Note: This was originally posted on NJWV and references SFMOMA On the Go’s Project Los Altos which featured just the Silicon Valley photos. I saw that show last December and ordered LBM Dispatch 4 as both a catalog of my visit and for the additional context of Three Valleys instead of just Silicon Valley.
After seeing Alec Soth’s photos of Silicon Valley, I wanted to see them in his Three Valleys series to see how my perception of them changed. My reaction to the Silicon Valley photos was very personal and while I appreciated what Soth was doing, I felt that it was an inadequate portrait of my home. I like them immensely more in their Three Valleys context.
My main issue with the Silicon Valley photos involved the lack of area history in the photos.
I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.
I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing.
This is no longer an issue when the San Joaquin Valley and Death Valley photos are included. What was a portrait of Silicon Valley has become more about California and its mythos as the promised land and how closely together success & failure and new & old and nature & technology live together. Instead of being about the details of one industry, it’s become about the ways different industries come and go and how people are left behind when the industry moves on.
As someone who visits the Central Valley regularly from the Bay Area, I’m very familiar with the time-warp nature of traveling from Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. Everything is different. Life moves at a different pace. Driving huge distances becomes normal. Technology even seems somewhat marooned in the past and any cutting edge technology is like magic.*
*For the first few years when Priuses were backordered in the Bay Area, you could drive them off the lots in Fresno.
Comparing the two valleys really shows the two sides of the California dream and does a better job at suggesting the boom/bust nature of things than anything I’d hope to see in just the Silicon Valley series. Soth’s photos also consistently show how isolating the California myth is. The myth is to go out and strike it rich on your own. On. Your. Own. There’s no sense of community in any of the photos. Instead Soth shows people working on individual projects or isolated by their technology or soldiering on as the last of their kind. Kids are left to their own devices—albeit safely tethered. For such a supposedly free place we’ve erected a lot of walls for ourselves.
The people all feel familiar to me too. I know them. I’ve been them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve listened to them. They’re portraits of both people and archetypes
Bringing Death Valley into the mix adds another aspect of the California experience—namely how close the state is to getting wiped out by nature. Throughout the Silicon and San Joaquin sequences, Soth has included photos of nature butting up with industry. In the Bay Area we love that nature—whether the foothills or the bay— are right there. At the same time, both threaten to wipe us out. Faultlines go through the foothills on both sides of the bay. Global warming meanwhile promises higher sea levels in the future. In the Central Valley, it’s more about resource usage and how everything dies without water.
Nature is always there, lurking, as something to be respected. Especially with regard to water availability. Everything in California relies on water at some level. Death Valley is the ultimate warning of what we risk becoming, or returning to, should we screw up our resource management.
Death Valley also serves as an example of land which we haven’t managed to tame despite all out technological advances. For all our glittering promise and talk about being able to do anything, there are parts of the state which are inhospitable and lack mobile phone coverage and won’t be getting any of that any time soon.