2021 07 09

Norco 80 and the family in the Santa Ana River

I knew this picture was special when I took it, which doesn’t happen often. I was in Norco, California, which is famous for its horses and horse trails which criss-cross the town for miles.

I wasn’t familiar with the town’s equestrian roots but I did know about the shootout in Norco, a spectacular bank robbery and deadly gunfight between heavily armed robbers and local police, which happened 40 years ago. I first heard about the shootout on a podcast, Norco 80, which is riveting for what it says about that time in America - the depth of the 80’s recession - and how police interact with their communities and fellow police. The podcast piqued my interest enough to take the drive one hour east of Los Angeles which is how I ended  up in Norco. I had been photographing for several hours without any great result when the road I was on dead-ended to the edge of a massive cliff overlooking the Santa Ana River. The river, which is the largest river in Southern California, unspooled before me as it cut its way through the Jurupa Valley rimmed by a light blue haze and the San Bernardino Mountains.

I parked my car and started to photograph down towards the river when I noticed a family wading in the rippling water. It wasn’t until I was looking at the photograph later that I saw what I had captured.  The family appears to be enjoying a swim in the river but a closer look suggests a more troubling scene. Is the man laying in river in distress? Are other family members marching toward him to rescue him or join in his fun?  It’s these questions, which brings frisson to the scene and elevates it from a satisfying landscape picture to something possibly more for the viewer to ponder.  The photo even hints at our human relationship to water in California - its scarcity, its essentialness. What were the odds of a family being in this majestic river at the moment I arrived, marching purposefully toward their fallen family member? Not high, I imagine. You never know when all the elements of a scene will come together and make a successful picture. I was lucky but being there helped.