Thursday, May 8, 2003
Photos: ©Horace Bristol, Courtesy of the Estate of Horace Bristol and Katrina Doerner Photographs, Brooklyn, NY.
During the winter of 1937-38, two men--one an accomplished Life magazine photographer, the other an American novelist of growing international renown--traveled through California''s Central Valley to document the plight of migrant farm laborers.
For John Steinbeck, his series of visits to the migrant labor camps resulted in the publication of his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer prize-winning novel recognized as a landmark achievement in social realist fiction. For photographer Horace Bristol, the result was a defining, powerfully moving portfolio of images, and no small measure of disappointment that his important influence in shaping Steinbeck''s literary vision of the lives of migrant farm laborers went largely unrecognized.
In a significant new exhibition opening May 9 at the National Steinbeck Center, Horace Bristol is finally given his due with a never-before-seen showing of his complete "Grapes of Wrath" portfolio. Although the Center has long recognized Bristol''s accomplishments as a photographer, and his singular contribution to Steinbeck literary history, A Journey Shared: Inspiration for the Grapes of Wrath is the first comprehensive showing of Bristol''s documentation of life in California''s migrant farm labor camps. The exhibition not only represents an important showcase of work by an underappreciated master of photojournalism, but is also a valuable work of scholarship that provides a deeper understanding of how Steinbeck developed and shaped his material for what would become The Grapes of Wrath.
Born and raised in California, Bristol began his career as a freelance photographer in San Francisco in the late 1920s. In 1937 he was hired as a staff photographer by Life, and later went on to photograph for major publications including Fortune and Time. During World War II, he served as a photographer in the US Navy in the Mediterranean and South Pacific under famed photographer Edward Steichen. He remained in the Far East and produced a stunningly beautiful body of work on life in post-war Asia.
Bristol first became interested in documenting California''s migrant farmworkers in 1937 through his association with photographer Dorothea Lange, who was documenting the migrant farm workers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Familiar with Steinbeck''s books and his commitment to the conditions of the farmworkers, Bristol contacted the writer and proposed collaborating on an article for Fortune magazine and a possible book. Steinbeck agreed to work with Bristol, and the two men made six visits to the camps.
Recognizing the broader value and importance of the material he collected at the camps, Steinbeck backed out of his agreement to publish with Bristol, and instead used what he had gathered to write The Grapes of Wrath. Bristol''s photographs went unused, and it was only after publication of Steinbeck''s novel in 1939, and the release of the Hollywood film in 1940, that a selection of Bristol''s images were published. In each instance, Bristol''s photographs were paired with captions from the novel and shown side-by-side with stills from the movie, revealing for the first time how significant those pictures were in literally "fleshing out" Steinbeck''s characters and descriptions, and in providing the basis for the set designs, costuming, lighting and character development in the film.
In a personal reminiscence about his collaboration with Steinbeck, reflecting on why Steinbeck made no mention of Bristol''s role in the creation of The Grapes of Wrath, Bristol suggests that the author''s silence grew out of a concern that Bristol''s contribution might somehow diminish recognition of Steinbeck''s own accomplishment.
While disappointed in Steinbeck, Bristol never expressed any bitterness toward him. Six years or so before his death in 1997, Bristol revisited his photographs of the migrant camps and produced a limited number of portfolios that he entitled "The Grapes of Wrath," in remembrance of his collaboration with Steinbeck and his role in illuminating the plight of the farmworkers.
Among the approximately 40 vintage and contemporary prints on display at the Steinbeck Center''s newly designated Gabilan Gallery, Bristol''s iconic portraits represent his most significant aesthetic and documentary achievement. His deeply moving images contrast the essential dignity and indelible humanity of his subjects with the stark physical and psychic tenuousness of their lives, and transcend the implied limits of the documentary genre with a true artist''s sensitivity to light, and the formal and abstract elements of picture making.
In "Rose of Sharon, 1938," Bristol''s Dustbowl Madonna breastfeeds an infant, her gaze trapped between the desperation of the present and her hope for a better future. "Retarded Man with Fanatic Sister, 1938" is a powerful and disturbing evocation of familial love. Softly gazing into the camera, brother and sister hold hands with tenderness, masking the darker undercurrents of their relationship expressed in the clenched and hideously twisted fingers of the sister''s left hand.
Two of Bristol''s most recognized images--"Winfield and His Rabbit, 1938," and "Joad Family Applying For Relief, 1938"--have become truly iconic representations of the migrant experience. In his picture of Winfield, Bristol evokes the fragility of youth and innocence under difficult economic circumstances. In "Joad Family," Bristol has created a masterpiece reminiscent of a Florentine Renaissance painting in its use of light, its arrangement of the figures within the frame, and the rendering of the passionate expression in the faces of the farmworkers.
Karen Sinsheimer, curator of photography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, who will be giving a lecture and slide presentation on at the show''s opening, considers this a true landmark exhibition. "It is important historically and a unique opportunity to see a wonderful group of images with a marvelous direct connection to Steinbeck," she says.
A Journey Shared: Inspiration for the Grapes of Wrath opens at the National Steinbeck Center with a reception May 9 from 5-7pm; slide show and lecture at 6pm. 796-3833.