The Other California 1975 – The Leica camera Blog

The series, which was produced in 1975 in the United States’s third largest state, is today more than just a historic document. With his images capturing the lives of working-class Californians and the poorest of the population, the photographer has created an exceptional and timeless portrait.

You have just self-published your book The Other California 1975. What is it about?
This is a book of photographs I made nearly fifty years ago of people that I encountered across the state of California, during almost four months of driving thousands of miles throughout and to every corner of that state. The people shown in these images, mostly of working-class backgrounds, all opened their lives and welcomed a twenty-year-old man to make a portrait of a moment in their existence. For the past five decades I’ve lived with the painful knowledge that most of these images have never been seen by the public. This book is published to honor the people seen here, and to offer everyone a chance to consider them as well as that moment in time and history.

How was the series developed?
Forty-seven years ago, when I was nineteen and finishing my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, I received a letter from a woman, Deanna Marquart, who worked for the California Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). She asked me if I would be willing to come to California for a commission to make a four-month road trip throughout the state, to document the life of working-class Californians, and, in particular, the most impoverished people in the third largest state of the United States. The director and staff of the OEO at that time, believed in the power of the photograph to show and to evoke the need for social change. They believed that strong, honest photographs could serve to inspire and energize the government employee, too often distracted by a maze of paperwork and statistics, and to remind the general public of the need for an effective social assistance program.

What impulse did you follow back then? Did you have any photographic role models?
Since I started making photographs at the age of sixteen, I was not only inspired by people like the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, but many other photographers, too, including those who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), one of the programs of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, developed during the Great Depression. The FSA photographers documented life in America with the intent of not only documenting a time in history; they envisioned photography as a means to affect change – and to draw attention to people whose voices were often not heard loudly, if ever.

What did your work on site look like? What do you remember in particular?
I arrived in California in mid-May 1975 and was based in Sacramento, where I was given access to a government darkroom, but most of those four months, I spent driving throughout the state, in a small white Volkswagen. I was accompanied throughout that summer by my college sweetheart, Karen Gulliver, who was already an accomplished writer. I will always cherish memories of her presence with me throughout that extensive road trip, and what that has always meant to me. I was given just enough expense money to cover gasoline, meals in diners, and the least expensive of California hotels. As I traversed this amazing state, more like a country than a state, with its remarkable diversity in population, geography, and ways of life, the whole experience became an important turning point in my life. Having grown up in the Midwest, in Indiana and Michigan, I was not unfamiliar with rural America. But as a young man I was familiar only with the stereotypes of California – its beautiful coastline, surfers, and the images of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and San Francisco – and it was only during this trip that I became aware that California is the largest agricultural and rural state in the country.

Where exactly did you go?
During my travels, I spent much time in the San Joaquin Valley, in places like South Dos Palos, Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto, and in the farmlands in between. I also spent a great deal of time in Oakland, Hunters Point, Bay View, and the Tenderloin of San Francisco, Watts in Los Angeles, San Diego, and the fields near Death Valley. Among other subjects, I photographed many of the people who worked below minimum wage, to put food on the tables of America.

What happened to the images after your trip?
For most of the past forty-seven years, these photographs have lain dormant, seen by very few people. After my commission began, significant changes in the California Office of Economic Opportunity took place. The man who directed this assignment, Ed Villamore, resigned from the the OEO in the middle of my four-month road trip. Before returning to Michigan from California, I recall leaving an extensive set of prints behind, but all these years later, my memory is hazy as to whether these photographs were exhibited in the State Capitol in Sacramento. So I have lived for more than forty years with no certainty of how my photographs were actually ever used by the OEO. Be that as it may, I’m certain that these photographs are a document of an important moment in Californian, and American, history. I know they offer a sense of the texture and the emotions of the lives of the working class in the mid-1970s. This book is a tribute to both that time and to the lives of the many people I encountered. The photographs speak for themselves, and represent my belief and conviction that they must be seen.

Peter Turnley is renowned for his photography of the realities of the human condition. He was born in the U.S., but has lived more than half his life in Paris. He has worked in over ninety countries, and has witnessed most major stories of international geopolitical and historic significance in the last forty years. Turnley has produced portraits and covered many of the modern world’s most influential people: Obama, Castro, Gorbachev, Lady Diana, and Pope John Paul II. His photographs have been exhibited worldwide. He has won numerous awards and was nominated for the top prize at the most important international photojournalism festival, Visa Pour l’Image, in Perpignan, France in Sept. 2020. He lives in both New York and Paris, and has published several books. Find out more about his photography on his website (which is also the only place to purchase the book), and his Instagram channel. Turnley has been using Leicas for the past 50 years and has used a Leica M2, M3, M4 (50th anniversary model, which came out in 1975 – the year of this project), an M6, M7, M8, M9, a Leica M240 digital camera, and, most recently, a Leica M10. He has always used both a Summilux 50 f/1.4 lens, and a Summilux 35 f/1.4 lens. Find out more about his photography and the The Other California 1975 book on his website and his Instagram channel.

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