Horace Bristol’s California Photographs | Getty

The Grapes of Wrath: Horace Bristol’s California Photographs

Photography exhibition at the Getty Museum Los Angeles: November 2002 – February 2003



The Getty Museum is currently exhibiting works of Horace Bristol alongside Dorthea Lang. The exhibition is titled The Grapes of Wrath, after the novel by John Seteinbeck. Both exhibitions cover Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new Deal era of America during the 1930’s, the depression, immigration, and World War II. Both of the photographers depict California and show a strong influence of the San Francisco/Bay Area civil liberties sensitivity. The content of both exhibitions represent the working class and FDR’s “forgotten man” as well as others without financial or political strength. The stories of these people and times are told primarily through portaiture and all images are presented in black and white.

The people depicted in both exhibitions are portrayed with humility, thoughtfulness, empathy and great consideration for their plight. Almost all of the people depicted are not just people that are on the fringe or down and out, but hardworking Americans making the best of the conditions despite daunting obstacles. Family, work, home and human relationships are central subjects in both exhibitions.

Horace Bristol was a Californian, born in 1908 to a family with a strong background in journalism. From the begining of his career, Bristol worked as a photojournalist for magazines in San Francisco. His work has appeared in SunsetTimeLife and Fortune magazines. He was one of Life magazine’s first staff photographers and much of his most memorable work was reated during this time in the 1930’s. In 1941 he became one of Edward Steichen’s elite photographers and was recruited by him to document the US Naval campaign in WWII. Bristol lived until 1997.

The exhibition covers Bristol’s series on the migrant camps in the California Central Valley during the Great Depression. John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle had impressed Bristol and he proposed a collaboration. After the two were introduced, they traveled together in the winter of 1937-38. It is evident in both of their work that the two men deeply related with the people they met and that the stories they covered went beyond their jobs. it seems that they extended themselves to meet, connect and help their subjects as best they could. In his later years, Bristol renamed his series of photographs about the migrant camps to identify it with Steinbeck’s resulting novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Bristol was a follower of Dorthea Lang and her images inspired his work, especially her images of the migrants and field workers in California. After meeting and working together briefly in 1937 he was influenced by her social commentary, sympathetic approach, her depiction of people’s faces and the insight into their personal stories. Both photographers worked in a documentary style with proactive messages to draw viewers in to connect with their subjects, see them with dignity and identify with their hardships.

While Dorthea Lang considered herself to be a photographer, Horace Bristol considered himself to be a photojournalist. With much of Lang’s work, the form and graphic composition seem to be as much of a factor as the subject matter, making her work as harmonious in its artistic form as its storytelling. Bristol seemed to make the content and the story behind the image a priority. His images look as if they were moments in a story, rather than just individual portraits with a story behind it. While the hardships of his subjects are evident, his depictions are positive and hopeful. The subjects themselves seem to be strong and “carrying on” despite the conditions.

Bristol’s images are stark, powerful, dramatic and telling of his personal beliefs and social/political disposition. He shot mostly outdoors with available light. He tried to be unobtrusive and captured his subjects in their natural environments. Most of his work looks like they are shot with a normal lens. Rather than using large apertures and eliminating the backgrounds, he used small apertures and large depth of field to show the backgrounds. His images have a lot of depth in both the composition and the subject matter. After the initial impact of his primary subject, background details show additional layers in the story.

Below are more detailed reviews of two of my favorite images from the exhibition.

Pea Pickers Weighing Barrels


Gelatin silver print

(Approximately 7 1/2 x 8 inches)

The story of the image is pea pickers working by the weight of their pickings. You see workers standing in line to have their barrel of peas weighed and have that weight added to the work card that documents their earnings. The image that initially hit me was the workers holding buckets that seem to be heavy. it seems almost ironic to see large buckets of peas, that are very small vegetables, and it makes me wonder how long it must take each worker to pick a full bucket.

In the foreground is a foreman or overseer calculating the weight and making notes to the worker’s cards. His stark shadow and silhouette seems overbearing on the large rack displaying all the cards that represent each worker. The large scale and line of trucks behind it also tell the story of how each bucket is weighed and how the workers must collectively pick enough peas to fill the trucks.

After the initial impact, I looked at the other areas of the image and saw the overseer with the scale, in the lower right third of the image, with his harsh shadow cast upon the earnings cards. As I looked in the upper left third, I can see a few other workers emerging from what looks like a very hot, dry landscape, almost like a desert. The upper right third is a line of trucks that go back into the horizon. The lightest area of the image is a woman or man with long, dark hair and carrying a basket on their shoulder. The primary lighting is coming from the upper right area and is probably the harsh sun overhead.

There is so much to look at in this image and probably layers of story behind the work involved in pea picking and the harsh conditions of where those people worked. There is also the story of the overseer and the workers and each of the workers seem to have a personality and story of their own. Aesthetically it is not as clean, crisp and beautiful as Dorthea Lang’s inky black and white compositions with dark, dark blacks, great contrast and tonal ranges as well as textures and lines, but it is still well composed and a considered portrayal. For the narrative and journalistic focus that Horace Bristol had, I think it is fascinating. It definitely brings a story to my attention that I have not considered before and it makes me want to learn more about and feel empathy for the pea pickers. Between Lang and Bristol’s images, there is also a gender “voice” differentiation, probably reflecting gender roles during that time period. Lang’s images have an underlying view of how environments effect someone on a very individual level, especially in relation to their family and personal life. Bristol’s images have an emphasis on the plight of men working/not working and the dynamics of a workplace or overall societal standards.

I’m not sure if the image was originally taken as a landscape or portrait shot because it has been cropped in the presentation, but it is most likely a portrait layout that has been cropped. The image is presented on the wall behind a glass frame, with a cut mat board, and is hung at eye level.

Farm Security Administration Office, Visalia, California


Gelatin silver print

(9 3/8 x 7 5/8 inches)

This image struck me immediately. The energy and tension that the image portrays drew me in and made me want to know what was captivating the attention of all the men. The first thing I saw was the central man in the arrangement of six men. They are in front of a desk in the upper two-thirds of a portait layout frame. The collection of men almost seem like they were well cast for a group of western ranch hands.

The image is about a tense moment where a group of workers waits for a decision from a government agent. Bristol later renamed this image Joad Family Applying for Relief, after the characters in The Grapes of Wrath novel. All eyes are drawn to a central figure looking down at the table. There is a sense of everyone crowding into a small space and pressing foward. You can see the men holding onto the side fence just to be able to lean forward to see what is happening on the table in front.

The faces of the workers tell the story. The tense exhaustion, the stress and the eager anticipation are apparent. Lighting (from the flash) lights up each one of their faces. The workers are dressed in clothes and hats that reveal their working class status as laborers. Their faces have suntans and creases. The worker in the front-right of the image has a very large cast on his arm that makes him look disfigured and obviously injured.

The lighting is coming from the front, upper, left side and the lightest object in the image is a piece of paper on the table. The front-right and bottom third of the composition are almost a silhouette of the government agent. It is not the silhouette, but his jacket that is the darkest object in the composition and his back is facing the camera. It is symbolic of the “faceless” government or the anonymous governing entities. He doesn’t have a distinct identity because you don’t see his face and because you see all of the workers’ faces, you clearly identify with the story from their point of view. In this moment, the fate of the six workers is hanging on the decsion of this single government agent. This is symbolic of the government, where a few, small group of people make decisions that affect many people/the masses.

The government worker has his back to the camera, but there are telling signs about his perspective. While the clothes of the workers look like “blue collar” worker clothes, the jacket of the government agent has a formal military-type cut and he many actually be wearing a military jacket. He has short, clean-cut hair and the texture of the light/white skin on the back of his neck makes him seem younger than the workers in front of him. The government agent is also seated, while the workers are all standing and this symbolizes someone with a “desk” job verses someone with a “labor” job.

The table itself represents a divide. It shows the gulf of space and the distance, as well as a physical barrier, between the government agent behind the desk and the workers on the other side of the desk.

The commentary notes that this is a rare image where Bristol had taken the picture indoors using flash, while the majority of his images are exteriors using ambient light. This not only lights up the expressions on the faces of the workers, but causes the space behind the workers to be dark and further emphasizes the center of focus.

The image is framed and matted, like the other images, behind glass, but this image is hung on the wall below another. It is below eye-level, so the perspective of the audience is looking down into the image, further drawing attention to look down at the table.

This image is what motivated me to write about Bristol’s work, when I actually went to the museum to write about Dorthea Lang. I love the balance of the composition and the content in this image. I have no idea what is to be decided in the story, but it is clear that these men’s lives will be affected by the decision. The image has almost a surreal quality to it because it seems like it was actually “cast” and “reenacted” to get the positioning of the characters as well as the expressions and the focus of the attention, but like the work of another great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bristol’s image shows his mastery of capturing a “decisive moment” in the lives of Californians during the New Deal Era.

Farm Security Administration Office, Visalia, California, 1938
© Horace Bristol / Courtesy of Corbis Corporation

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