Dazzling Scenes From the Rest of California

A photojournalist captures the rural people and places that occupy 90 percent of the Golden State.

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Lisa M. Hamilton/Real Rural

In 2011, I traveled nearly 10,000 miles around California. Rural California, that is. I visited places like Surprise Valley, Ferndale, Mecca--what I call "the rest of California." It's a joke of sorts, for while the public face of California is mostly urban, by geography the state is overwhelmingly rural, more than 90 percent by the predominant Census definition.

For my purposes, "rural" meant places where work means harvesting natural resources, and where that work defines the economy and the culture. My own work was to collect stories from these places, and I did so using simple tools--several medium-format film cameras, a digital recorder, and a stack of notebooks. The results are nothing like the images that most of us associate with California. Instead of boulevards lined with palm trees, we see orchards of date palms hung with rickety harvest ladders; rather than Hollywood celebrities, we see young men struggling to make it big in bull riding.

That contrast is exactly why I went. Many urbanites think they already know the story of rural California: who's there and how they think, their values and their struggles. I wanted to demonstrate that in fact this place and its people are far more diverse and dynamic than most of us realize. The people I sought live remarkable lives but are mostly unremarkable in appearance--the kind of folks you would pass in the supermarket and not even notice. The idea is to notice and reconsider those people and, by extension, the places where they live.

See more images from this series at RealRural.org.


This slideshow includes images from "Real Rural," a multimedia portrait of California by writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton. Currently the work exists as a multimedia website and an ad-art campaign on trains throughout the San Francisco Bay Area subway system. In fall 2012, photographs from Real Rural will comprise a show at the California Historical Society museum, and there will be a concurrent ad-art campaign on billboards in Los Angeles and Sacramento. The project is supported by the Creative Work Fund, Roots of Change, the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, and the California Historical Society. See the complete stories at realrural.org.

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Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on agriculture and rural communities around the world.

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