I am back at the Salton Sea. I have been here for two weeks and have less than a week to go. This past weekend I realised that blanks are filling in, on this project; it is a satisfying feeling. Another trip or two, to this area, and I should be able to say “that’s it!” This place, right from the start, touched me. It will be odd to not have to return. In the meantime… there is still more work to get done.
I am playing with an ongoing series of diptychs and triptychs of photographs, mostly shot in completely different places and/or years apart (and certainly not meant for each other), that seem to come into being when put together. The three pictures below are something of an exception to the rule and were taken during my last trip to the Salton Sea, in California, a few weeks ago. Not intended to be linked, jointly they come to life.
This past week I wandered off Route 86 onto the only paved road (not in a city/town) that leads to the Salton Sea – just past the Border Control station. That morning I hiked eight miles to and from the water; I spent the rest of the time photographing what little remains (without going off-road — a sedan does not cut the grade for driving in the desert; and on top of that, there *may* be unexploded ordinances in the area!) of the old World War II Naval Test Site. This was operated by Sandia Base (later Sandia Laboratory) as a site for test-dropping dummy and live bombs; Sandia called this site The Salton Sea Test Bed.
As I headed back toward the “86” I noticed a Border Patrol truck parked at the edge of a date-palm field. Moments later, it seemed I was being followed; it took about three or four minutes before I was pulled aside. The officer asked me what I was doing down the road. Had I slept there overnight? How long had I been there? I was never asked to open my trunk (thus my smuggled Mexicans and meth remained undetected), my car was not searched, nor was my driver’s license asked for. He did request that I return to my car, however, because i had stepped out (foolish me). Once he’d convinced himself that I was not a risk to anyone or to myself, I had a chance to ask him a few questions. It turns out that this is a common area for illegal entry into the United States from Mexico. Below are two articles I dug up on that topic (most of my findings had to do with people being stopped at this Border Patrol point – not after or before it…) :
And here are more photographs from the Naval Test Site:
This past June I took a photo workshop with Gerd Ludwig at the Salton Sea in California. Little did I know beforehand, that this would be the start of a long-term project. I found a place that grabbed my curiosity in a strong hold; I wanted to dive right in. The idea that I can go back, over and over again, and pay close attention to this place so that I am more than superficially acquainted with it is thrilling. How lucky!! It is an evolving process, a non-trivial idea, and utterly amazing that I can do this.
This project examines overlooked features of a desert that bares witness to the human touch. In 1905, the Colorado River Dam flooded a low-lying valley and created the Salton Sea. Up through the 1960s, real estate developers worked to make this the next Palm Springs and a magnet for movie stars.
They failed. Today the Sea – California’s largest lake – is polluted and near-dead. Fish carcasses rot along the shore, and have turned the Sea’s perimeters into oddly sanded beaches of their remains. The sea of hope quickly evaporated.
The Salton Sea is a part of an Americana whose culture is a world apart from the rest of the United States. Places like Bombay Beach and Salton City represent the decaying vision of the Sea’s hopeful future; Slab City is a hovel for squatters; Calipatria, and Niland are ordinary city-towns where the life-bloods are agriculture, solar farms, geo-thermal energy.
Silence, emptiness, banality, and “rawness” attract me to this environment. Everything seems to stare at you; the illusory unpeopled streets give me the sense of something invisible. Other photographers have been drawn to the fallen romanticism of the Salton Sea. My own photographs are less about this lost promise; the inescapable “hereness” of this desert landscape and its surroundings opens my eyes to the everyday and the richness of the prosaic.
Very recently I had the pleasure of taking a photography workshop with Gerd Ludwig, on the art of storytelling. In just 5.5 days we six students were taught to develop our eye and came out better photographers because of this. We first met at Gerd’s home to review each other’s portfolios. This was followed by learning about the theory behind photographic story-telling, and then instruction/theory on the importance of light (including strobe). Afterwards, we headed out for three days of shooting at the Salton Sea, which ended with a full day of editing and sequencing and a final slide show of our work from “the sea.”
Gerd demanded much but in return gave us his all (as did his assistant, Molly Peters – thank you both so much!). He was a tough task master (with a terrific sense of humour, thankfully!) who was very generous with his knowledge. He is equally genuine with his compliments and his criticism. He pushed each of us a notch or two beyond where we, as photographers, had been before we met him. He astutely took note of our strengths and weaknesses, pressing us to make the best use of those strengths and acknowledge but then set aside the weaknesses. I was able to build on the lessons I learned from Ernesto Bazan’s workshop a few weeks ago and am grateful to both men for being brilliant teachers (and marvellous photographers).
The following may appear obvious but is not something most people think about: it is easy to take one only shot of something or just keep clicking away and not work the scene by moving about one’s subject from different perspectives, so that one shoots with intention. Both teachers reminded us to take various shots of the subject so that alternative angles/contexts are shown (it will be fairly obvious when you really “capture” the essence). As both Gerd and Ernesto stressed, it is more difficult to photograph with purpose. It is critical to pay attention to the complete frame (so that the photograph is self-contained and conveys a story and/or feeling with consistency, and is composed so that all elements in the image play a role). We were reminded that when something catches our eye we need to move beyond eye-level and change perspective by walking around the subject, getting low, climbing high, pointing up or down. Simply put, don’t wait for your subject to move – instead, move yourself. Shoot from the feet, so to speak.
Insightfully, Gerd noted that I tend to not consider the role of colour – critical to colour photography (perhaps this is why I have recently started experimenting with black and white and why it feels good. With black and white I do not worry about one colour or shade overtaking another and I can focus on the subject). So, during the three days of shooting I tried hard not to have tunnel vision as I concentrated on composition and subject. Colour became an important element rather than something that is there by chance (whether I can keep this up is another story but I shall work on it – along with black and white).
Now on to Calipatria…
It turns out that we did not actually stay by the Salton Sea but rather in Calipatria, California. As much as I fell in love with the landscape of the Salton Sea I realised that it was Calipatria that really held me captive. Located in the Imperial Valley (and, if you have not caught on yet, near the Salton Sea), this semi-rural “city” is 3.7 square miles, with farming as its main industry. According to Wikipedia, “Calipatria is one of the state’s poorest cities in income per capita due to agricultural paychecks and a declined economy in the 1990s.”
California has been in a state of drought for several years now and, so far, most farmers have not been targeted for their water usage – but now there is some discussion about water being redirected to more populous areas like San Diego. This does not bode well for the environment nor for an economy that is already in decline and people whose health is suffering because of heat and drought.
The desert, fiery weather, and lack of rain do not bode well for people who rely on farming for their livelihood. Yet the people of Calipatria (and Imperial County) are used to working hard despite adversity. Country Singer Justin Moore says it all in his song “Small Town, USA” :
A lot of people called it prison when I was growin’ up
But these are my roots and this is what I love
Cause everybody knows me and I know them
And I believe that’s the way we were supposed to live…
…Around here we break our backs just to earn a buck
We never get ahead but we have enough
Calipatria, at most, is 10 square blocks; “downtown” is a mere two short ones. It comprises a post office, library, city hall, police/fire department, elementary/middle/high schools, a supermarket, a convenience store, two small restaurants and a doughnut shop, a laundromat, a liquor store, and not much else. There are three churches. The inn is at the end of town (most visitors to Calipatria are family members or friends of those in the prison at the edge of the city). If residents need to shop they travel to nearby Brawley. Children attend school during the week, adults work. The streets of Calipatria were desolate on both weekdays and weekend. Possibly the time of year had had something to do with this: temperatures were over 100F. No matter, there is little in the way of amenities, thus there’s nothing to do but stay indoors, behind closed blinds that keep out the searing heat and bright sun. I saw only a few residents hanging out in the shade of their yards. Even the park was deserted. This left Calipatria silent – aurally and visually.
At first glance, Calipatria appears an ordinary, homogeneous, suburban terrain. Some homes are dilapidated and protected by dogs and chain link fences – the people who live inside have precious little. However, just as many of the humble homes I saw are obviously lovingly maintained. It was the everyday things, the small moments, the details of this place that first struck me and the details that I sought out: tilted telephone poles mirroring palm trees, neat lawns and fences, debris, rusted vintage automobiles, a lone person in the landscape. The sprinkling of people I spoke with grew up in or near Calipatria and chose to stay; each one was fiercely proud of place. Perhaps this is, in part, what had captivated me about the setting of this city, and which I, in turn, tried to capture in photos.
For three days I walked quietly up and down the streets, trying to immerse myself in and find the beauty of the City of Calipatria – 184 feet below sea level. It was another opportunity to learn to be true to myself and my voice, which my workshops with both Gerd and Ernesto had supported. Through all of this, I have figured out that I do not have an interest in telling narratives. Instead, I prefer to create images that hint at memory, emotion, or understanding.