Postcards from the Promised Land

Two Californian photographers reflect on how we humans interact with the natural landscape of the Golden State

“Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California.”

“Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California.”

photo by Robert Dawson

Human relationships with the land have long been examined by numerous artists and through various art forms. A look into this relationship is the focus of two excellent exhibits currently being presented together at the Chico Museum. They feature works by two accomplished California photographers, Robert Dawson and Butte County’s Geoff Fricker, and reflect two unique insights into our relationship with the land. Although the subject captured in each photographer’s lens is the same—aspects of the California landscape—viewers will come away with a distinct and differing appreciation of each artist.

Within one’s first two or three steps into the museum’s Patrick Gallery, Dawson’s “Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California” greets the viewer and sets the tone for the rest of his collection. It is a striking black-and-white mural in which the waters of the lake, too massive to fit within the frames of this large 4-by-5-foot photograph, rest in calm repose beneath a sky of swirling white clouds. At the center of the picture, a glint of silver flashes from the flat side of a padlock that secures a black wrought-iron gate.

The gate guards access to a private, wood-planked pier that stretches to a covered ski boat tethered to a tiny, white buoy. Behind the gate and beyond the pier loom the peaks and shoulders of a national forest; they, like the lake, are too immense for the camera lens.

Although the property owner is unknown, Dawson leaves no doubt as to who is ultimately responsible for the care and maintenance of the lake and the many other natural resources that have distinguished California from all other places around the world: We are. And, this exhibit says, we haven’t been doing the best job of it.

The Sacramento River near Chico on Labor Day.

photo by Geoff Fricker

The black gate, as obtrusive and conspicuous as an escalator affixed to Yosemite’s Half Dome would be, introduces the viewer to a collection of over 60 images of both familiar and not-so-familiar parts of California, all dealing with human interaction with the land and our environment and how such interactions of the past may affect future interactions. Organized and funded by the California Council for the Humanities in concert with the Oakland Museum of California, it’s entitled Awakening from the California Dream: An Environmental History.

Dawson and writer Gray Brechin traversed the state over a period of five years amassing a testimonial to the ways Californians have abused and misused the state’s natural resources over the past 150 years.

Several works scrutinize early mining operations conducted throughout the northern parts of the state, beginning with the infamous Gold Rush of 1849. Among the lingering, long-term effects of the mining practices, Dawson points to the dangerous levels of contamination of California’s water. “Warning sign, Almaden Quicksilver County Park, San Jose,” one of several color photos, is of a sign warning park users against eating the fish in the waters, as they are contaminated with “dangerous levels of poisonous mercury.” The prospectors used mercury amalgamating gold and silver ores.

Other, historical photographers are also represented in the exhibit, including Carleton Watkins, who chronicled the fanaticism with which gold miners assaulted the earth with high-powered water hoses commonly used in such hydraulic mining operations as those on Table Mountain, near Oroville, and—as shown here—at the Malakoff Diggings near Nevada City.

With an assortment of photographs focusing on California’s Central Valley—he collaborated with noted writer Gerald Haslam on the superb 1993 book, The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland—Dawson laments the deterioration of the family farm that is gradually being replaced by the new world of agribusiness. An aerial view of Discovery Bay presents a compelling contrast between the chocolate-brown waters snaking around matchbox-sized homes and the quilted landscapes of the neighboring farms; farms, the accompanying texts tell us, with uncertain futures.

Detail of “Scientists discussing the demise and restoration of California’s salmon near the Sacramento River, California.

photo by Robert Dawson

But California’s future isn’t all gloomy: Several of Dawson’s photos provide glimpses of individuals, groups and entire communities who’ve managed to prevail through their efforts to preserve wild lands and, in some cases, repair the damages of negligent past practices. Despite environmental losses, Californians throughout the state are making noble gains in preserving the state’s landscapes and natural resources. Some of the groups, such as the Save the San Francisco Bay Association, Lillie Luckett Community Garden of Oakland, and Catherine Sneed of the San Francisco Jail Garden Project, are represented in the exhibit. However, Dawson’s photos also note that some environmental strides have resulted in somewhat less auspicious gains.

A photograph of the San Luis Drain, a $500 million project that was to take runoff water from fields in the San Joaquin Valley to the Delta, stands as a stark reminder that clashing interests of the state and environmentalists can lead to undesirable results. The project was halted some 90 miles short of its completion due to both funding shortfalls and strong environmental opposition. What remains of the drain is little more than a collection point in the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge for unhealthful concentrations of selenium, a natural element found in California’s soil, that have been linked to birth defects and other maladies in waterfowl.

All politics aside, it is Dawson’s technical finesse and eye for light and composition that make this exhibit worth viewing. Most of the photographs are remarkable for their clarity and definition, critical attributes one has come to expect in the best fine-art photography.

Showing in the Carnegie room, Geoff Fricker has chosen familiar sites in and around Butte County and Chico—along Butte Creek and the Sacramento River, especially—for his large studies of human relationships with the land, collectively entitled Air, Water and Cultural Currents.

Fricker, who heads the photography department at Butte College, photographed the banks of the Sacramento River in the moments before masses of Labor Day tubers launch into one of Chico’s infamous activities for beating the heat. The river stands separately from the college students, who mill about, some with one hand resting on a tractor tire tube and a can of Bud in the other. Fricker manages to convey a spirited sense of play while making inner tubes appear sensuous—you’d swear one of the tubes is the world’s largest maple cake donut.

In another picture, with his camera perched high among the leafless branches of Bidwell Park’s oak trees, he records the action of another Chico pastime: the annual New Year’s Day swim. Fricker captures members of the Polar Bear Club in mid stroke in Sycamore Pool, while poolside onlookers cheer them across. Like I did, you may find yourself leaning in to appreciate up close the clear, technical details of Fricker’s work (it’s really quite amazing)—or to spot your own face or that of a friend standing among the people lining the pool.

Fricker’s exhibit also features two computer-based, interactive stations at which you can learn about the natural flow of a river’s current or peruse the changes to a California landscape over time. This is a beautifully mounted show—and an important one especially for residents of this area. And the Chico Museum deserves credit for mounting these two shows together. They enhance each other beautifully.