Death of a Valley, 1956

In 1956, Dorothea Lange pitched a photoessay to LIFE about the final year of the Berryessa Valley, in Napa, California. The place was to be flooded soon after the completion of the Monticello Dam in an effort to provide irrigation to almost 100,000 acres of prime agricultural land in another part of the valley which suffered from droughts.

The town of Monticello fought against the dam, but fewer than 500 people lived in Monticello, and the government noted that this small sacrifice would feed and provide drinking water for many. In 1953, Governor Earl Warren of California justified the dam: “Every month 30,000 people are coming to California and not one of them brings a gallon of water.”

LIFE engaged Lange on retainer. She approached Pirkle Jones, a former star student of hers at the California School of Fine Arts, to help her with the project. Over a year, the duo frequented Berryessa Valley to document the slow death of the community, from the removal of houses and graves to the destruction of forests. Although it was a collaboration, Lange and Jones often worked independently of each other.

Their photos were gloomy and often sinister. A house to be moved upriver sat on a tractor. A horse galloped madly through a burned field. Houses were set on fire. Portraits were left abandoned on the floor of the house when the families moved. A giant tractor tore up the valley. A giant oak was felled. A photo of the town cemetery showed holes where the bodies had been exhumed. Even the image of the smiling migrant worker carrying a crate of newly picked grapes was melancholic when the viewer realized these would be the last of the Berryessa grape harvests.

In the end, LIFE passed on the project (likely due to the fact that it was very bleak and against LIFE’s industrial and capitalist leanings) and returned the rights to Lange and Jones. They organized a travelling exhibition, Death of a Valley and Aperture, a photomagazine co-founded by Lange published it in its August 3, 1960 issue. The 38 page issue contains 27 photographs documenting the transition from valley to dam.

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