A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2015 Issue

Moved by Waters

Photo of Geoff Fricker

Photographer turns his lens on the Sacramento River

Geoff Fricker fell in love with rivers when he was just a boy, and he is still swept away by their beauty and power.  

Fricker, a former Chico State student and longtime Butte College photography teacher, grew up in Fair Oaks on the bluffs above the American River. He fondly remembers a childhood spent fishing and frolicking in the water, and he recently channeled his passion into a coffee table book that considers the past, present, and future of another great waterway: the Sacramento River.  

In Sacrament: Homage to a River, Fricker displays more than 100 black-and-white photographs taken through years of work. The images cover the river as well as its tributaries and surrounding watersheds. Included are a wide range of photographs of everything from a large 1997 aerial of the Sacramento to a pair of sweeping landscapes taken at Bidwell Park’s Bear Hole in 2011. Some pictures feature fish, but Fricker is most interested in pointing out man-made incursions on nature, like large brackets that still hang from the side of a Table Mountain cliff more than 130 years after installation. At one time, these lonely chunks of metal supported a wooden flume that carried water. Today, only the brackets remain.  

Sacrament contains images of dams, of riparian forests, and of Native American mortar holes. Fricker even documents popular river-related events, like the Polar Bear Swim at One Mile and the tubers and boaters who flock to Scotty’s Landing. These pictures reveal the photographer’s deep ties to Chico. Fricker and his wife—Chico State psychology professor Sandra Machida—have lived in the area for more than three decades, and anyone who has visited Chico State’s Gateway Science Museum has been touched by the man’s work. Seven of his photographs are seen on 6' x 9' panels just outside the entrance to the Gateway. These massive images—also of the Sacramento River—are part of a permanent exhibit titled River Voices

In Sacrament, Fricker’s pictures aren’t as large, but they feel grand in scale, and they’re complemented by carefully crafted prose by Rebecca Lawton, a Sonoma-based author. She begins the book by acknowledging the troubled state of California waterways: “To fall in love with a wild river is to be changed forever, heart and soul. To fall for a river in California is to live with the scars and ghosts of loss.” 

Sacrament may seem like a picture-book tribute on its face, but Fricker says it was always meant as more. As he collected photographs, he strove to capture not just nature, but nature as impacted by humanity. A photo of a tree, Fricker notes, looks much the same whether shot 100 years in the past or moments ago—unless that photo includes a human element.  

“If there was, for example, an automobile in front of the tree or a Native American or whatever, that would signify to you that it was taken at a certain time,” says Fricker. “So, when I photograph the landscape, I like to have those cultural overlays that signify that there is some narrative.” 

In the case of California water, says Fricker, the narrative is fraught with problems.   

“We are in a difficult place where we have to make some hard decisions that really affect the future of Northern California,” he says. “The problem with water is we just don’t know how to conserve it. We don’t treat it as preciously as we should.”

Fricker says he wasn’t trying to make a bold political statement with Sacrament, but he hopes his images cause people to consider water usage and what current practices mean for the future.  

“I think the book is just meant to make people appreciate the importance of conservation, conserving water as opposed to using more,” he says. “That’s where I’m coming from.”

Fricker also hopes his photographs make the politically charged subject of water use more approachable.    

“What I’ve tried to do is create images that are aesthetically compelling,” he says, “but at the same time there’s a narrative underlying them.” 

Ultimately, the images in Sacrament tell the story of a disrupted ecological system that is changing the face of California. For example, Fricker notes that salmon are no longer able to reach the far-flung spawning grounds of the past. This means their carcasses decompose elsewhere, affecting everything from animal habitats to the nourishment of trees. 

Stacy Cepello, a restoration ecologist with the California Department of Water Resources, wrote the forward to Sacrament, and he frequently consulted with Fricker to offer scientific explanations for the phenomena captured on film. Cepello believes the book has the potential to make people think.  

“If it was just photographs, it would be a little bit on the esoteric side, it would be hard for people to grasp,” he says. “When you put it together with text, I truly believe that the pairing of the two captures something special.” 

Even putting broad environmental concerns aside, Cepello says he loves Fricker’s work. He even credits the photographer for helping him better appreciate the beauty of Northern California.   

Fricker earned an MFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute, and his work has been entered into the permanent collections of several high-profile arts organizations, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Nevada Museum of Art, Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, and the Library of Congress. 

For Sacrament, Fricker captured most of his images with a box camera using 8" x 10" negatives. The large film size allows for minute detail that holds up well even when blown up larger than poster size. Many of the photographs feature high angles that Fricker obtained using a hydraulic lift that he custom mounted to the back of his three-quarter-ton pickup. This contraption hoists him nearly 30 feet in the air, allowing him to capture bigger sections of landscape.

“I often refer to this hydraulic lift as my ‘contextualizer,’ ” he says. “You create a context or create kind of a miniature view of the world.” 

Fricker shot in black-and-white for a variety of reasons. The first was practical. At the time he was gathering photos, the only digital cameras capable of the detail he wanted were rare and extremely expensive. Shooting on a large color negative would have been possible, he says, but too costly, because he was already paying three dollars per shot for the much-cheaper black-and-white.

Although economics played a role, Fricker says the choice to go black-and-white was also artistic.

“The one thing about black-and-white is it kind of simplifies things,” he says. “We associate different colors with emotion. For example, yellow is the color of jaundice, sickness maybe, or cowardice, whereas red is passion or danger. So, all these different sort of emotional connotations that color have don’t factor into black-and-white.” 

Fricker has had several gallery exhibitions of work from Sacrament, including one at the Gateway Science Museum and one at the California Museum in Sacramento. Another is slated for Sacramento’s Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in November. 

“I think my best work is actually yet to be published, but it’s not on the immediate horizon,” he says. “But again, it’s about water.”

About the author

Forrest Hartman (BA, Communication Studies, ’90) is a lecturer in CSU, Chico’s Department of Journalism and Public Relations.