/12 River

Sarina Finkelstein

The New Forty-Niners

“Sarina Finkelstein, a photographer at work on a book about California’s ‘New Forty-Niners,’ as she calls them, wonders if something besides the dream of wealth has been driving them. ‘You can photograph the gold,’ says Finkelstein. ‘You can photograph the landscape. You can photograph the faces. But how do you photograph a motivation?’” — Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian Magazine, July/August 2012.

The New Forty-Niners documents the life and psychology behind the new wave of gold prospectors that have rushed to California 160 years after the original Gold Rush. Tactile and earthy images in camps and claims spread across a magnificent wild landscape show the passion and obsession of those who endeavor to make a livelihood prospecting for ever-elusive gold.

I began this project in 2009 by photographing a small desperate subgroup of the prospecting community that was struggling to keep afloat in a depressed economy to understand why they would choose this means of sustaining themselves. As I continued, I met gamblers—who risk it all in the hopes of striking it rich, adventurers—modern-day pioneers on a quest to be more self-reliant in the wilderness, loners—who strive to live in isolation on the fringe of society, and the young at heart—who in their later years have discovered their second wind in the manual labor of digging in the dirt and splashing through the streams across the state. The challenge became illustrating the differing drives behind their passion, what makes this lifestyle of backbreaking work worth pursuing to them.

What I learned is that gold prospecting is a religion. There is an inherent spirituality in it—a primal connection to the land and a feeling that one can “read” a river landscape, to know how it packed stones and earth together or tumbled them into crevasses as it writhed through the canyons hundreds of years ago. But, more than this—in gold prospecting—there is an unwavering faith in the pursuit. Finding even a speck or flake of gold just perpetuates the effort. What miners get in exchange for this devotion is some of the most picturesque scenery that exists in this country, and, even in some of the most remote far reaches of the mountains, a sense of community.

The income isn’t steady. Some days, they might turn up nothing but dirt. Some days, they might find a $5,000 nugget. But, the fact is, they’re doing it on their own—living as fierce individuals, outside of mainstream society, pulling something tangible like a gold flake or nugget from the earth with their own two hands. What has interested me is this group of individuals living outside the social norm, united by their all-consuming passion for the precious mineral they strive to find, the personal sacrifices they make for it, the difficulties they face and the lifestyle they create for themselves. This work is about these characters and their quest.