Photographer of the Week #9
This week we present a portion of Matt Gainer’s series titled, Imperial Pictures. He’s a Los Angeles based photographer whose work explores social & political movements, religious communities, and tensions between people and the environments they occupy — with particular focus on California and the American West.
Matt tells us, “I began photographing and doing oral-history interviews in Imperial Valley, CA. in 2009 — drawn by curiosity about the impulses that draw people to such difficult terrain, and about the kinds of psychological spaces and physical geographies they navigate to create a sense of place, value and community once they settle.
I received a California Story Fund grant from the California Council for the Humanities to support the project during 2009-2010, and additional support in the form of a Faculty Research Award from the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture Interdisciplinary Research Group for 2011. Portions of the project were exhibited in 2011: first in a two-person exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery of the Brukenthal National Museum in Sibiu, Romania, and recently in a group exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography.”
The All American Canal meanders along the border for about 80 miles before reaching the spot I chose to watch the extraordinary pre-dawn light. I’ve paused to make a picture while searching for it’s end; which is somewhere west of Calexico where channels deliver water deep into Imperial County farmland.
Nearby there is a bridge, and next to it a line of tires bolted together and attached to a chain; an apparatus used to smooth out the fine gravel of the road that runs alongside the canal so that new footprints can be seen by the Border Patrol. A man in a small pickup truck nods as he passes, then circles back to where he came from, only to return again a little while later. He is looking for someone, perhaps a solo (migrant) or a sign from a coyote (human smuggler) on the other side of the water. For the next few minutes I scramble to record the massive Rorschach test created by the scattered clouds against the rising sun.
With wages 10 times higher on the north side of the canal than the south, the draw to migrate is powerful, and along with bringing life to the southern California desert, the All American also brings death. Later in the day I would learn about the frequent drownings of people trying to enter the US by swimming the canal, and of their burial in a paupers cemetery 20 miles north of the border.
There is also a southern migration whose paths lead to Imperial; a migration of middle class explorers, retired pensioners, hippies, dreamers and rubber-punks. Much of my work in Imperial has been focused on a small, improvised community they’ve created, and on its relationship to the surrounding area. I was drawn there by curiosity about the kinds of psychological spaces and physical geographies people navigate to create a sense of place, value and community while living in such a difficult landscape.
Imperial Pictures is an ongoing project to represent the complex fabric of this unique place – including paths leading both toward and away from it.