About the Project

In 2011, I traveled nearly ten thousand miles around California, to and from places most people have never heard of: Surprise Valley. Lost Hills. Mecca. Along the way I collected scores of stories using simple tools—several medium-format film cameras, a digital recorder, and a stack of notebooks. Real Rural is my medium for sharing those stories with people in urban California and beyond.

This multimedia website is the first of Real Rural’s several forms of storytelling. For six months in 2012, an ad-art campaign on trains throughout the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system featured select portraits of people and places from rural California. In April of that year, Real Rural was featured in Issue #6 of Pop-Up Magazine, the live magazine performance at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall. In 2012-13, I curated an exhibition at the California Historical Society gallery called "I See Beauty in This Life," which paired large-scale Real Rural photographs with vintage photographs of rural California. The show traveled to the Riverside Art Museum, the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, and the Casa de La Guerra in Santa Barbara.

In all these venues, the stories are not about issues, but rather about lives. That’s because Real Rural is meant to start a new conversation, between two parts of California that are at best disconnected, and often at odds. Many people in our cities think they already know the story of rural California: who’s there and how they think, their values and their struggles. I have aimed to demonstrate that in fact this place and its people are far more diverse and dynamic than most of us from outside realize.

Often when people photograph a place that’s unfamiliar, they focus on people who are extraordinary looking, the ones dressed in regalia or covered in tattoos. The people I sought do live remarkable lives, but they are mostly unremarkable in appearance—the kind of people you might pass in the supermarket and not even notice. The idea, then, is to learn about and then reconsider those people, and by extension the place where they live. What has resulted is by no means a comprehensive survey—that would be a life’s work, or more. Instead it is a window onto the vast mosaic that is rural California, evidence of the countless stories out there, waiting to be heard.


Lisa M. Hamilton


For more information: info@lisamhamilton.com

About the Artist

Lisa M. Hamilton

Writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on agriculture and rural communities. Her work has taken her from indigenous quinoa farms in the highlands of Bolivia to a meeting of radical plant breeders in Iowa; from sacred rice paddies in rural Japan to crusty livestock auction yards in California's Central Valley. She is the author of "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness," and has written for Harper's, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review, California Sunday, and The Atlantic.



Real Rural is a collaboration between Lisa M. Hamilton and several creative and financial partners:

  • The Creative Work Fund is a program of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund supported by generous grants from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The James Irvine Foundation. creativeworkfund.org

  • Roots of Change brings a diverse range of Californians to the table to build a common interest in food and farming so that every aspect of our food—from the time it’s grown to the time it’s eaten— can be healthy, safe, profitable, affordable and fair. rootsofchange.org

  • The Bill Lane Center for the American West is an independent center in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America. west.stanford.edu

  • Founded in 1871, the California Historical Society inspires and empowers Californians to make the past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives. It is the official historical society of the State of California, and maintains and shares one of the four major research collections on the state’s history.

Bart Ads

Real Rural includes an ad-art campaign on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in February/March 2012. For the campaigns, traditional ad placards featuring portraits of rural places and people are featured on trains and billboards. The idea is to insert these rural places and people into the city, alongside their urban counterparts.

View the BART Campaign

Site Credits

Special Thanks

Jon Christensen, Michael Dimock, Anthea Hartig, Jessica Hough, Erin Garcia, Bobbie Peyton, Tom Willey, Tucker Nichols, Cynthia Meketa

All images and text © Lisa M. Hamilton