Erin Michaela Sweeney reviews Empire: Photographs and Essays, by Lewis deSoto
Heydey Press | 2016 | ISBN: 978-1-597-14-334-9 | 128 pages with color photographs
A Napa, California–based artist known for multimedia installations, public art, photography, printmaking, and sculpture, Lewis deSoto revisits Southern California’s Inland Empire, where he lived the first half of his life. From his creative toolbox, deSoto grabs an old standby—his photographic lens—to articulate the 21st century present of the Inland Empire. He overlays the visuals with written filters of his narrative past to produce Empire: Photographs and Essays.
Though the subtitle lists photographs before essays, his personal history gives the volume its geographical structure and soul. He shares vivid memories, granting readers a chance to visit times and places, even certain mental spaces, of his Inland Empire universe from 1954 to 1981.
DeSoto, born in San Bernardino (60 miles inland from the nearest beach town), recollects his first home there. “I remember a backyard with a citrus tree, a small detached garage with my father’s 1929 Ford Model A pickup inside (in pieces). . . . My father built an expansive white wooden fence around the yard with hard-to-engineer Xs in its design. He poured a cement patio in the backyard and I remember the smell of curing concrete.”
The single-frame photographs appearing after his San Bernardino essay do not reveal the family’s 16th Street home of his toddlerhood. Instead, readers see a stand-in ranch-style house on North Pershing Street. Perhaps the 16th Street house no longer exists, or deSoto decided not to include it in this collection, which revisits some of the places he first photographed in 1979.
Cars are a frequent theme in deSoto’s essays. As he explains in the introduction, “Growing up, my consciousness was punctuated by the landscape, especially how it looked passing through a windshield. Cars were my window to the world, and it was glorious.”
In fact, this view influenced his approach to the panoramas featured in Empire. “These expansive landscapes,” according to Sant Khalsa in the Curator’s Statement, “are made from 50 to 200 handheld photographs merged together in a digital processing program.” This technique, explains deSoto, allows him to “mimic the feeling of looking at a landscape from a moving car.”
To capture a glance at the landscape out the car window in the stillness of a photograph is a challenge. deSoto masterfully accomplishes his own task on the road that takes him above (yet still within the boundaries of) the Inland Empire. As he puts it, “A highway can be its own place, not just the places it connects.”
And, like so many teenagers before and since, deSoto shares with readers the rite of passage of inexperienced enthusiastic driving. He tested his mettle and metal on the so-called Rim of the World Highway. “Since car keys first found my hands, I made the decision to challenge myself to reach some kind of alpha state of Highway 18 . . . where music, machine, speed, fragrance, temperature, vistas, and consciousness melded into a ribbon of time that described a state of awareness. . . . Highway 18 was where I discovered brake fade. . . . It is where I learned to cut an apex. It is where oversteering could feel at once poetic and terrifying.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, deSoto faced prejudice, which he particularly highlights in the chapter on Redlands. He explains, “My parents stayed out of Redlands . . . because of well-known real estate policies designed to keep the brown-skinned ancestors of the Spanish and natives out of this enclave of supposed civility and order.” Identity is another theme throughout the text. In his introduction, deSoto writes, “I was of native blood, Cahuilla blood. I had ‘Hispanic’ cultural tags. But I felt alien to all groups. It was the empire of me. I was put there to figure it out.” Though the feeling of alienation is particular to his Hispanic and Cahuilla ancestry, deSoto shares his struggle to figure out his place in the world, a universal human longing to belong.
DeSoto shares of receiving a genealogical gift that helps solidify his ancestry. “My aunt, who was discovering her Indian Pride . . . wrote a ‘book’ on a spiral pad for me in pink ballpoint pen that laid out our tribal lineage, a document I still refer to today.” Another way deSoto seeks out where he fits is with father-son road trips. “For my father, Palm Springs was a constant source of nostalgia. . . . Sometimes we would drive up to the Palm Canyon reservation gate. Often my father would argue with the gatekeeper about who he was and who his family was, gunning for free admission; sometimes he would have to pay to wander his childhood home.” On these trips, father passes down gone but not forgotten landscapes to his son.
Often deSoto’s essays, with their touching yet unsentimental moments of memoir, seem oddly juxtaposed to the at-arm’s-length photographs that follow each of the six essay locales in the Inland Empire. It’s as if the studious youngster who “systematically read the entire library of Myers Elementary School” had two separate assignments: (1) write personal essays populated with all sorts of folks about growing up in the Inland Empire; (2) take small- and large-scale photographs of the Inland Empire devoid of people and fauna. Unfortunately, the two parts usually don’t add up in Empire.
An exception pairs words and image to heartrending perfection. When he was 11, deSoto saw his father cry for the first time. “That day we buried my Aunt Margaret, my father’s sister. . . . [M]y father held it together until we got back into our beige Chevrolet station wagon, at which point he wept loudly and violently. . . . As we arrived in [Ontario], I inhaled the sweet smell of citrus and then, alternately, the fragrance from the rows of vineyards. . . . Where water had pooled, the vines were green, running crazily outward. Beyond those islands of life, there were halos of blackened vines, haunted silhouettes, death. My aunt was dead. I felt the link between her and these acres of tormented grape stock.”
For this book, deSoto took photographs from July 2012 to June 2014, during the first years of a five-year drought in California. The volume gives readers a dusty impression of the region aside from the verdant mountains and overwatered lawns in certain photographs.
The publishers and deSoto set out to accomplish many things in Empire. The book records the panoramas—with extended and often necessary explanatory labels—exhibited in late 2015 and early 2016. Alongside the panoramas are deSoto’s single-frame Inland Empire photographic works, a theme he was shooting back in his grad school days at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. Empire also grants deSoto a venue to write about reflections on how his childhood shaped him. This beautifully designed volume attempts to meld three divergent goals into one unified whole.
Header photo, “San Bernardino,” by Lewis deSoto, courtesy Heydey Press.