In Sunday’s Spotlight section, I highlight San Francisco photographer Barron Bixler, whose provocative exhibition “A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley” continues at the Fresno Art Museum through Dec. 31. I encourage you to check out his website, which has lots more information on the exhibition and his other projects. Here’s an extended interview:
As a kid in Fresno, do you recall paying attention to the impact of agriculture on the Valley? Or was this an awareness that developed later on?
Before my family moved to Fresno, almost every summer we used to make the trek from where we lived on the coast over to the Sierras. Coming down through the Kettleman Hills into the Valley I didn’t really register the landscape as an agricultural one, but I do remember being stunned by the sublime immensity and brutality of that parched landscape. So that early sense of awe at the scale of the Valley’s geography is something that’s always stuck with me and certainly informs “A New Pastoral.” Later, after we’d moved to Fresno, I began to get a picture of how important agriculture has been to the Valley, and how much the landscape was changing and what that meant. For instance, all of the fig tree orchards were being plowed under to make way for Fresno’s housing boom. And kids I went to school with came from old farming families, many of which seemed to enjoy a bit of affluence and were no longer actively farming but were big land owners. So I wondered about that. Then some time around my last year in high school I started messing around with photography and rock and roll and poetry, and the landscape was seeping into my creative life even then. I wrote this poem called “the garden” that was about Cain and Abel, but it was clearly set in–and maybe in some ways about–the Valley. So I guess you could say the Valley landscape got under my skin pretty early on. It just took a long time to gestate.
Bee photo / Mark Crosse
What kind of response did you get from landowners when you told them you wanted to photograph their property?
The responses varied wildly. A few of the dairy interiors were taken on a day when I was photographing a big industrial dairy from the road and was invited–without my even asking–by this young guy who worked there to come check out the milking parlor and some of the more technologically sophisticated aspects of the operation. He was incredibly generous to give me that access, but when his boss caught wind that I was there taking pictures I was physically escorted off the property. In many cases, the people I reached out to seemed flattered that someone was interested in their land and their work and were happy to let me poke around. In others, there was a kind of grudging indifference. In yet others, my requests for access were met with outright hostility. You learn a lot about people and institutions when you ask them to relinquish control over how they might be perceived in the public eye.
Many people would say that an agricultural landscape is a “natural landscape” — despite mammoth evidence to the contrary. Why do you think this is the case?
You’re right, and to me it’s a strange and rather unnecessary idea to cling to. But I’m not sure I’m the best person to break down this association because the reasons behind it are probably different for everybody. My hunch is it’s probably part mythology, part nostalgia, part product marketing and part policy rhetoric. And maybe it has something to do with the fact that agriculture is fundamentally about our relationship to other living organismsÂ–about the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death represented by the seasons. And so we allow ourselves to ignore the fact that modern agriculture is increasingly about overriding and overwriting what you might call the natural order.
Human beings have drastically altered their landscapes all over the world, whether it’s building vast cities, clearing forests, mining for minerals or constructing superhighways. Do you think of modern agriculture as being just one more example in this category, or is there something intrinsically different about it?
I don’t feel a need to place large-scale industrial agriculture in a special category in terms of its impact on the landscape. Like the other human endeavors you mention, it’s something that our society currently depends on and that carries certain costs. In all of these cases, I think we need to weigh the benefits against the costs and ask ourselves how we can make these practices less damaging and more sustainable. If there’s any difference at all, and a positive one at that, I think it’s the speed at which we can repair the damage wrought by certain agricultural practices. You’ll never get back a coal-rich mountain top that’s been blasted to kingdom come, but you may be able to remediate an agricultural brownfield site in a relatively short time span.
When talking about this show, you mention your interest in the idea of your subject matter being a metaphor for control. Can you elaborate?
As a documentary photographer, it’s easy to photograph physical objects but not as easy to represent abstract ideas. I’m glad that people are seeing these pictures and thinking concretely about the Valley landscape and about the physical impact agriculture has on the environment. But what I hope also comes through in the project are tensions between order and chaos, control and powerlessness, development and decay, ascendancy and decline. You’ll see that the machinery of agriculture is central to this project. But I don’t mean this in a strictly literal sense. It’s a metaphor for control–over land, animals, crops and people, but also over things like infrastructure, inputs, financing, production, distribution, marketing, information, regulation, policy and, in the case of genetically modified organisms, the very fabric of life. So I’m looking at a discrete part of this larger system and considering the ways that part symbolizes some of the more challenging aspects of the system as a whole.
Most people would say that the idealized images of agriculture so prevalent in our culture — the sun-kissed fields, the amber waves of grain — are beautiful. Do you think there’s a beauty in the more stark images of modern agriculture that you have captured in your show?
Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, right? I have no doubt that the subject matter of the show will push the limits of what many people would consider beautiful. Then there’s a countervailing movement in photography that romanticizes decay and destruction–like some of the architecture-based projects that have been coming out about struggling rustbelt cities like Detroit. It’s a fine line for sure, and you’ve got to walk it carefully. I always try to compose images in a way that’s visually arresting and I guess you could say formally beautiful, but I also try to balance that pursuit of beauty against a deeper commitment to the underlying social and environmental issues at stake. If those two impulses don’t go hand in hand, then you have either dull pictures of important subjects or breathtaking pictures that are meaningless. But, yeah, hopefully for anyone who checks out the show it’ll knock some of the smooth edges off our ideas of what’s beautiful and worthy of being the subject of art–because the Valley is a visually stunning place, if sometimes unconventionally so.
Of all the photographs in this show, is there one that has more meaning to you than the rest — whether because of the difficulty you had making it, the subject matter, or what you think it conveys?
It’s hard for me to single out one picture that has special meaning or that I think is emblematic of the project. In the exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum, I did make an unorthodox choice to include just one image that has a human figure in it. It’s basically a shot looking down at the hands of a farmworker standing in a field of dry grass. At the opening of the exhibition I overheard a woman remark to a friend, “Those are my father’s hands, my brother’s hands.” To have someone say that about your work–to recognize something of themselves in this frankly quite challenging set of pictures–is almost unbearably humbling. Moments like that are rare and powerful.
In terms of viewing these photographs, what advantage do you think a viewer has in seeing them at the museum as compared to say, viewing them one by one on a computer monitor?
As a photographer, I never want to take the act of seeing for granted. We’re bombarded with so much imagery in our daily lives that the pictures can’t help but lose their impact and meaning. You can be reading a story online about Darfur, and you’re seeing these brutal images, and in the next column there’s an ad for dog shampoo with a floppy-eared golden retriever covered in suds. And for the average American adult this happens something like thousands of times a day. It’s positively insane. In general most of us consume content online in mind-bending quantities and there’s just no room left, no time to really pause and look in the deepest sense of that word. The museum is ideal because it slows things down and creates a space that’s about nothing but looking. And in the way I’ve arranged the show, in these fragmented clusters of images, the viewer sees several pictures placed together and is encouraged to consider the visual and conceptual relationships among them. So I’ve tried to push beyond our usual practice of viewing a single, monolithic image at a time and instead have created kind of a three-dimensional constellation of images that encourages all sorts of sparks to fly around the room. At least that’s the experience I’m hoping to create. It would be impossible to attempt that in any other medium.
How do you respond when people ask if your show is “pro-agriculture” or “anti-agriculture”?
I turn the tables and ask them what they think because I’m genuinely interested in how people interpret the pictures. Plus I love feedback, whether positive or negative. Personally I try to resist coming down on one side or the other because I think you lose credibility, reach and impact when you become the mouthpiece for a particular movement or point of view. I suppose I’m happiest when everybody’s a little uncomfortable.