Sam Comen’s Brooklyn FENCE photographs are an excerpt from his ongoing series Lost Hills. The town from which the series takes its name is home to 3,500 farm and oilfield workers at the southern end of California’s Central Valley; the same agricultural region where the “Okies” headed in search of work as they fled the dust bowls of the 1930s. Today a new group of migrants, this time Chicanos and Mexicans, again wrings a wage from the Valleyʼs parched soil. These individuals embody the bootstrapping grit and cooperative frontier spirit of the American West – and are living a new iteration of the “Okie” experience so prominent in our national psyche. But because some of Lost Hillsʼ 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 American historical record. Comen documents this knifeʼs edge of inclusion his subjects negotiate each day. To highlight it, he transposes the motifs of his magazine portrait work – cross-sourced lighting, saturated color palette, admirative gaze –to this one-stoplight town. He believes the contrast between subject matter and visual approach mirrors the tension he sees as inherent to life in Lost Hills.
Sam Comen: Los Angeles, California; USA.
Sam Comen shoots environmental portraits in locales salient in the American collective consciousness. His essays engage with each siteʼs established historical narrative, creating anthropological palimpsests that document place or social phenomenon. In addition to Lost Hills (the series excerpted on Brooklynʼs FENCE) he’s brought this approach to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, flashpoint of the 1965 Watts Riots; and Central Avenue, the historic core of South-Central Los Angeles. Sense of place is critical in his work: accordingly, his native LA has played a major role throughout his career. Comenʼs commercial practice has played a vital role too: heʼs actively transposed the visual motifs in his commissioned photographs to his site-specific documentary work, bringing a consistent quality of light and composition to all his projects, portraying each subject he shoots with honor, dignity, and a sympathetic gaze.