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Jillaine Cook

“I, Joseph Berger hereby register as an alien enemy at Police District No. 9, San Francisco California and make the following statements and answers under oath.” Thus begins the detailed four-page affidavit containing Berger’s immigration status, employment history, family, background, photograph, and fingerprints that he submitted to the neutrality squad of the San Francisco Police on February 4, 1918. For nearly two weeks that February, police departments across the nation were inundated with German nationals who, like Berger, had done nothing to bring suspicion upon themselves other than failing to secure citizenship in their new home. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the German-American community came under instant suspicion, and in November, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation requiring all male German nationals residing in the United States to formalize the government’s suspicions by registering. Although initially exempt, their wives and daughters would be forced to register in June 1918. Presumed disloyal and potentially dangerous simply by virtue of their citizenship, these men and women were forced to swear under oath that they were “alien enemies” and provide detailed information to facilitate surveillance of their activities.

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Finger prints from Joseph Berger’s file, 1918, San Francisco Public Library, History and Archives

Housed in libraries, community archives, and genealogy websites these forms have been largely untapped in the historiography of the German-American experience during the First World War, which focuses primarily on outbreaks of mass-hysteria or the increase of vigilante surveillance practiced by groups like the American Protective League. It can be challenging to read meaning into forms that required primarily factual answers and left little room for protest, but these registration affidavits are valuable sources. Documenting an encounter between Germans living in the United States and the federal government, the forms are both a record of the government’s attempt to formalize presumed disloyalty and snapshots of a traumatic experience that reveal the slippage between the government’s assumptions and the way these people regarded themselves. Though a century has passed, the struggles over definitions of loyalty and belonging inscribed in their old-fashioned cursive evoke current headlines, powerfully reminding us of the enduring presence of these debates. Several examples drawn from my work on the registration affidavits submitted by San Francisco’s German-American community suggest the ways in which these forms and accompanying police correspondence can provide insights into this encounter between bureaucratic power and individuals.

In August 1918, Leonhard Bauer was accosted and arrested for failing to register. The documentation of his arrest and the affidavit he was forced to submit highlight the absurdity of trying to pinpoint loyalty and identity based on citizenship and the stakes involved for those who registered. Leonhard and his brother George did not register in February because they had been born in England where they lived until 1913 when their family immigrated to the United States. According to a police report, Leonhard argued that “he had never at any time resided in Germany, and considered himself an English subject.” Aside from the question of loyalty and national identity that made registering anathema for Leonhard and George, there were practical reasons motivating their avoidance as well. Although it was possible to apply for a permit to enter forbidden areas, many alien enemies lost their jobs because, as the San Francisco Chronicle explained on February 10, 1918, “under no circumstances are enemy aliens to be permitted near warehouses and docks.” Leonhard, who was employed at the Crowley Steam Launch Company on the waterfront, discovered this for himself when a Coast Guard officer grew suspicious and arrested him for failing to register and being found within a protected area. He avoided internment, but the U.S. Marshal registered him and forbade him from returning to his job. George avoided arrest by voluntarily going to the Department of Justice office in San Francisco to inquire whether it would be necessary for him to register. As the policy stated that children of German immigrants were to be considered German aliens regardless of the location of their birth unless their parents had naturalized in the United States, the U.S. Marshal registered George as well. George worked at the Globe Grain and Milling Company, which was near the waterfront as well, and it is likely that he and Leonhard had avoided registration deliberately rather than out of ignorance. Their sister, Eva, who had also been born in England and lived with them and their parents had registered in June during the prescribed registration period.

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Leonhard Bauer’s affidavit, 1918, San Francisco Public Library, History and Archives

Like the Bauer brothers, women like Neida Huling Adler balked at the assumption that their citizenship reflected their loyalty or national identity. Under the 1907 Expatriation Act, women who married foreign nationals lost their American citizenship. American-born women affected by this law vehemently protested their registration and used the forms to make statements about their identity. Born in Virginia City, Nevada, Neida Adler wrote “Born U.S.” in large letters where information about immigration dates was requested. Under the question about which languages she spoke, she simply wrote “American.” Subtle statements of identification as an American like these show up repeatedly on American-born women’s forms, along with emphasis on their parents’ citizenship or on relatives who were fighting for the United States.

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Neida Huling Nickersen Adler’s affidavit, 1918; San Francisco Public Library, History and Archives

Registration could have economic consequences for those employed in protected areas and it frequently contradicted the identity of the registrants. Beyond the ideological issue of loyalty and national identity, it also carried strong connotations of criminality and subjected the registrants to police surveillance of their every move. The sense that they were being booked as criminals came most forcefully through the photographs and fingerprints submitted on the final pages of the affidavit. Most registrants were able to provide their own photographs, controlling the image they presented as they thronged the photography studios of San Francisco. The photographs taken by the police of German residents at the city’s Relief Home for Aged and Infirm, like John Jonkosky, stand out from the rest. In these photographs, the subjects often look dejected or angry. Most significantly, the police placed numbered placards on each person’s chest, probably to assist in matching photographs with the correct paperwork. While most of the photographs in the registration files look like portraits, these images are a stark reminder that in effect they were really mug shots, documenting suspects and preserving their image in case of future investigations.

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John Jonkosky’s affidavit and photo, San Francisco Public Library

Unlike their photographs, over which most registrants had a degree of control, no one could avoid the indignity of being fingerprinted, and the association of fingerprinting with criminal procedures was clear. Newspapers published articles about the new techniques of fingerprinting and its use in identifying German alien enemies. For the registrants, the full page of fingerprints they had to provide was surely tangible confirmation that they were suspects and registration was not a mere formality. Taking finger prints made such an impression during the first round of registration in February that the expanded instructions on the top of the forms used to register “alien females” in June included a caveat explaining that “The finger printing is a method of identification and the taking of the finger prints is not to be deemed an imputation that the registrant is not a law-abiding person.”

One hundred years later, the snippets of thousands of lives dutifully inscribed on alien enemy registration affidavits in police stations across the nation continue to speak eloquently. Collectively, these forms offer demographic information about entire communities of German immigrants, offering insight into immigration, occupation, housing, and family trends. As the examples presented here suggest, they also offer insights into the way individuals push back against the rigid boundaries of bureaucratic formalities and address questions of identity and power that remain all too relevant in today’s America.

Jillaine Cook received her bachelor’s degree in History from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. She joined the History PhD program at USC in 2016. Her interests include questions of immigration, citizenship, and empire in late 19th-early 20th century America and the Pacific.

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White Mountain Petroglyphs in the Red Desert, Wyoming

By William Deverell

July 11, 2018

Rock Springs to Daniel.  We stayed last night in a Best Western (“The Outlaw”) in Rock Springs.  Very accommodating, nice pool, warm people.  Architecturally, the strangest motel I’ve ever stayed in.  Everything is arrayed off a large and central courtyard, enclosed, and set up kind of like a convention.  All original construction they told me – ca. 1966 – kind of “mid-century awkward,” but we were well looked after and had a good time.

Just out of Rock Springs, we took a detour I’ve long wanted to take, over to the White Mountain petroglyphs.  Probably between 200 and 1000 years old, carved into a huge sandstone butte pockmarked with holes and caves.  It was amazing.  We were the only ones who’d taken the dirt road out there, and we stayed quite awhile looking at the carvings.  Deer, elk, birds, men, even a mounted man with a sword or lance (which gives it a convenient post-contact date).  The local indigenous people regard the site as sacred – utterly understandable and fitting.  We found ourselves in a kind of hushed reverie out there.  One of the carvings was of a man standing, face forward, and we could stand just where the native artist stood to do it – 100, 200, 500 years ago.

 

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On the way out, we could see the Boar’s Tusk volcanic spire rising from the floor of the Red Desert.  This was surely a landmark for not only the indigenous people, but the Oregon- and California-bound emigrants in the mid-19th century.  I bet it still is for oil and gas workers out here.

Rolling towards Pinedale we hit a rain squall, common in the summers anywhere in the Rockies.  We passed a few Oregon Trail markers – a campsite, a fork in the wagon road – these are always fascinating to me.  I can see them out there – caravans of hardscrabble farmer mostly, generally unprepared for what they faced on this perilous journey that could stretch to five or six months’ duration.  It wasn’t the Indians – the natives knew enough to stay away, for the most part, or to interact only in brief trading sessions.  It was disease, the bad water, the accidents, the stupid gunplay, and the drownings – that’s what got most of them.  I disagree with my colleagues who blip over this chapter in 19th century American history as either too romantic or a story already told over and over again.  There is still so much to learn from the stories of these 200,000 or 250,000 people, shock troops of Manifest Destiny, settler-colonials who re-made history on foot, for good, for ill, and for everything in between.

If you are interested in learning more about this era, let me direct you to the work of the historian Sarah Keyes, who did her doctoral work with us at USC.  See, for instance, her articles “Western Adventurers and Male Nurses: Indians, Cholera, and Masculinity in Overland Trail Narratives,” Western Historical Quarterly<https://academic.oup.com/whq/issue/49/1> (Spring 2018) and “Like a Roaring Lion’: The Overland Trail as a Sonic Conquest,” Journal of American History (June 2009).

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Rain Squall Coming into Pinedale

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Wyoming Territorial Prison

By William Deverell

Headed north into Wyoming.  An eventful day on the road.  Drove north out of Colorado Springs, cut west to hug the mountains above Fort Collins, then punched into Wyoming to make our way to Rock Springs for the night.  Had the road more or less to ourselves, at least until I-80 at Rawlins.  We stopped at the Wyoming Territorial Prison, now a museum.  Well done – the buildings and cells have been preserved, and even the grounds are foreboding.  It is a grim place – as you’d expect – the incarcerated must have suffered year round in the heat and the freezing cold.  They even beat the guards for dereliction of duty.  The site, now run well by Wyoming State Parks, points out the life stories of a number of prisoners: men and women alike, the career criminals, the bank and train robbers, and those who looked simply to have made a few very bad choices.  The prison’s practice of shaving the heads of the male prisoners did not prevent individuality from staring out at us from huge black and white photographs made at booking.

We had a start when we visited the “broom factory.”  The imprisoned worked as master broom makers in a big factory on site, and Wyoming State Parks puts historical actors – who stay silent – in prison garb making brooms as you walk through the factory.  Very effective, even creepy.

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Wyoming Territorial Prison

History and geography roll back on themselves, and prisons keep coming up in our travels.  We drove I-80 through Sinclair, Wyoming.  I’ve noticed it before, but I had never made the connection before.  Population 450 (tops), the landscape given over to a huge array of oil refining equipment.  I’m going to make a reasoned guess that this place is named for Harry Sinclair (of Sinclair Oil, which you can still see at Sinclair service stations in the West). Harry Ford Sinclair got caught up in the notorious Teapot Dome oil scandal of the 1920s, and he served six months in federal prison for witness tampering.  It whacked him and his reputation, for sure, but he proved remarkably resilient (with uninterrupted wealth as a cushion, no doubt), rebounding to a life of leisure in Pasadena until his death in the mid-1950s. Someday I’ll find out which house he lived in, as I bet it still stands.

We are now in Rock Springs – tough railroad town and, like Los Angeles, the site of a horrific massacre of Chinese in the 19th century.

The high and barren landscapes of Wyoming and the spaces and places of greater Los Angeles – linked by all kinds of stories and histories, oil and infamy and violence and racism among them.

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Northern Colorado, Southern Wyoming

 

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Photo courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the “Then and Now” series.

By Matthew H. Hersch

The motley assortment of graduate students and amateur rocket enthusiasts looked like it came straight out of central casting: Texas-born mechanical engineer and socialist Frank Malina, imaginative Chinese émigré Hsue-Shen Tsien, enterprising undergraduate Apollo Smith, self-taught chemist and occult enthusiast Jack Parsons, along with his childhood friend and protector Edward Forman, among others.  Their obsession was space travel, and particularly the liquid-fuel rocket, which Robert Goddard had invented only ten years earlier.

After the first members of the group were chased out of the laboratories of the California Institute of Technology when their rocket experiments became too explosive, they found slightly more success, and even more explosions, in a remote patch of the San Gabriel Mountains, where they tested a small rocket motor on Halloween, 1936.  The men called themselves the “Suicide Club,” but Malina’s faculty advisor, leading aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, suggested they find a different name.  Eighty-one years ago, the institution now known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory formed out of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech.  Incorporated into NASA in 1958, JPL continues to do pioneering work in space exploration, which wouldn’t have surprised Frank Malina at all.


Matthew H. Hersch is an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

The month of April is synonymous with taxes. We spend hours, days, and even weeks sorting through the paper trail of our financial identity, condensing a year’s worth of work into a federally approved formula. Taxes are an inherent part of life; so, in an era in which the crossover between art and life is a given, what might the crossover between art and the United States Tax Code look like?

Two Things You Can Count on—Art and Taxes,” appeared in the June 1974 issue of LAICA Journal. The opening lines of the two-page spread, read:

Lowell Darling: “Dudley, can you tell me where you’re from?”

Dudley Finds: “Dollars, Texas.”

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In the text, California-based artist Lowell Darling interviews his alter ego, Dudley Finds. The mock-interview is the concluding segment of Darling’s five-year tax project, initiated when the IRS classified Darling a hobbyist rather than an artist engaging in a trade for profit, thus disallowing his proposed income tax deductions for art material expenses. This 1969 denial kicked off Darling’s career as a non-profit public artist bent on proving his artist status to the IRS, all while displaying no documented monetary profit.

To realize the project, Darling corresponded with politicians and federal agencies regarding proposed artworks, stamping the letters he received in response with: “ARTIST’S PROOF.” He established the fictional Fat City School of Finds Art (FCSOFA), placing his alter ego, Dudley Finds, as the founder and dean of the imaginary institution and distributing over 50,000 free MFA degrees—the school counts among its famous graduates John Baldessari and Ray Johnson. Darling realized pro bono site-specific installations up and down the West Coast; he was interviewed by numerous media outlets (television, radio, newspaper); and in 1973, he was awarded a grant by the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Only in 1974, and with the assistance of then-UCLA law professor Monroe Edwin Price, was Darling reclassified by the IRS as an artist displaying a profit intent. Thus, he was allowed, finally, to deduct the cost of materials from his [lack of] income. This change in classification was not the result of revised tax laws or increased recognition for conceptual art. Darling posits that having a lawyer argue his case, and having his work reproduced on the cover of Art in America, were significant factors in this revised status. While this may very well be the case, ultimately, the deciding factor was the NEA grant, not because of its associated prestige or federal backing, but because it allowed Darling to display one all-important element on his tax forms: profit.

Thus, to conclude the tax project, which involved forays into correspondence, installation, and performance, Darling displaced the discussion, turning it away from himself (the subject of the IRS audit) and instead shifting it towards Dudley Finds, complicating the matter by discussing his financial identity under a name that both was and was not his.

 

This blog post is taken from ICW’s Doheny postdoctoral scholar Monica Steinberg’s ongoing research into the agency of imaginary artists in Los Angeles.

Adam Goodman is currently a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities at the USC. Beginning fall 2016, he will be an Assistant Professor of History and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Goodman is a scholar of migration interested in the interconnected histories of people throughout the Americas and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His current book project explores the rise of the deportation regime and the expulsion of Mexicans from the United States over the last century. He has published articles, essays, and reviews in academic venues such as the Journal of American Ethnic History and popular outlets such as The Nation and The Washington Post.

We interviewed Adam about his research, what he’s currently teaching at USC, and how his work affects his experience of Los Angeles.

 

 

ICW: Tell us about your background and training. How did you come to your interest in immigration history?

Adam Goodman: Before starting graduate school I worked as a high school history teacher in the Lower Rio Grande Valley on the US-Mexico border. Many of my students came from families that had recently migrated to the United States, and some continued to cross the border on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. Living in the Valley sparked an interest in how migration and migration policies shape people’s lives, which I then went on to explore in more depth as a history Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

ICW: What was it like to study American immigration at Penn, and how did Mexican immigration history fit or not fit the paradigms you studied in graduate school?

Goodman: From the outside looking in, the Penn history department doesn’t seem like an obvious place to study Mexican migration history: there are no Mexicanists or Chicana/o historians on faculty and, although it has grown in recent years, the Mexican community in Philadelphia remains relatively small compared to major metropolitan areas in the Southwest and West. But it was the perfect place for me. When I started graduate school I didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in. (For a time, I thought it might be the history of education and social inequality.) Fortunately for me, I found a dynamic group of engaged scholars—Michael Katz, Tom Sugrue, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Eiichiro Azuma, and Steve Hahn, among others—who nurtured my burgeoning interest in migration history and policy, pushed me read widely and “think big,” and encouraged me to conduct archival research and oral histories in Mexico. Ultimately, their advice made me a better historian and added depth to my work. And, in the end, the fact that Penn didn’t have anyone working in my direct field forced me to branch out and make connections with colleagues at other institutions across the country.

 

ICW: Do the metaphors of uprooting and transplanting still mean something in immigration scholarship?  Why or why not?

Goodman: More than anything, metaphors like “the uprooted” (popularized by Oscar Handlin in 1951) and “the transplanted” (coined by John Bodnar in 1985) are useful to understanding the historiography of immigration and how much it has changed over the last few decades. Up until the 1990s, studies of one-way European immigration and assimilation dominated the field of immigration history (aside from a few notable exceptions). Since then, however, scholars—from increasingly diverse backgrounds—have focused on the histories of migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa; the many connections people maintain to their countries of origin; and how nativism, exclusion, and deportation have shaped United States history. There has also been an important shift away from the study of immigration and toward migration and mobility studies.

 

ICW: How does your work inform your daily life in LA?

Goodman: There are times when I see the city in a different light because of my work on Mexican migration and deportation. Dodger Stadium isn’t just where the Dodgers play: it’s also Elysian Park, the place where immigration authorities rounded people up in a make-shift detention camp during the infamous “Operation Wetback” deportation campaign in 1954; and it’s Chavez Ravine, the home to a large Mexican community until the city and team ownership forcibly displaced them so the ballpark could be built. Two of my favorite places in LA are Grand Central Market and the central branch of the Public Library. But when I emerge from the Pershing Square metro station en route to either, I can’t help but think about the people whose deportation hearings are taking place at that very moment, just two blocks away at the Immigration Court at 6th and Olive.

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Chavez Ravine, exact date unknown. photCL 486 (307) from the Palmer Conner Collection of Color Slides of Los Angeles, 1950 – 1970 at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

 

ICW: Tell us about the class you are teaching at USC.  What do you think you might expect from USC students on the topic(s) you are working with in the course?

Goodman: This semester I’m teaching a class on the history of Mexican migration to the United States. The first half of the course covers the sixteenth century to 1986. (We move fast!) It starts with the legacies of colonialism and conquest by European powers and the United States, and then it explores the first Mexican migrants to the US, Mexican American community formation, the Bracero Program, undocumented migration, and return migration to Mexico—whether by choice or force. The second half of the semester we’ll be examining topics on contemporary Mexican migration, including the militarization of the US-Mexico border, popular culture and migration, and Mexico’s impact on migration and migration’s impact on Mexico.

I hope that the course’s historical orientation enables students to better understand the essential role migration has played in shaping the interconnected histories of Mexico and the United States. Today, more than 34 million people of Mexican origin live in the US, making up around 11 percent of the total population; and the 12 million Mexican migrants who reside in the US comprise around 10 percent of Mexico’s population.

There’s also no better place to learn about Mexican migration, past and present, than Los Angeles. I hope the class helps students engage with the city in new ways. I want them to get off campus and see LA for what it is: a global metropolis that is home to more Mexicans than anywhere else in the world aside from Mexico City. With that in mind, during the second half of the semester students will be heading out into the community and conducting institutional histories of local migrant-serving organizations.

 

ICW: What’s the best thing about Los Angeles?

Goodman: The food is hard to beat, but, as a public transportation user and advocate, I’d add that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the metro. The Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, Gold Line extension to the SGV, and Purple Line extension to Westwood are going to be game changers. An affordable, integrated public transportation system will make Los Angeles a more livable city for all of its inhabitants.

 

ICW: What are you working on now, in the short and long term?

Goodman: In the short-term I’m working on a couple of articles and essays, in addition to a book chapter about how migration policy has affected families split between Mexico and the United States. (It’s largely based on oral histories I did in the central-western Mexican state of Jalisco.) I’m also organizing an event on the roots and realities of the Central American refugee crisis that will be held at USC on March 22. And, a couple of weeks later, I’ll be giving a talk in El Monte on the history of immigration raids and immigrant resistance in 1970s Los Angeles. In the long—but hopefully not too long!—term, I’ll be working on my book project about the growth of the deportation regime and expulsion of Mexicans over the last century, and preparing it for publication.

 

 

 

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Carleton Watkins, Late George Cling Peaches, c. 1887-1888. Albumen print from wet-collodion negative. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

As much as any of his more famous landscapes of Yosemite or Mount Shasta, Carleton Watkins’ Late George Cling Peaches is a masterpiece. The picture, in the collections of the Huntington and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, shows a box of peaches, a subject so paradoxically obscure and familiar, that nowhere in 19th-century art, neither in America nor in Europe, is there anything like it.

To put Late George Cling Peaches into its proper context, to understand why it holds our gaze, we need to go back 500 years. Since at least the thirteenth century, Western art has been significantly interested in how a two-dimensional medium, such as painting, might realistically present the third dimension. In the late 1200s, a Florentine painter named Giotto helped introduce life into art, or, as we might put it today, for painting people in a manner that was lifelike and that gave volume to the human figure. Around 1425, another Florentine, Filippo Brunelleschi, composed images of Florence’s buildings, its cityscape, using what would later be called ‘linear perspective,’ the painterly use of geometry to create a realistic simulacrum of depth, and a believable representation of reality. More simply, Giotto and Brunelleschi pioneered making paintings of things that looked less like an outline or a colored shadow, and instead look more like something real.

For most of the next 500 years, between the late dark ages and the dawn of modernity, artists tried to present depth more and more realistically. Typically art historians attribute the birth of modern art to the coming together of two seemingly unrelated artistic interests: Artists began to take contemporary life as a subject, and, once that turned out to be something fairly easily done — look, a cabaret! look, boaters on a river! —  they made clearer their break with centuries of the past by now working to eliminate depth and perspective for which half a millennium of their predecessors had fought so hard. Steps toward this new idea are evident in the late 19th-century paintings of Cezanne and then in the turn-of-the-century paintings of Gustav Klimt, but the elimination of depth and painterly perspective reached its apex a few years later, when Henri Matisse led the way toward a colorful style known as fauvism and when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque purged color from their work in a bid to birth cubism.

At least that’s how it happened in painting. For photography, perspective and the presentation of depth is a trickier question. While in the early days of the medium many photographers looked to painting for ideas and inspiration — Briton Roger Fenton, arguably photography’s first master, was trained as a painter, and it shows in his pictures — few took on the concerns of the painting avant-garde as their own. Instead, 19th-century photographers, be they portrait daguerreotypists, scientists or landscape photographers, concerned themselves with capturing images of what was before the camera and doing so as clearly and as attractively as possible. Sure, the artist composed the image to the best of his ability — some better than others — but depth or perspectival space wasn’t an issue for photographers the way it was with painters. It was just part of the camera-captured, chemically processed image.

In part, this was because the presentation of depth was effectively built in to photography’s early technologies. Early ways of making pictures, such as the wet collodion process which was dominant through the 1860s, often resulted in images wherein the objects or landscape that was further away from the camera printed ‘lighter.’ Voila: For photographers, the depth for or against which painters fought was created as the result of chemical inevitability. By the late 1870s, as cameras, lenses and chemistry improved, that effect was nearly eliminated and the distant background and the foreground often melded together in the finished image. While the foreground was now clearer and richer, the background was too, and typically it was every bit as clear and rich as the foreground. Many photographers hoped that the viewer would understand that the camera, and thus the photograph, would necessarily flatten the image, that the foreground would appear to be pasted onto the background, and that the viewer would use her imagination to conjure the space between what was nearest the camera lens and what was farthest away. While it’s not clear how many painters realized it at the time, improvements in photographic technology brought painters to where photographic technology already was. Or to put it another way, what painters were fighting to advance toward — the flattening of pictorial space — was effectively built in to photography from the early 1870s onward.

Which brings us back to Late George Cling Peaches. It is a photograph of peaches packed in four horizontal rows of six. A deep cleft runs two-thirds of the way around each fruit, nearly halving it. They are babies’ bottoms in a box. The photograph is so detailed, so precise, that you can see light wrapping its way around each individual peach, pausing between each slightly upraised pore before vanishing into the empty black space between each fruit. The edge of the photograph is the edge of the box in which the peaches were shipped, unless the edge of the box is the edge of the photograph. That flattening of pictorial space that technical advances in photography had built into the medium? With Late George Cling Peaches, Watkins defeated it, showed that a skilled artist could win out over the march of technology.

The picture is not just a masterpiece of formalism. Late George Cling Peaches was a picture the celebrated a late 19th-century miracle: man’s hubristic transformation of southern California desert, in this case Kern County, into fruit orchards.

A few years before Watkins took Late George Cling Peaches, Kern County was one of the hottest, driest, most inhospitable desert landscapes in America. A few years before that, it was an inland sea, covered in floodwaters so deep that steamboats were able to paddle through it. On one hand, these cycles of extreme weather had been going on for centuries and probably for millenia. On the other, the floods brought rich soil to the valley floor. Where there was rich soil, there was the potential for agriculture. This wasn’t lost on San Francisco businessmen who, after a couple of decades of benefiting from the mining booms in California and Nevada, were flush with cash and looking for places to invest it. They realized that if they could somehow control the rivers coming out of the mountains on either side of California’s central valley, if they could normalize and regulate the flow of water that created the floods and thus eliminate the hydrological extremes that had made even low-density agricultural settlement and agriculture in most of Kern impossible, that they could make millions. In short, they believed they could manage nature and make the desert bloom.

As a San Franciscan with close relationships to the wealthy men who invested in railroads and land throughout California, Carleton Watkins was engaged with these desert reclamation projects from almost the beginning. Watkins was especially close to the San Francisco land barons who controlled Kern. In the late 1870s, those men sued each other over Kern water rights. One set of partners, James Ben Ali Haggin and Lloyd Tevis, hired Watkins to make pictures that they could use in court to support their claims against the other team, Henry Miller and Charles Lux.2 The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became a landmark water-rights decision. The most important outcome of the suit was that it effectively confirmed that Miller, Lux, Haggin and Tevis controlled the water supply for almost all of the agricultural land in Kern County, and by their control of water they controlled the future of lands much larger than that. Haggin and Tevis had plans for all that water: They plowed their capital into re-shaping their new land, moving rivers, building canals, and filling-in marshes and lakes.

This was no small project: Kern County is bigger than New Jersey. At first, as often as not, they got it wrong and powerful Sierra-snowmelt-driven floods destroyed their earthworks. They kept trying: The potential rewards were too great for them to give up. Eventually their engineers figured it out, and their irrigation projects played a key role in the conversion of California’s once-inhospitable Central Valley into the global agricultural powerhouse it is today.

By 1888, Tevis, Haggin and Billy Carr, their politically connected local land agent, had finally figured out how to make their 375,000-acre patch of Kern bloom. (That acreage is equivalent to about 500 square miles of land, an area equivalent to 11 San Franciscos.) They formed the Kern County Land Company, whose waterworks fed a series of large farms on which they grew crops such as alfalfa and grain, and raised cattle. That was all well and good, but Carr and Haggin realized that the fastest, largest profits could be made from land sales, from breaking up their massive acreage and selling plots to individual farmers. However, there was an obvious problem: There wasn’t anyone in Kern County to sell to. Before Haggin and Carr transformed it, the Southern Pacific Railroad hadn’t even bothered to build its San Joaquin Valley line all the way to Kern’s county seat in Bakersfield. The county was home to no more than couple thousand recently arrived Oklahomans, Texans, Louisianans and Mexicans. Many were seasonal laborers already employed by the Kern County Land Co. Kern was so hot and dry and miserable that no one really wanted to live there.

Haggin, Tevis and Carr understood that the settlement of Kern — and thus their profits — would have to come from the East and Midwest, the two parts of the country that had fueled Western migration for several decades. But how to convince potential farmers in Pennsylvania or Illinois to move west, to take a chance on a bold, never-before-attempted reclamation project in a recently former desert wasteland? Answer: Hire Carleton Watkins. There’s no surviving record of what Haggin and Tevis told Watkins to do, but the resulting pictures make it clear: Make Kern look like somewhere you’d want to live, raise your family and farm. Make it look like a safe investment, like a place you could raise both crops and your family.3 Sure there were plenty of other photographers they could have hired, including one in Kern who worked for half of what Watkins charged, Haggin and Tevis knew how good Watkins was. He was money well-spent.

Part of the reason Watkins was a great artist — and part of why his life’s story and work are so fascinating — is that he had a particular skill for composing chaos into inevitability. No body of work demonstrated this skill better than the hundreds of photographs he made of Kern County. Here Watkins’ pictures would transform Kern’s withering desert and hydrological extremes into the land of cornucopia that Haggin and Tevis needed it to be.

In today’s terms that would make Watkins little more than a maker of slick marketing images, a PR-motivated shyster. But in the 19th century, that was de rigeur. For decades, American painters had cranked out idyllic landscapes, pictures that were too perfect to be real. If the land was blessed by Providence — and Americans believed that their place on the continent surely was — artists had to make the land look Providential. Watkins knew that his pictures had to fit an ideal, but he was a Westerner, more interested in serving capital than in serving the Lord. In Watkins’ Kern, the landscape wasn’t prepared by the Lord in advance of manifest destiny, it was built by man. That made Watkins the perfect artist for his time, and also the ideal artist for his clients and customers, railroad titans, land barons and bankers, men whose livelihoods depended on presenting the West as tamed, as a place safe for investment and relocation. In Watkins, modernity always wins.

Late George Cling Peaches is either the first or more likely the last of as many as nine pictures Watkins took of Kern orchards between 1881 and 1888. While it’s impossible to know exactly how Watkins intended the pictures to be seen, the way he numbered his pictures suggest that Late George Cling Peaches is the culmination of a group of pictures meant to be considered as a narrative. The first picture was probably an 1881 view of the Kern River as it exits the steep foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada and enters the central valley. Watkins’ message: There is a lot of water here, and there will continue to be, because the mountains and their snowpack provide it. The next several pictures shows the Kern County Land Co orchards, from a distance, then close-ups of an individual tree, a branch heavy with fruit, then on a cluster of peaches. The final image is the boxed peaches, likely shipped to Watkins’ San Francisco studio for photographing, just as they’d be shipped to Chicago or New Orleans for consuming, were intended as evidence of how you, a prospective migrant to Kern, could make farming in Kern pay off.

In any context, Late George Cling Peaches is an astonishing picture. How did Watkins make each individual fruit look so soft? Just as remarkable as the intensity of Watkins’ image is that it’s impossible to tell whether the box is lying flat with Watkins’ huge mammoth-plate camera above it, pointing down into the box, or whether the box is on end, across from Watkins’ camera.4

One way or another, the peaches are stuck in place, on a grid. Here, in 1889, Watkins has built a picture around a grid and by so doing has flattened space in a way that the European avant garde, which had been slowly, steadily working toward this — and toward the grid — since late impressionism, wouldn’t achieve for another 20 years. Another major innovation of modern art was that it made everyday life, the commonplace, into a subject of high visual art. What could be more ordinary than a box of peaches? One measure of Watkins’ importance as an artist is that he was alone among American artists of his period in making the seemingly mundane a subject of intense compositional experimentation.

Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts has called Late George Cling Peaches “the first “modernist masterpiece.” The only other known copy of the picture is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for whom photography curator Sarah Meister acquired it in 2010. “If I died tomorrow and I never brought another work into the collection, knowing that Late George Cling Peaches is here, that’s certainly my proudest accomplishment,” Meister told me after installing the picture for the first time. “You can’t look at Marcel Duchamp the same way after seeing that Watkins picture. I think it radically changes how you see the nineteenth century, which then reverberates through the present.”

 

Tyler Green is an award-winning art journalist and the producer and host of The Modern Art Notes Podcast, America’s most popular audio program on art. He is writing a book (UC Press) on Carleton Watkins, the greatest American photographer of the 19th-century and arguably the most influential American artist of his time. The Huntington is home to the one of the most important collections of Watkins’s work.

This post was originally published on the ICW website in September 2015.

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Listen to the recording of In Conversation with Tyler Green (Wednesday, May 27, 2015):

Carleton Watkins in California: How an Artist on the Edge of America Impacted American Science, History and Business