José Saldaña y Sandy Melendez bailan juntos en Lost Hills, CA. Jose Saldaña and Sandy Melendez share a dance in Lost Hills, CA, Oct. 29, 2011. Photo Sam Comen

From now until Sept. 14, a splendid collection of 100 photographs adorn the walls of City Hall’s bottom floor, celebrating life in California’s Central Valley–the mid-region that encompasses both the Sacramento Valley to the north and the San Joaquin Valley to the south.

“The Valley: Photo-essays from California’s Heartland” is an ode to the state’s agricultural cradle, the home of the farmers who work the land.

With descriptions in English and Spanish, the exhibition is composed of nine photographic essays that cover a wide range of styles–from the artistic and dream-like work of Matt Black, to the conceptual style of Ken and Melanie Light, whose “Valley of Shadows and Dreams” features water, workers and the environment, portraits and scenes of everyday life.

Ann Jastrab, the director of the Rayko Photo Gallery and organizer of the exhibition, discussed how photographers like Francisco Dominguez have covered wide-ranging topics like “immigration, and indigenous people living in the streets,” and how the works of the Lights “were easier [to select] for being more well known.”

“It had to be varied culturally and historically balanced,” Jastrab said, of creating the exhibit.

Another photographer highlighted in this exhibition is Sam Comen, whose splendid photo essay features the community of Lost Hills.

“The same place where the ‘Okies’ came to escape the famine in the early 1930s during the depression, is now inhabited by Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” said Comen.

Hyper-realistic and staged, Comen’s images stand out for their ability to communicate a magical moment frozen in time.

Other photographers featured in the exhibition are Antonio Zazueta Olmos, a photojournalism graduate of Fresno State University, who delivered an evocative essay about boxers in black and white; Kathy Maria Landeros, with her beautiful color portraits and landscapes; and Charlotte Niel, who previously shot landscapes but now focuses more on portraits.

United Farm Workers march, 1975. Photo Lou Dematteis

“I was driving down the valley and saw the announcement of a celebration of Cinco de Mayo,” said Niel in describing one of her photos. “The people [were] very friendly; they welcomed me.”

Niel’s photographs capture everyday scenes: a quinceañera in the village of San Joaquin, a vendor working in a second-hand shop in Dos Palos, and children playing during the celebration of a baptism in the town of Alpaugh.

Two of the photo essays endow historical context to the exhibit.

Mimi Plumb photographed farmers in 1974 and 1975 while studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her brother’s girlfriend worked as a volunteer for the United Farm Workers (UFW), which is how she got her start. She was 19 when she took the photographs.

“Celestino, Ricardo, Rosa and Chuy, UFW organizers with Chávez, invited me to accompany them when they went to talk to the workers,” Plumb said. “I was touched by his passion and how he wanted to improve working conditions in the fields.”

Lou Dematteis decided to photograph the march from San Francisco to Modesto, one that the UFW organized in the summer of 1975 to draw attention to the adoption of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA). Dematteis covered the news event as a class assignment.

“It’s wonderful that photographs from 1975 still have a value,” said Dematteis.“I went to Modesto the night before they came and I slept in a person’s house who was involved. It was fantastic, they never imagined that so many people would come.”

The exhibit also contains a selection of the photos from The San Francisco Chronicle archives, which include photos of Carlos Avila Gonzalez and Mike Kepka.

While the work of each photographer is commendable, the exhibition as a whole suffered from trying to do too much, making it seem sort of scattered and rushed. A smaller exhibit with more variation in photo size would have been preferable.

The Valley: Photo-essays from California’s Heartland is a free exhibition hosted by the San Francisco Arts Commission–the city agency responsible for promoting and protecting the arts. It will be on display until Sept. 19 at the ground floor of City Hall, located in the Plaza Civic Center. On Aug. 12, there will be a panel at the Central Library at 6 p.m.