Whenever I make that long drive down the I-5 to Southern California, I stop at least once in the Central Valley for food, gas, and a pee break. Although I never spend more than an hour in any of these sleepy farming communities, I always wonder about the people who live in these towns, who work at the fast food restaurants, the travel centers, and gas stations; own the farms and labor in the fields; and live in the houses that are mostly out of sight from the 5. 

LA-based photographer Sam Comen decided to focus his attention on one of these Central Valley communities: Lost Hills. Some of these images will be on view next week in San Francisco as part of the SF Art Commission Galleries' show, "The Valley/El Valle: Photo-essays from California's Heartland." I was immediately struck by the beautiful scene Comen captured of the young couple dancing above, so I contacted him to ask him more questions about his series and about his interest in Lost Hills.

What made you decide to focus on Lost Hills? Did you ever visit or spend much time there before this project? 

In 2009 when President Obama used the term “Great Recession” to describe the economic downturn, I knew that I wanted to make work that engaged with the contemporary crisis by touching-upon parallels to the Great Depression. So I immediately looked to California’s Central Valley, the region synonymous with the crisis of the 1930s in American historical memory. The Valley is where hundreds of thousands of “Okies” headed in search of field work as they fled economic desperation and the dust bowls of the 1930s. It’s also where dozens of photographers working with the Farm Security Administration made salient documents of those economic refugees’ plight. 

Lost Hills, a town of 3,500, is in the very same area that those photographs were made, tucked-in amongst almond orchards, just a mile from massive Interstate 5. Nearly out-of-sight and out-of-mind, I was drawn to Lost Hills because it is wholly typical of so many towns like it in the Valley, and I think what’s going on there today is as significant as what happened in the same region 80 years ago. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing this project, either about Central California, Lost Hills, or the people who live here? 

I’ve come to see that the residents of Lost Hills embody the bootstrapping grit and the cooperative frontier spirit of The West – and are living a new iteration of the "Okie" experience so prominent in our national psyche. But because some of Lost Hills’ residents are undocumented immigrants, all are assumed to be, and so may be cut out of their own American dream, and denied their place in the historical record. I’ve set out to cement my subjects’ place in American History, presenting their experience as an emblematic contemporary coming-of-age story in this storied locale. To do that I’ve transposed the motifs of my commercial photography – cross-sourced strobes, saturated palette, admiring gaze – to portray them as everyday icons worthy of viewers’ reverence. This visual approach in the documentary context also creates a tension: I believe it mirrors the discomfort my subjects face every day as they walk the razor-thin line between inclusion in/exclusion from the American experience. 

How difficult was it to find people to shoot for this series? Were most people open and comfortable with being asked to be photographed? 

I often approach people I’ve never met before when making my pictures, and in Lost Hills I was greeted with the same range of hospitality and trepidation that I’ve found everywhere I’ve shot. But by being open with the people I met, by describing my project intent, by telling people that I saw life and work in Lost Hills as a representation of a larger American experience, they almost always gave me a chance. Transparency with my process was key: I took the time to explain, show them my already-completed photographs from the series, and as often as possible, return to them with prints of the photos I’d made of them. 

Who was your favorite person you photographed for this series and why? Do you think you'll stay in touch with anyone you photographed? 

Several families in Lost Hills welcomed me into their homes again and again, and for that I’ll always be grateful. These relationships have brought me great joy, and I can definitely say that’s been a favorite part of the process. 

On a photographic level, it’s no question that my favorite subject is Jose Saldaña in “Jose Saldaña on Chapulín in Lost Hills, CA. March 28, 2009.” In this image Jose wears the traditional dress of the Charreada, or Mexican rodeo, while astride his colt Chapulín (“Cricket” in Spanish) in the front yard of his family’s home in Lost Hills. Jose, 25-years-old at the time, works in the oil fields outside of Lost Hills and helps support his aunt, uncles, sister, brother, two nieces, and a nephew. For Jose, keeping horses and competing with them in Charreada is a way for him to stay connected to his Mexican cultural heritage. Though on first-look this image might look like Mexican story, for me it’s vital that the yard and the homes and the cars in the portrait so clearly place it in an American landscape. 

"The Valley/El Valle: Photo-essays from California's Heartland" will be on view June 17 through September 19 at San Francisco City Hall:  Ground Floor + North Light Court banners. Works from the show will also appear as posters in 40 downtown kiosks.

And this summer, while you're driving south through Central California, you can also see some of Sam Comen's  Lost Hills photos at the Bakersfield Museum of Art through August 24. 

Images from top (courtesy of Sam Comen): Jose Saldaña and Sandy Melendez share a dance in Lost Hills, CA. October 29, 2011; Basketball at dusk in Lost Hills, CA. March 7, 2011; Almond poling crew during harvest near Lost Hills, CA. September 16, 2009; The Mendez Tellez family at the California Aqueduct in Lost Hills, CA. October 30, 2011; Jose Saldaña on Chapulín in Lost Hills, CA. March 28, 2009.