Photographer Interviews

Trent Davis Bailey on Shooting a Massive Agriculture Empire Without Access for Cali Sunday Magazine

May 3, 2018

By David Walker

The California Sunday Magazine’s 54-page story about the San Joaquin Valley empire of America’s biggest farmer covers a range of issues: industrial farming, immigrant labor, the concentration of power and wealth and water scarcity in the West. Called “A Kingdom From Dust,” the story was written by Mark Arax and photographed by Trent Davis Bailey.

“When I first read it, I was a little overwhelmed,” says Bailey, who wanted to avoid illustrating Arax’s text too literally. He also foresaw a number of logistical and creative challenges with the assignment.

The subject of the story, Stewart Resnick, is a Beverly Hills billionaire operating under a shroud of secrecy. He and his wife, Lynda, own 180,000 acres of land on which they grow and process pistachios, almonds, mandarin oranges and pomegranates under the brand name Wonderful. Their orchards consume an unsustainable quantity of water—nearly as much as the entire city of Los Angeles—in a state plagued by drought.

Several years ago, while he was an MFA student at California College of the Arts, Bailey had met The California Sunday Magazine photography director Jacqueline Bates at a photo event. He showed her his personal work, which focuses on the open land of the west “and the people who tend to it,” he says.

“After seeing Trent’s personal work, ‘The North Fork,’ we knew we wanted to work with him on a long-term assignment,” says Paloma Shutes, photo editor of The California Sunday Magazine. In the series, which he has exhibited at Robert Koch Gallery, Bailey photographed residents living in a remote valley in western Colorado. Says Shutes, “He was a natural fit for this piece.”

Wonderful is located in Lost Hills, a town between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Before Bailey went there to explore, Shutes gave him a shot list that included orchards, Wonderful processing facilities and portraits of farm workers. “We envisioned capturing the vastness of the Resnicks’ landholdings as well as the contrast in the arid landscape with cultivated Wonderful-owned orchards,” she says. But the brief was otherwise “quite loose,” says Bailey, who takes a fine-art approach to assignment work. “They hired me to tell the story as I came across it [and] to make pictures that felt like my own.”

“As a photographer, I am equal parts surveyor, detective, participant and storyteller,” Bailey explains. “I had to use my instinct to define the core of Stewart Resnick’s empire. Some of those elements were easy: water channels, orchards, and the dichotomy between wet and dry.” He adds, “What was harder to confront was the secrecy and mysteries. It was my job to see through the cracks and make Lost Hills visible to the public in a way that it had not been seen before.”

© Trent Davis Bailey

Photographer Trent Davis Bailey photographed the sprawling, water-intensive operations of America’s biggest farmer for The California Sunday Magazine. © Trent Davis Bailey

Over three months beginning last September, Bailey visited Lost Hills five times. He began as he starts most projects: “I go out into the landscape and I walk.” Right away he came upon a deep, dry gully. “It was bizarre,” he says. “There were these verdant orchards, and no water to be seen.”

The opening spread of the story pairs an image of the gully with an aerial photograph Bailey shot later of a verdant orchard stretching nearly to the horizon. “It says so much about these places that are consuming so much [water] out of view of so many, but it’s also beautiful,” Bailey says. “So how do you reckon with that?”

Company property was off-limits, so Bailey was restricted at first to shooting from public roads. That made it difficult to convey the scale of the orchards on the flat landscape. Another challenge was photographing farm workers, because Lost Hills lacks a traditional Main Street with sidewalks and storefronts where he could meet and talk to people.

“I felt a lot of furtive forces against me while I was making pictures,” he says. “I found the place to be quite perplexing, and I wanted the photographs to reflect that, to evoke those feelings in the viewer.”

Fortunately, Bailey had enough time to resolve most of the challenges. By his fourth trip, for instance, Resnick had decided to cooperate, at least in a limited way. So Bailey got a PR escort to photograph Wonderful orchards and facilities one morning.

“They gave me a quick tour,” though he spent most of it in transit from one place to the next, he says. He had only five or ten minutes to shoot at each stop, and he was prohibited from photographing the faces of any workers. “I felt under scrutiny. I wasn’t used to having someone watch my every move,” he says. But he shot as much and as quickly as he could.

Bailey was especially frustrated at not being able to photograph workers. “This is such a human story. It touches so many mouths, so many hands. [Wonderful’s] food is consumed all over the country, and yet, this is crazy: I couldn’t get access to photograph anybody,” he says.

But he was determined to photograph some of the workers living in Lost Hills. “This is the workers’ story, as much as it is the Resnick’s, and I felt it wouldn’t do a service to the story to just make landscape pictures. I really needed the human element in there,” Bailey says.

He approached people in the community who introduced him to others, which finally led him into the trailer park where the workers lived. There, he was able to photograph a few residents late at night when they finally came home from work. “It took time to gain their trust,” and he decided to photograph them without showing their faces, he says. “It was my way to reveal a level of intimacy and show them sympathetically without putting them at risk.”

To show the expanse of the orchards, and convey “a sense of humans really pushing against nature, on such a scale, with such engineering,” Bailey shot aerials from a helicopter hired by California Sunday. With the help of the magazine’s research editor Cameron Bird and fact checker Tom Colligan, Bailey scouted aerial locations using Google Earth, and made a list of GPS points to guide the pilot to half a dozen different locations. “I had only about 10 minutes at each location because of fuel,” Bailey says. He adds that the aerials “helped bring that vast scale to the fore. Having intimate portraits and these pulled-back aerial pictures in the story really got at the essence and complexity of what I sought to convey.”

Bailey prefers shooting with film, and shoots most of his work with a Mamiya 7 and a 4×5 camera. But he also shot the California Sunday assignment with a Nikon D800 because he had to work fast in a number of situations, and to be sure that he was getting sharp aerial photos.

After each trip, he sent a rough edit of photographs to Bates and Shutes, and talked about what to focus on during subsequent trips. Bates and Shutes worked with California Sunday creative director Leo Jung to select images “from different harvests, different locations, and different times of day,” Shutes explains. “We knew we needed to show contrasts in the photos in order to keep the piece from feeling monotonous.”

Bailey says time is a critical element for telling a complex story, to “allow it to evolve organically…You can’t drop in and expect everything to be laid out plainly in front of you. It requires time and the dedication to return to a place again and again. Depth comes by digging, and this story is a testament to that.

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