Passenger Wieck on White, 'California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History'

Richard White
Lindsey Passenger Wieck

Richard White. California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History. Photographs by Jesse Amble White. Cartography by Erik Steiner. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. Illustrations. 352 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-24306-2

Reviewed by Lindsey Passenger Wieck (St. Mary’s University) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

In what began as a lost bet between Richard White and his son, Jesse Amble White, California Exposures explores a vast range of bets made by humans seeking to transform the California landscape throughout centuries of this region’s history. Richard White initially set out to write a full history of California using his son’s photographs. Although this task proved impossible, what instead emerged was a series of case studies, glimpses into the past of this land, illustrated and inspired by Jesse Amble White’s photography. In this volume, Richard White has produced a series of exploratory vignettes, grounded in Jesse Amble White’s photographs and stitched together to form a historical “montage” of California that sweeps across centuries (p. xiii).

These photos are ever-present in this book, animating and inspiring the content within. In the preface, Richard White reflects on the work photographs can do in connecting the past and present: “Starting from a photograph, I can tell a story of a place by attaching the elements of the photograph—trees, buildings, land, animals, roads, levees, and more—to documents in archives, books, other photographs, maps and memories” (p. xiii). In this way of seeing, he seeks to “see the past in the present” by looking at contemporary photos, taken by Jesse Amble White. Photographs, he argues, allow us to concentrate on the context, of traces of the past that linger in these images.

Richard White outlines three approaches to how he uses these photographs in the chapters that follow: excavation, dismemberment, and association. Through excavation, he attempts a sort of “historical archaeology,” through which he seeks to “recover what was on the site of the photograph at various times in the past,” using “old maps, as well as old photographs and contemporary descriptions.” Comparing dismemberment to the work of a coroner, he “isolates and explores a single element or group of elements” he finds in a photograph and then seeks to contextualize those parts, “construct[ing] a larger story” about them (p. xv). Finally, through association, he seeks to connect his findings to mythic stories told throughout the history of California. Throughout, he seeks to put myth and history in conversation with each other as he unravels the stories of the state’s long history.

In the book, Richard White focuses primarily in and around D Ranch on Point Reyes, the Tulare Lake basin, and the lands around San Gabriel and San Fernando Missions as his geographical foci. The book is arranged thematically, though it proceeds roughly chronologically. Early chapters focus on major California myths, including its discovery by Sir Francis Drake, the primacy of the Spanish missions, and Native mythology surrounding Coyote. Middle chapters dig into the state’s changing landscapes surrounding concepts of property and capital, focusing on land division and ownership and the changing relationships between people, capital, and land. The final sections explore California myths in proximity to more recent social and economic context, investigating topics like real estate expansion (and abandonment), World War II industrial growth, and water crises.

Richard White does not try to debunk myths as much as to contextualize and historicize them, because, he explains, “in California, as elsewhere, history will never displace myth and memory” (p. xvii). For example, inspired by Jesse Amble White’s photographs surrounding the site where Drake is purported to have landed on the coast, Richard White investigates these myths using older photographs, maps, fragments of histories, historical preservation battles, and much more to assess the legacy of this myth. Much of the book reflects on five additional prominent concepts: “the mythic structure of California,” the state’s continued “environmental transformation” launched with its conquest, “California’s self-image as a land of individualists and its reality as a creature of the state,” the state’s “hybrid nature” both in the environment and in its people, and the “dynamism of the California dream,” which encompasses everything between the American dream and vast inequality (pp. xvi-xvii).

One of my favorite parts of the book is the detailed analysis of Jesse Amble White’s photos, especially regarding the juxtaposition of the old and the new—electrical lines running alongside old buildings, roads and bridges cutting across a canyon, a pelican sitting on a shopping cart. This book excels in drawing my attention to the intricate details of these photos and the ways they open up possibilities for a more acute exploration of the intersection of space and time. I enjoyed witnessing Richard White’s thinking as he breaks apart these photos, seeking deep contextualization, such as to see how an image of an old ranch home leads to the stories of the people and plants that inhabited those spaces and no longer exist. What results is a vast reflection on mythology, California identity, and the ever-changing landscape.

While these exploratory vignettes provide compelling glimpses into the past of this vast landscape, the book is a bit jarring to read, as it jumps between many topics in fairly short chapters. Although the thematic structure provides some loose thematic connections, there are not a lot of narrative threads holding all of the pieces together. Perhaps this is inevitable, as Richard White’s commitment to centering each chapter on a particular photograph necessitates some jumping around and flexibility in regard to content. Because of this, California Exposures is much more effective as a “proof of concept,” or a model of how historians can apply different interpretative methods, like Richard White’s excavation, dismemberment, and association, to contemporary photographs to reveal the past (p. xvi).

The reviewer prepared this review using an advance copy of this book.

Citation: Lindsey Passenger Wieck. Review of White, Richard, California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL:

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