San Francisco

Ernest Lowe

Don't Cry For Me Babey at the de Young Museum is a profound, sympathetic story of the lives of the agricultural workers of the San Joaquin Valley. Ernest Lowe made the photographs over a six-year period, from the spring of 1960 to the spring of 1966, and his photographs show a way of life that has gained little in dignity and security since Steinbeck described it in The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. Many of the workers are still migratory. They follow the crops, picking cherries or apricots, sacking onions, pruning grapevines, and many of them live in ramshackle cabins or in dusty campsites beside their cars.

“Don’t cry for me babey” was scrawled in spray paint on the back of an old car, and Lowe takes it for his text, a motto for people who are poor but strong, shabby but proud. Lowe is no street corner realist. He has followed the people into their homes to show the symbols of their lives, the sagging furniture, the wall decorated with a larger-than-life poster of a wild west hero, a household shrine. He has photographed children playing in the trash heaps or with crude, home-made toys. He understands the apathy of the people as they sit idly on days when there is no work. He shows them lining up before daylight to go out with the labor contractors. He shows them at work in the fields—picking strawberries, cotton, or grapes. And he has made many portraits to reveal the human beings who make up the abstract, depersonalized concept—Agricultural Labor.

The show is divided into two parts. The top part is devoted to the people and their working and living conditions, and the bottom part describes what is being done to make their lives better—the farm workers’ strike—meetings and marches, the boycott of products of companies most active in fighting the unions, and government hearings. The two parts of the story are well defined by a contrast in size and placement of prints. The uniform, plodding row of prints that describes the strike s and marches seems to testify to the inevitability of change.

Our mid-20th-century agricultural revolution has much in common with the 18th-century industrial revolution. In the 18th century, machines replaced workers in the factories; today, machines are replacing workers in the fields. Lowe points out in his photographs, in his text, and in the accompanying tapes, that the mechanical cotton harvester replaces forty men. Yet he shows us a photograph of the meagre wages of the man who harvests cotton—walking between the rows, dragging the clumsy sack—and he has—one must presume—mounted many of his prints near the floor to show his audience what it feels like to do stoop labor. Thus we comprehend the peculiar paradox of men striking for higher wages for doing backbreaking work that will soon be obsolete.

Lowe’s photographs, because of their theme, are reminiscent of the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, but they are not FSA imitations. They have their own strength and integrity. Lowe is deeply committed; he has great human understanding; and he has an eye that looks for significant designs and picks out significant details. Most of the photographs are excellent. Some are outstanding: a men’s dormitory near Westley in Stanislaus County; cotton pickers walking down a road; two children waiting while a man gets something out of his car. A plaintive eight-year-old boy topping onions near Stockton is very like working children photographed sixty years ago by Lewis Hine.

But Lowe, like many other photographers, desperately needs an editor. There are too many photographs. He has used too many photographs taken seconds apart because he couldn’t make up his mind which he liked better. One photograph of kids playing against the dusty sky shows imagination; two show indecision. A beautiful series of photographs follow a woman from the field where she is picking grapes into her home, where she cooks dinner for her family, supervises the cutting of her boy’s hair, watches television, tucks her children into bed, and then talks to her husband. The series is hemmed in by larger, unrelated photographs that we try to fit into the story of this woman whose life Lowe has made important. Some of the people in his strike-meeting and government-hearing photographs need to be identified. Without some kind of tag, one photograph of a man with his mouth open carries much the same message as the next one. (How many people under thirty in the gallery, for example, recognized Norman Thomas?) A long series of photographs of a government hearing begins with a transcript so insect-chewed that we can’t tell what it is about—more coy than creative—and ends with an unidentified middle-aged woman who doesn’t seem to belong there at all.

Although his effusiveness cries out for the restraining hand of a Maxwell Perkins, Lowe has gotten mixed up with a team of interior decorators who have added their glossy burden to an already top-heavy show. They have created an environment in the center of the gallery: a one-room shack lived in by a Mexican family with a few pieces of worn-out furniture, a few cans of food and a metate, and a child’s battered hobby horse. The shack is bland and literal. It is not imaginatively Kienholzian, nor does it give any particular flavor of sordidness. For the real shack would be a dismal cave. In the bright, clean light of the de Young Museum, the shack, with its aseptic little trash heap, evokes not so much righteous indignation as a wistfulness to return to a simple life.

They have plastered the sides of the shack—and carpeted a part of the floor of the gallery—with such a profusion of pamphlets and newspaper clippings and ads and letters that if we are in sympathy with the problems of the farm workers and moved by Lowe’s show, we feel guilty that we do not stop to read every one of them. The piles of paper detract from the photographs and make the photographs seem as unimportant as the pamphlets we cannot take the time to read.

The tapes that are used as a background for the show are sometimes effective, sometimes not. In a crowded gallery, the tapes are a frustration, a muttering Muzak of unintelligible words, punctuated by shouts of HUELGA! If the gallery is empty, they provide a meaningful accompaniment—you hear the voices of management and workers—for example, part of the touching Sometimes You Work a Day, which has been broadcast several times on Pacifica Radio.

One important accessory to the photographs would seem to be a map showing the location of places like Teviston, Patterson, Three Rocks. The show would have more impact if the viewers were struck with just how close to San Francisco these conditions prevail.

Margery Mann