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Snap judgments - Ken Light and Melanie Light: Valley of Shadows and Dreams

Meet the authors this weekend at the Steinbeck Festival in Las Salinas May 3-6. Ken and Melanie Light speak at 3 p.m. on Friday, May 4.

In spite of all that's changed since The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck would likely feel familiar with modern America, as the age of bailouts and foreclosures has invoked its own version of a Dust Bowl-era re-evaluation of the American Dream. This intriguing congruency stands at the heart of Ken and Melanie Light's engaging new book of photography. Taken in the Central Valley, these stirring black-and-white images channel WPA-era Dorothea Lange through their attention to labor, poverty, immigration, and agriculture. The East Bay couple spent five years documenting what they call a skewed democracy - families losing their homes in the mortgage crisis, communities battling illnesses contracted from nearby toxic dumps, generic tract homes encroaching on farmland. Ken's evocative portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, in particuliar, are rich with irony - a lawn sprinkler spews precious water while, on another page, farmers march for water rights. But the book contains more moving photographs - its foreword by one of Steinbeck's sons, and the duo's own in-depth written explanations of the subject matter, provide a context of compassion as well as useful background. Best of all, the photographs are often more lyrical than they are literal, distilling a complex region mired in turmoil. A