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Real Rural
Photographs by Lisa M. Hamilton

The vast majority of California’s land is rural, a simple fact that is often overlooked. For the past two years, writer and photographer Lisa Hamilton has documented the lives of rural residents throughout the state in places like Cottonwood, Thermal, and Surprise Valley. Through her multimedia project Real Rural, Hamilton aims to give voice to California’s rural population, and to challenge widespread assumptions about life beyond the big cities.

“Part of my motivation was that I think the state’s urban majority believes they already know rural California—what it looks like, who lives there, how they think,” said Hamilton in an interview with California Historical Society curator Erin Garcia. “To put it simply, my intention was to prove them wrong, to show them that rural California is far more diverse and dynamic than any of us from the outside assume.”

Hamilton believes she’s uniquely suited for the task. “I’ve been writing and photographing in the field of agriculture and in rural communities for all of my professional life,” she says, “but I’m not from a rural place. In a way that’s an asset: my understanding of urban life allows me to figure out how best to translate the rural experience into stories that people in the cities can identify with, or at least find value in.”

In a state as diverse and as populous as California, “rural” can be difficult to define. “Because California is such a desirable place to so many different kinds of people, there has been a lot of competition for land and for resources here, particularly in the past thirty years. As a result, many of those traditionally rural places rub up against suburbia and urbanity.” For the purposes of Real Rural, Hamilton defines a rural community as a place where natural resources are central to daily life. “I believe that’s closest to what most of us actually think of as being rural—places where most people are still drawing their livings directly from the land and where that, in turn, defines their identity, their culture, and their values.”

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Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. Her work has been published in The Nation, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Orion, and Gastronomica. Hamilton’s exhibition “I See Beauty in this Life,” which brings together photographs from the California Historical Society’s archives with her own images of the state’s rural communities and landscapes, will be on display at the California Historical Society in San Francisco through March. The exhibition will then travel throughout California. For more information visit www.realrural.org.


Hamilton’s photographs appear in the print edition of Issue 6.