Dorothea Lange photo of truck driving down highway

“Dorothea Lange, driving 35 miles between 9:00 and 9:45 a.m., passed 28 cars that looked exactly like this."
— Commentary from "The American Memory Project"

When Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor began documenting the Dust Bowl migrations for the Farm Security Administration, U.S. Highway 99 was the major north-south artery on the West Coast, running from the U.S.-Mexico border to Blaine, Wash., near Canada. Then commonly referred to as “California’s Main Street,” it was an important passageway throughout much of the 1930s — even featuring in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as the main road used by the Joad family during their travels through California.

But with the completion of Interstate 5, U.S. 99 lost much of its eminence. It was decommissioned in 1968, and was relegated to a state road. Today, U.S. 99’s remnant traverses California's Central Valley from the north near the town of Red Bluff to the south near Bakersfield. It connects the numerous small cities, and a few large urban centers as well, that mostly support the agriculture and industry of the Central Valley.

I started photographing along Route 99 last spring, initially hoping to find images that speak of its almost iconic past. Taking exits along the road, I photographed livestock auctions, church services, drive-in movie theaters, and honky-tonks featuring the Bakersfield Sound. I found remnants of an older California, one seemingly far removed from the metropolitan hubs on the coast. But I also found a surprising amount of diversity in these mostly agricultural communities. Today’s global “Dust Bowl migrants” are Sikhs from Northwest India, Hmong from Southeast Asia, and migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, who are often seen as distinct from the older Latino communities already established along the road.

I spent many weekends driving along Route 99, but juggling the demands of school and work with this project soon proved to be too much. After three months, I had barely scratched the surface, had not even managed to photograph along the entire length of the road. The Dorothea Lange Fellowship will give me the means to devote summer 2008 entirely to this documentary photography project, without having to find a day-job in order to support myself. I intend to work on this project from May until the end of August. Sixty years after Lange documented life along “California’s Main Street”, I hope to offer a contemporary take on Route 99 — and on the communities that live along the road.

— Adithya Sambamurthy
November 2007