions therein) brings to the increasingly globalized world economy. Higher education must be moderated with cultural sensitivity in order to truly educate, and an approach which both values the contributions of these local farming communities and prompts those within them to pursue academic areas of interest outside of their expected community career norms is critical to student — and University — success.

Powerless reflected off of rice paddies, Yolo County, California, May 2016
Powerless reflected off of rice paddies, Yolo County, California, May 2016

Many residents of these intensely agriculturally-focused communities will never depart from the farming lifestyle: for many of them, powerlines will be their Eifel Towers, granaries their skyscrapers, the reflection of trees on rice paddies, flood and irrigation plains their Taj Mahal, and blood-red sunsets catching the bare translucency of softly-quivering grain their African savannah… and, until educational accessibility is improved within the University of California system through application of University resources towards community education endeavors in outlying agricultural communities, The Mondavi Center, their palace of Versailles.