The path to creating her new photo book, The New Forty-Niners, wasn’t an easy or straightforward one for Brooklyn-based photographer Sarina Finkelstein. Like the craggy cliffs and waterways she traced in pursuit of today’s crop of California gold prospectors, her trajectory took unexpected twists and turns.
In 2009, prompted by an article Finkelstein read in a California newspaper about a new Gold Rush, she flew out to the Golden State and began prospecting for prospectors.
Launching what would become a four-year-long project, she aimed her camera at a small band of economically-desperate gold seekers in Angeles National Forest dubbed the '09ers — people who no longer had jobs or homes.
After California banned suction dredge mining, which made it much more difficult to extract gold, Finkelstein headed to river regions east of Sacramento and near the Oregon border to find and shoot prospectors motivated as much by the lifestyle involved in old-fashioned panning as by the potential discovery of treasure.
Striking it Rich with the Reclusive and Elusive
The gold miners Finkelstein found are quite different from the young pioneers who flocked to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.
“I’d say that the average age of the prospectors I saw is around 50,” she says. “Some had lost jobs, some were in retirement. A lot were doing it to supplement their retirement income. Many had formerly worked in construction and other fields where they did a lot of outdoor work.”
Frequently, Finkelstein’s subjects were as elusive as the gold they sought.
“They were totally disconnected from technology, so I had to find them through other people,” she says. “They’d say something like ‘Go down the deer trail, past the waterfall to the rock that looks like Abraham Lincoln’s face and you’ll find so and so.’ Or they'd ask, ‘Have you heard about the guy who prospects in a kilt?’ One person would direct me to the next and that’s just kind of how it went.”
She gained the prospectors’ trust, spent time with them in their campsites, dug for gold with them both day and night and got a firsthand view of their iconoclastic way of life and their motivations.
Her poetic pictures and text offer up an insider’s perspective on a fascinating boomer movement focused on freedom.
Capturing the Prospecting Personality
“The project is really about the personalities of these people,” says Finkelstein. “It’s about why they’re doing it and what they get out of it.”
Her compelling photographs and the book’s text capture reclusive characters who prefer their own company and others who enjoy the camaraderie of fellow miners in the evening, after a day spent working solo.
All are adventure seekers, risk-takers and lovers of nature who face down physical challenges while relentlessly trying to find and extract gold from boulder-laced terrain.
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The majority of these boomers are male, says Finkelstein, but plenty of women prospect and some couples mine together.
These prospectors are filled with vigor and determination. And, they’re strikingly young at heart, says the photographer.
One image in the book shows a shirtless miner with his back to the camera walking down a road flanked by light-struck cliffs. Though he’s in his late sixties, it would be easy to mistake him for someone in his twenties.
“The work they do gives them a youthful physique,” says Finkelstein.
The deeply grooved faces and gray hair of her subjects bear testimony to time’s passage. Their powerful, earth-crusted hands and lean, muscled bodies seen hoisting, digging and sifting reflect a life of hard physical labor.
They’re out there “with this very adventurous, pioneering spirit,” says Finkelstein. These are people “who really just wanted to be in the wilderness, experiencing life outside of a cubicle.”
Hooked on Hope
They're also gamblers at heart — "treasure seekers and foragers, people who get hooked on something that they’re trying to find, like little kids who go onto the beach looking for sea shells,” says Finkelstein. “Once you pick up a sea shell, you think that there could be another sea shell 10 feet away. So, for a prospector there’s always the belief that the next hole you dig could be the hole, the one that you’re going to find the amazing nugget in.”
She warns against joining their ranks if financial wealth is your sole objective.
“If you’re the kind of person who wants to be outdoors and enjoys the search, the gamble of ‘Will you ever find it?,’ then this is the occupation for you. But I wouldn’t go out there thinking that you’re going to get rich,” says Finkelstein.
Nuggets of Risk
A glass vial that holds gold “about the size of the tip of my pinky,” rests on her mantel, serving as a luminous reminder of just how small the return on monumental effort can be.
However, an image of a sidewalk chalkboard depicting gold’s 1849 price alongside its recent one broadcasts a simple fact that can easily override logic.
“When I started the project, the price of gold was around $1,100 an ounce,” Finkelstein says. “Over the four years I shot the project [2009 to 2013]. it went up to over $1,900 an ounce. Now it’s around $1,260.”
As difficult as it is to strike it rich through prospecting, there’s no denying the meteoric rise of gold’s value and the resultant thrill of landing on even a tiny amount.
Many people are content to experience that high and participate in the gold mining tradition in the most diluted of ways.
Finkelstein’s book casts light on mining’s more ironic aspects by juxtaposing images that depict the hardcore prospectors’ dogged efforts with tourist establishments dotting gold country’s Highway 49 — places like the Miner's Motel and Gold Rush Burgers.
While California has enacted legislation that makes gold recovery difficult, the state also touts its rich mining history and holds out the welcome mat for travelers content “to pay 10 to 20 dollars for someone to hand them a bag of concentrated material with some gold flakes in it that they can pan out in a trough behind a shed,” says Finkelstein.
Gold fever in all its forms is big business in the Golden State and there's plenty of money to be made off those struck by it.
Perhaps the biggest risk for serious gold seekers is scammers. One couple in the book paid $10,000 to stake a gold mining claim (which gives one the right to mine a property and keep the finds) when, in fact, a real claim involves little more than filing papers and paying a small fee.
Life Lessons from The New Forty-Niners
Finkelstein says she learned a great deal from the prospectors she met and feels they have a lot to teach us all.
“These people are not ready to just sit in a recliner and just stare at the television,” she says. “They want to maximize every minute of every day. They have a passion and it’s therapeutic. Many people described mining in a way that made it sound like meditation — to be out there in the woods digging and just being at peace with yourself.”
I boiled down prospector quotes in the book to six bits of advice. These people are quite wise — don't let them be a flash in the pan.
1. Make life an improv.
Wild Bill: “We know how to make do. That’s the beauty of this mining — it’s just fun to improvise — living primitive.”
2. Take advantage of the freedoms we have.
Dave: “It’s about freedom. …as long as I can eat, I can convert my physical energy — my skill — into raw wealth. I can go out there with very little support and actually come up with something that I can take anywhere in the world. I can convert it into the things that I need — start a business, get food, pay rent, get electricity. I can particularly do that very well in America.
3. Escape confined spaces and live in accordance with your individual rhythm.
Chris: “If I do this and I die, then I can die happy knowing that I did and saw as much of this planet and did as many things as I could do. I didn’t spend my life cooped up in some office building year after year, while I watch the ‘real world’ on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.”
4. Seek more moments of sheer joy.
Dave: I went into the military and I went into a chapel and I felt the presence of God….It was real for me. And, that was a moment of euphoria and exhilaration. And then there have been a couple of times when I have fallen in love, and the first part of the relationship — you know — where it just meant so much — the euphoria. The ‘couldn’t believe I was that lucky.’ That’s the feeling every time I uncover high-grade gold on the bottom of the river. That exact same feeling.
5. Discover and engage in what grounds you.
Olan: “Getting there, moving rocks, finding the gold — that is what thrills me. But, after that, I just don’t care about it. Just the fact that I can come out here and do this is the most rewarding thing to me. I’ve been married three times, have four kids and a stepson, but I always end up back in the woods. This is where I come to collect myself, to get my head together.”
6. Find and share a perennial passion.
Tom: “The best I can do is pass my passion along to a younger generation, because once the passion gets into you, it never leaves.”
The New Forty-Niners is a winner of Photo District News 2014 Photo Annual. Project images will be on display at San Francisco’s RayKo Photo Center through June 21, 2014. To purchase a Sarina Finkelstein photograph, contact her through her website: www.sarinafinkelstein.com.