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Modern Stories Along the Anza Trail

“Ocotillo: A Photo Essay from Imperial Valley” by Tony Gleaton

The Historic Corridor of the Anza Expedition runs through a variety of landscapes – agricultural, rural,urban and suburban. Renewable energy development has brought attention to the desert portions of the Anza Trail and the area of Ocotillo, California. This Modern Stories project intends to reveal the beauty of the people and landscapes of the northern Sonoran Desert.

You could easily drive through Ocotillo, California, without once rolling down your window or pausing to rest. It can appear empty, and it is, in fact, a desert. And though large portions of it have been made to bloom with the use of intensive irrigation, it is not an easy place.

Yet, pulling over and taking a closer look reveals this area to be rich in both cultural and natural diversity. Despite its remoteness and challenging climate, it is a location people have intentionally chosen as a place to build lives, families, and community for the nearly 240 years since Juan Bautista de Anza first traversed it.

In some ways the landscape and people surrounding Ocotillo have hardly changed since Father Font chronicled Anza’s journey with the thirty settler families of his 1775-76 expedition. In other ways, they reflect a world of change.

Western history first recorded this region as a transportation corridor connecting New Spain to coastal Mission settlements, though indigenous groups of the coastal plateau and northern Sonoran desert had inhabited the area for more than a millennium.

By the late 20th century, Ocotillo had grown into a thriving agricultural mecca with a year-round growing cycle. Today, it is changing again as new economic interests eye large-scale solar and wind energy production.

About the Photographer

Tony Gleaton, the youngest son of an elementary school teacher and a police officer, was born in Detroit, but grew up in California. He first became interested in photographs while in college. He decided to leave his studies to pursue life in New York as a fashion photographer. It turned out to be a meaningful yet finally unfulfilling career choice. After three years he quitted New York to embark on a forty-year-long odyssey of travel and photographing in the American West and Latin America.

Gleaton’s work can be found in the Library of Congress (55 images), the Smithsonian American Museum of Art, the Crocker Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Latin American Studies Library of the University of Texas/Austin, the Brooklyn Museum, the DuBois Center at Harvard University, and the Embassy of the United States/Mexico City.

Artist Statement

The images I produce are an attempt to make photographs that examine our common elements and disparities which make us different and how these bind us together in the human condition. When done well it can produce works of art that are metaphors for the state of grace which lies within us all.