As a native Californian (and Angeleno), Sam Comen has used his home state as a muse throughout his career, and often looks to the places that define us for inspiration. He’s most notably brought this site-specific approach to his series ‘Lost Hills,’ which captures contemporary issues of immigration and labor in a small farmworker town in California’s Central Valley, while contextualizing people and place within the shared American narrative of the “Okies” flight to the same dusty plains 80 years ago. In November 2019 the project was collected by the Library of Congress.
In addition to ‘Lost Hills,’ Comen has produced photographic essays in Los Angeles’ historically-significant neighborhood of Watts; along Central Avenue, the core of South-Central Los Angeles; and within a Los Angeles-based activist network of young undocumented immigrants, or DREAMers. His collaboration portraying newly naturalized US citizens ‘The Newest Americans’ was staged as an exhibition at The California Museum, and is currently touring the country through 2022.
”Comen is best known for his environmental portrait essays that feature evocative California locales. As a documentary photographer, he has long focused on themes of American identity, community-building, immigration, democracy, and social justice. In 2017, the National Portrait Gallery featured his photography in the exhibition “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers. —Taína Caragol, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History
Most recently, the portrait “Jesus Sera, Dishwasher” from Comen’s series ‘Working America’ was awarded Second Prize in the Nat’l Portrait Gallery’s triennial portrait exhibition “The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today” (on view 2019-2021.) His photographs have been collected by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and private collectors, and he is regularly commissioned by brands and magazines internationally.
Walking and driving every day in my native Los Angeles, I look around and see an economically thriving microcosm of a multiracial, immigrant America. The Armenian-American shoemaker, the Korean-American tailor, the Mexican-American machine operator working the late shift in the last zipper factory left in the country. As the great-grandson of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, I can’t help but think of 2019 Los Angeles as a contemporary analog to my forebears’ late 19th Century experience in Chicago and Boston. Not long after arriving in the U.S., my great-grandparents did garment piecework and sold sewing supplies. A hundred years and three generations later, through hard work and access to education, they were able to forge a path to stability and wealth, affording me the privilege to pursue a career as an artist whose job it is to examine, reflect and comment on American culture.
It’s with my great-grandparents in mind that I’ve come to question how, in light of recent anti-immigrant rhetoric stoking wide debate across the U.S., their story might still be relevant today. Inspired by their work in the garment industry, I decided to consider immigrant-Americans and first-generation Americans through the lens of the “small trades,” re-engaging with the historical portrait approach that masters of photography Eugéne Atget, August Sander, and Irving Penn used to study national identity, work, and class in their own times.
To that end, I intend “Working America” to be a meditation on American belonging and American becoming. I’m curious if the national trope of hard work as a path to economic independence and inclusion is a reality. Is that path open to people-of-color? While I strongly believe the questions about race, work, and access that immigrants face in America today are both urgent and dire, my hope is for this series to, foremost, serve as a document of the lives and contributions these men and women continue to make to our country and to our collective experience.
To view more of Sam Comen’s work please visit his website.