Photographer and Bay Area resident, Dorothea Lange, was famous for documenting the environmental and economic disaster brought on by the Southern Plains Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in the 1930s. Her photographs of displaced people looking for a better life in California resonate all over the world, but especially locally with the work of two artists featured in our recent Conversations about Landscape program.
In this virtual dialog with each other and Exploratorium senior artist Susan Schwartzenberg, poet Tess Taylor and photographer Lewis Watts expanded on Lange’s legacy in a discussion about their work documenting and writing about cultural and ecological change into the 21st century. Ms. Taylor showed images and read from her recent book Last West, Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to accompany two exhibitions of Lange’s photographs. Mr. Watts, a Richmond resident, showed work that captured images of the mid-century migration of black residents into East Bay neighborhoods, including Richmond and Oakland, and the ways in which they carried and displayed cultural touchstones from home into their new lives.
The conversation revealed how the work of artists can use both familiar and new landscapes to explore issues of equity, history and environmental change. In anticipation of the Exploratorium program with Lewis Watts, Tess Taylor created and presented new work pairing photography and poetry.
The online program ended with Ms. Taylor reading her poem inspired by a visit to the Exploratorium’s Observatory gallery and an exhibit about San Francisco’s buried ships. The poem is reproduced here with the author’s permission from her book Rift Zone.
ENVOI: SAN FRANCISCO
A number of the ships, wharves, and other infrastructure of San Francisco’s Gold Rush waterfront lie buried beneath the streets, sidewalks…
Gold Rush Port: The Maritime Archaeology of San Francisco’s Waterfront
City of shipwrecks. City of water.
Sand hills where mountain lions
Prowled above windjammers.
City whose first Anglo historians proclaimed
Themselves to be the only modern progress
& promised to “sweep away forerunners”—
Who wanted to bind the world’s many peoples
& with their new port to do China
“what the British had done with India (but sooner).”
City of Gold Rush & bust & boom
City of mudflat, of private wharves.
Buildings to ships, ships into buildings;
forest to everything;
city of old growth & redwood pilings.
City of whores & Mackinaw blankets,
Of Irish whiskey & fireproof paint,
Of schooners abandoned for goldfields
The Niantic the Apollo the General Harrison.
City whose abandoned ships became
Floating opium dens next to floating prisons.
City of otter pelts & shovel salesmen,
Whose white settlers funded their own microgenocides;
City of quick fires & tallow & oprium,
Of murre eggs stolen off the Farallones—
City of landfill & movable real estate
Where right now a woman in underwear
Howls in the street
& a barefoot teenager
Scratches his sores
& an addict begged the last of my rice
Just outside this room where I am writing
City of Faultline city of water:
As much as of anywhere I am of you.
By Tess Taylor