Notes from Home: Paul’s Camera
By Trudy Wischemann
Two weeks ago I wrote about the loss of a camera that had been given to me by Paul Taylor 35+ years ago. I called it “Dorothea’s” camera because I believed it had belonged to his wife, Dorothea Lange. It matched photos of one she used in the field when the two of them documented the stream of immigrants into California who’d been displaced from their land in the Dust Bowl.
The camera was returned to me last week, intact. The story of how it was returned will have to wait until the case of the other missing items is resolved, but it’s one I will chalk up to Lindsay’s inherent goodness when the time comes. Our town is still a place where love can do its work. Make no mistake about that.
Before it reappeared, I was searching for people who might be able to ID the camera and establish its worth. I found Elizabeth Partridge, author of Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange (1998). She’s also the daughter of Rondal Partridge, who had been Dorothea’s field assistant. When the camera came home, I saw that it was a Zeiss IKON, not the Zeiss Jewel shown in her book. I emailed her to report the distinction and the good news.
She wrote back instantly on her iPhone, but referred to the camera as “Grandpa Paul’s.” Then she reminded me of his photographic work before he met Dorothea: “Paul’s early work, though no great shakes in terms of beautiful photos, was so brave and thoughtful of him to dare to do.”
The revelation that it might be Paul’s camera rather than Dorothea’s riveted me. It sent me back to the one book I own where his photographs are shown, a book of farmworker photographs by Ken Light, Roger Minick and Resa Tansey called In The Fields (1982.) Paul had written the introduction with labor historian Anne Loftis and included some of his photographs from his extensive study of Imperial Valley farm labor conditions in the late 1920’s. But they also included a shot of a billboard for Tagus Ranch advertising for cotton pickers in 1927, just five years before the cotton strikes in Pixley and Corcoran. Paul had been here in our valley, too.
What was really brave about Paul was not so much that he took and used photos, but his whole approach, which could be called “ethnographic” in academic terms. Economics, his field, was becoming so statistical that it is almost unrecognizable as a social science today. But Paul asked questions of the people he studied and wrote down what they said, and he photographed the places they lived and worked, a form of shorthand notetaking that carried these conditions 90 years into the future. His economic analysis of the Imperial Valley is now highly esteemed.
I’m keeping Paul’s camera with me until I’ve finished the work he sent me to do. Onward, friends.
Trudy Wischemann is a remedial researcher who writes to stay sane. Thanks to John Kirkpatrick for his sympathetic phone call last week. Send your favorite camera stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.