A visit home and a picture I’ve been meaning to shoot

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Can you point to a time and place that profoundly impacted your life, that you can say with certainty either made, or played, a role in making you the person you are today? I can. It’s this building and sidewalk at the corner of Harrison and Elm streets in Taft, California, the town about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles I spent my teen years in after leaving New York City. In 1976, I was 17 and my mom and stepfather were doing whatever they could to make their fractured marriage work. Complicating matters was the abject poverty we were living in, my dad earning little more than $250 per week and trying to support a family of nine on it. So they took a gamble. My dad quit his job and decided to make a go of it, as a machinist , on his own. He would do the physical work and mom, who had gone to Taft College and earned an AA in business, would handle the finances. They rented out this building from a rather unsavory landlord whose greed and unreasonable demands for payoffs in exchange for promising to provide customers made success a long shot. Work would trickle in and the wait for payment would seem eternal. Every morning, my dad would stand out front, on that corner, waiting for the mailman. Waiting for a check. Any kind of check. My mom would call, every day, with just one question: “Did any checks come?”

I worked for them doing sandblasting, using a high-pressure air hose to clear caked on oil and debris from the natural gas compressor valves that my dad would recondition. And I would watch the daily ritual, my dad standing out front, on cold and foggy mornings, wearing his oil-stained, navy blue sweatshirt and worn jeans, his hands that were permanently the color of oil, tucked into his front pockets. Staring at the ground, shuffling from side to side, waiting for the mailman. I would work the sandblaster bundled like we were in the arctic, as we could not afford to run the large, drafty building’s heater. It is that image, of my father standing in front of that shop, days on end, waiting for the mail, that’s seared into my memory.

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In my first photography class at Taft College in 1977, my inspiring photography teacher, John Christensen, began introducing us to the master photographers of our generation. Then he gave us an assignment: shoot a picture in the style of one of the photographers we were studying. I chose W. Eugene Smith, who to this day is my favorite photographer. I loved his dark tones and the way he highlighted the important parts of his photos. So I shot this picture of my dad, at work in that building, trying as best as I could – at 18 and in my first college photo class – to make it look W. Eugene Smith like.

And then came the time for me to go to college. I did my two years at Taft College, and had applied to Cal State University Northridge. I wanted to be a journalist, and remember the thrill of being accepted. But how could I possibly go? I especially loved the chocolate chip cookies they sold in the cafeteria when I was at Taft High School. They cost a dime, and my mom would cry because she could often not find 10 cents so that I could buy a cookie. (I never saw her cry. She told me this in later years.) There was no way they could send me off to college. But somehow, some way, they decided they would try. Nobody in the history of my family had graduated from a four-year college. I would be the first. I wanted it and more importantly, my mom wanted it. So we made a deal: I would go off to Cal State Northridge with the understanding that it was a month-to-month situation, and if they called me home, I would have to come home. No questions. I went, and as I studied with a sense of purpose, knowing that every class session might be my last, their business gradually picked up. And they were able to keep me in school. While I was at school, they moved out of that building and away from the horrible landlord, who was really taking advantage of them. They moved into a building down the street, and this time found a kindly landlord who recognized their difficulty, did everything he could to help them along and eventually became a beloved family friend who we to this day fondly regard. (Their business, Taft Controls Repair, eventually became successful.)

I’ve always said I would someday stop and photograph this building and tell this story. Today I was in Taft for a good friend’s mom’s funeral, and as I drove by the building – now a feed store – the sky dictated that this was a nice time to take that photo. It was missing my dad standing out front, waiting for the mailman, but I saw. I’ve seen it for 40 years. It’s never gone away. It’s instilled in me my work ethic and my values, my attitude about responsibility and pulling your weight in what can sometimes seem a big, bad world. It’s helped me become the person I am today.

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As we struggled to survive, a kind county worker got us into this Housing and Urban Development complex on Monroe Street in Ford City, a section of Taft. We lived there for two years, in the apartment on the right. We were together, my mom, brother and sister and I. My stepdad would visit frequently, and gradually he and my mom reconciled. We were, believe it or not, extremely happy in that little place.

Half a century later, they still came

man_carwebThe Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s mostly entered the San Joaquin Valley by way of Tehachapi, moving west along California Highway 58 and California Highway 184 (though they weren’t designated and named state highways until 1964) and Edison Highway. As best I can tell from my research, the roads existed, they just had different names and weren’t as well developed as they are now. Everybody’s familiar with the visuals, shown in John Ford’s film and vividly described in John Steinbecks “The Grapes of Wrath,” or more realistically, documented in raw and stunning clarity by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration, the greatest documentary photo project in American history. What most of America didn’t realize, however, was half a century later, the scenes of extreme poverty and desperate living conditions still played out on that same path east of Bakersfield in some of America’s richest farm land, specifically along Edison Highway and its railroad tracks. Throughout most of the 80s and well into the 90s, Edison Highway was dotted with families living out of broken down trailers, pickup trucks and cars, their children playing along the tracks and highway, and men begging for any work they could find. I shot this photo of a man who was living out of his car cooking breakfast on Edison Highway, near Weedpatch Highway, likely in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Why do you try to make our town look bad?

homeless childrenwebImpoverished children, most likely Oildale, late 1980s or early 1990s. If you want to see my temperature and blood pressure rise, tell me my job as a photojournalist is to promote the city I live in and only show the positive aspects of the community. Tell me that I should never take pictures that might reflect negatively, or cause people to think poorly, about Bakersfield. Tell me that the darker side of this city – the poor, the drug addicted, the criminals, the hungry, the homeless – is something that we should just pretend doesn’t exist. I cannot tell you how many times I heard that from people during my career, either in person or via a letter. Pictures like this one would almost invariably result in a call or letter to the newspaper that we were intentionally trying to make Bakersfield look bad. As if we set up the homeless encampments on the city’s highways. As if we were the ones responsible for the highest teen pregnancy rates and lowest literacy rates in the United States. I did not share the opinion of some of my editors that these callers and letter writers were somehow entitled to an explanation. I would not return their calls, I would immediately throw their letters away. I had no patience for that nonsense.