by Lewis deSoto
On the west side of San Bernardino is a high plateau that overlooks the Lytle Creek Wash. To the east I could discern the terse grid of the city at night. However, within this orderly checker board is a chaos of seemingly unregulated activity. San Bernardino is a vast story of creation and destruction.
First came the Spanish, who named San Bernardino, then the Mormons, who were tricked into the middle of turf wars between opposing indigenous groups. Next came the new Americans, who swept in like waves of difference—Spanish, Mexican, Irish, German, Japanese, Chinese, African American, and then the refugees who blew in like dust from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas during the Depression.
We Cahuilla watched it happen all around us. We were the invisible insiders. We were there among the gridded territories of difference. We mingled in the markets and exchanged glances at traffic lights. Lettered streets, numbered streets kept out the history and let us all float free without real suburban planning. Agriculture begat industry begat suburbs begat malls. When the balance upended, as it did from time to time, the decay and neglect compounded. Left behind were vast tracts of empty buildings that glowered like ghouls, like black holes.
The grid held together a kind of nothingness of direction, each intersection both a disaster and miracle that was visually superseded by the bulk and majesty of the mountains above. The mountains were the staid observers of the two extremes of whizzing activity and empty storefronts.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were stretches of months during which the mountains became invisible, cloaked behind a wall of sulfurous carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, lead particulates, and ocean haze. It left behind in me the panic of asthma, of strangling on dry land and days spent in bed breathing painfully and shallowly.
Then there were days when Santa Ana winds would infect the air with electricity and clarity was temporarily restored. The palms crackled and swayed, bombing the streets with their crispy fronds. Everything looked perfect. Fine dust would filter through window cracks like the sand in an hourglass. The mountains overwhelmed the chaos and shoddy home carpentry below and pointed out the magnificence of nature’s presence. That was enough to remind us we were a chosen people, to be in this place while others, in the far east, labored in the sleet, snow, and mud.
More magnificent still were the awesome rumbles of the land shifting below our feet and pushing the ground in novel ways, upsetting my mother’s crystal bells and porcelain angels, sending my books flying off the shelves, and breaking water mains so that water ran down the streets the way it used to run down the trenches between the fragrant citrus trees. Freeways collapsed and hospitals crumbled, and I would trace the mysterious line of cracked plaster on my ceiling until my father sealed it up and repainted the room.
Now, thanks to modern regulations, the days are clearer, but the city still struggles to find the kind of order envisioned by the designers of the grid. Basic services cannot be delivered by a bankrupt government, so the city suffers. Individuals push on, teaching, repairing old houses, and creating visual and poetic culture in this place where anything is possible but rarely ever occurs.
I was born in San Bernardino and spent my childhood there. My adult life began in Riverside, and I fluttered between those two worlds for many years until I moved to Washington State when I was thirty-one. Growing up, my consciousness was shaped by the landscape, especially how it looked passing through a windshield. Cars were my window on the world—and it was a glorious view.
This place was called the Inland Empire, and despite its name it was free of singular leaders and tyrants. It was an empire of things: oranges, tract homes, steel, freeways, earthquakes and floods, desert and deep water, crackling fire in the hills. It was an empire of smog, the asthma it gave me, that is still with me to this day. It was the empire of mountains, deserts, and weird inland seas. It was marvelous and abject. It was framed by opposites: blue mountains with white snow presiding over crispy weeds in sunbaked lots.
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.
I began photographing when I was ten years old. My first subjects were the scale model cars I carefully crafted on weekends. A few years later, my father came home with a Polaroid camera in a leather case, and I used it to photograph everything that interested me. When my father abandoned that camera, it became mine, and when he later gave up his Minolta SR-T 101, it became my instrument of choice.
While at University of California, Riverside, Steven Cahill taught me how to make photographs and Joe Deal, the steely “New Topographics” photographer, taught me a new way to think about the landscape. It wasn’t his own way, or that of his friends, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke. Rather, he showed me how to see in the landscape a process of becoming that encompassed the paradox of empty utility and evanescent beauty existing in the same visual moment. While Baltz reduced and purified, and Adams haunted and lamented, I was interested in larger forces at work.
On the surface, some might think these forces were merely industrial upheavals. What I saw was a redistribution of power as it related to cosmology. As someone who believes certain things about the origin of the world, this knowledge dictates, almost preordains, how I think the land should be treated.
I started my photographic journey with an epicenter in the Empire: Mt. Slover, where granodiorite was mined and turned into cement. The native people called it Tahualtapa, “Hill of the Ravens.” The ravens were messengers between the spirit world and the human world. The Spanish called it Cerrito Solo, “Little Lonely Mountain.” Were the Spanish so alienated from the landscape they could not see this mountain as being part of the valley that surrounded it? Anglo-European settlers called this place “Marble Mountain,” for what they could get out of it, and later renamed it for Isaac Slover, the owner of the rancheria on the mountain. This is how the world comes to be named, not for its own characteristics but for men. I have made photographs, sculpture, drawings, and diagrams that examined the relationship between cosmology and language, and attitude and use.
As I thought about the land and learned to look at it in my own way, I also thought about other artists, letting their perspectives trigger my own ideas. Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer—they were builders, in a sense. Smithson built a paradoxical entropic paradise, De Maria built pure gestures, and Heizer hoped to build monuments for the future, cultural ruins. I began by working with my camera at night, recording on film what I was seeing in the relationships between humans and nature. My pieces also represented relationships in time. They were a mark in the immensity of all time. I felt those other artists were thinking too small.
During my adulthood in the Empire, I drove from job to job, teaching in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, but every weekend my partner at the time and I retreated to our trailer in North County San Diego, at the edge of the world, facing the sea. While I spent many hours in Riverside, I spent more time driving between places and wondering about it all. I took volumes of photographs that fit in between my other, more themed works.
After I left the Empire, I realized it was not just a place but an imprint that contained within its paradoxical territories both myself and my approach to art. To capture this sense, I broadened my artistic reach. As the realm of the Empire itself took multiple forms, I expanded my practice beyond photography to sculpture, sound, music, video, and installation work, a more encompassing artistic practice.
In this photographic project, I have punctuated large panoramic works with smaller nodes of interest. While the panoramas instantiate a broad public exposure, the single-frame images make a kind of private view. In reencountering these places from my past, I felt like a ghost returning again and again to locations that witnessed moments of great invisible drama.
Although I left the Empire three decades ago and now live in the agricultural haven of Napa Valley, I feel fossilized, like the mollusks of ancient seabeds, in the landscape of my home territory. I inhabit its paradise and its hells. No place I have experienced offers the full range of elements that compel and inspire—the vast public works, the neighborhoods both grand and beat down, the air fragrant with citrus and acrid from smog and industry. Cool pine breezes waft off the snow, and hot blasts of wind are scented with creosote. It is the Empire. It is everything.
Text and images are adapted from Empire by Lewis deSoto, forthcoming from Heyday.