My most vivid memory of the Salton Sea will always be that I couldn’t change the settings on my camera. I couldn’t get a grip on any of the buttons because it was so hot I was sweating . . . through my fingertips. That’s not an experience I’d ever had before and it wasn’t one I wanted to repeat. I’ve returned to this place many times, but better prepared. It had earned my respect.
The very existence of many of the most curious places in the world depends on some kind of extreme: heat, cold, elevation, remoteness. Not only would the features of the landscapes themselves be different, but much of the curiosity that defines these places in our minds, the character of the landscape rather than the characteristics, would diminish if temperate conditions allowed us to explore them with frequency. Mount Everest once had a mystique, when people equated highest with hardest. Now that one can pay a fee to a company who will drag you up, and thousands of people have done so, Everest is no longer viewed with the reverence it once was.The mountain itself hasn’t changed,but now our perception of it is a little more pedestrian.
Photographers are well known for seeking out extremes. Many of us were weaned on stories of National Geographic shooters sitting isolated for days in sweltering heat and fighting off sleep, hunger, and insects waiting for that perfect shot to present itself. Those “perfect” NatGeo shots worked if for no other reason than they were curious: they depicted things that few people had ever seen before.
Most of us evening-and-weekend warriors can’t strive quite to those extremes, but I’ve found that driving further, staying out later, or putting myself in these less comfortable places tends to lead to more interesting, if only because they’re unusual, pictures. Few places are as uncomfortable and unusual as the Salton Sea.
Standing on the shores of Bombay Beach on a 110-degree October afternoon in 2009, I was soaked from head to toe with nothing left to wipe my hands on. The ambient temperature alone might have been tolerable but I was standing in direct, overhead sunlight. I’d driven out on a whim and my schedule limited me to shooting in this heat and bad light. But to this day, I feel the most accurate and encompassing picture I’ve taken of the Sea was at that moment: sun bleached, vast, and eerily silent. I had never been anywhere so unusual and I was filled with curiosity about this harsh and mysterious place.
Many photographers are at least familiar with the name Salton Sea– if not at least some of the history. Over the past few years the theme of “abandonment” has become a very popular genre of photography and Detroit is probably the only area that has received more attention than the Salton Sea.I won’t recount the entire history here, as interesting as it is, but just some relevant context for the photography discussion (for those interested, a detailed timeline of events can be found here).
The Sea, ironically, is in the middle of the desert. It lies at the eastern foot of the San Jacinto mountains about 30 miles southeast of Palm Springs, where the annual rainfall is less than 3 inches and the average high from mid-June to mid-September is over 100 degrees. That is probably why the “Salton Sink” had been bone dry for hundreds of years before human intervention.The bottom of the sea is only 5 inches higher in elevation than the lowest point in North America, so in 1905 when levies on the Colorado River were accidentally breached, water flowed into the Salton Sink and never flowed out. It took engineers three years to stem the flow and by the time they finally did, the 35-mile-long Sea had formed.
Evaporation was offset not so much by the minimal rainfall, but by the runoff from agriculture that had developed in the area. Salt, sediment, and fertilizer would drain into the lake and would be left when water evaporated, making it fertile ground to be stocked with fish.
By the early 1960’s, vacation crowds started arriving at the “Salton Riviera” for fishing, boating, and sunshine. Master-planned communities were laid out and resorts built. But then growth slowed as the stagnant lake began to smell and the heat began to seem a little too much. Then in 1976, the first of two consecutive “100 year rains” hit and, with the Sea having no outflow, it simply rose. By the time the waters retreated, most people had given up the dream and simply moved away. In the 40 years since, not much has changed, except for periodic die-offs of millions of fish or birds that can result from outbreaks of algae in the sea.Rather than sand, the “beaches” are salt-encrusted mud and fish bones. The entire area has a mere few hundred residents.
Though I love “bucket list” photos as much as the next guy, when I get serious about photography my guiding principle is that if I can’t capture something is unusual in its own right, then I must capture it in an unusual way. I’ve become so attached to this place because not only is the story unusual, the geography is unusual, and even if not for those two things — it is unusual simply because almost no one goes there (and with good reason, it is not a pleasant place to visit: in addition to the heat, the stench is usually terrible). In this age of accessibility to photography, it’s hard to imagine that an interesting place to shoot exists and isn’t completely overwhelmed with photographers. The Salton Sea is less than a three hour drive from Los Angeles or San Diego and at one year in the 1950s it recorded more visitors than Yosemite National Park. If I think back to the pictures I look at on various sites from photographers, I’m sure I’ve seen more from Yosemite in the past month than I have from the Salton Sea in the 5 years since I learned of its existence.
Granted, the sea has certainly received attention in the press and photography sites, and one can find online many pictures of the place, but the number of photographers who bother to go there is very, very small. In about five days spent there over three separate trips, I’ve never seen another photographer aside from my own companions. Those extreme characteristics that helped create the place are some of the same that keep people away now, giving it a certain character, one of mystery and foreboding. An Everest before it became pedestrian.
While the story and character can be compelling, to write off the area as being an exercise in shooting “disaster porn” (what the abandonment genre is being referred to by people who are tired of it) is to ignore a significant amount of what the area has to offer. An important distinction is in order. While it’s folly to try to summarize a genre into a sentence, I’d stab at saying the work of urban explorers of places like Detroit focuses entirely on the ugliness of human destruction: interiors and exteriors of buildings subject to crime, vandalism, and neglect. I know that’s not entirely fair, and I do enjoy the work of many of those photographers, but my description is more about what the places themselves have to offer.
What the Salton Sea offers differs on two accounts. First, it is a landscape. On a peaceful day the sea is like glass. Shooting from the east side back toward the mountains, over the mirror reflection of water, it is not completely unlike the reflections one might find in a Washington or Oregon cascade mountain lake – except for the absolute absence of trees. It is a land of stark contrasts: it is incredibly flat but flanked by mountains, it is incredibly dry except for all the water, it can be colorful but sometimes amazingly colorless. It often seems as if you’re shooting on a Martian landscape. Second, the human artifacts that remain in this landscape don’t resemble the ugly, almost corrupt,decay of a Detroit slum. Instead they have that surreal quality of the desert taking back what it wanted, and the place remains almost frozen in time from the moment that the inhabitants mysteriously, and almost instantly, disappeared. Truly “post-apocalyptic”rather than sadly decaying.
What I find as a photographer is that the remaining structures are merely a context for (or within) an already unusual landscape. Many areas that were flooded stayed underwater until the water evaporated, leaving a briny layer of salt over everything and merging the human structures with the already sun-bleached land in a coating of almost pure white. The heat is the only thing to remind my brain that I’m not looking at snow. Sometimes I’ll look down at my feet and realize that I’m not standing on mud, or sand, or even fish bones, but I’m standing on broken concrete. Almost entirely taken back by nature, indistinguishable from a few feet away, the place I’m standing was once a bustling marina where real estate speculators were entertained by Sammy Davis Jr in the heyday of the Rat Pack. No boat has launched from this marina in nearly half a century.
There is mystery everywhere around the sea. Military test bases have come and gone and parts of them are still accessible to those willing to do a little research and then to spend some time on foot. A few hundred people still occupy some of the coastal towns of Salton City, Bombay Beach, and nearby Niland and the sea is actually attracting some new residents (it is unquestionably the cheapest waterfront property in California). To learn a little about the interesting characters that call this place home, I highly recommend finding a copy of the mockumentary Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea.
Salton is not immune to change; it just happens more slowly there. Since my first trip in 2009 I’ve seen new construction as well as the unfortunate disappearance (non-photographers might call it “clean up”) of some artifacts. The sea is a resource: there are wetlands that support millions of migratory birds; there are geothermal plants there; and the water itself-– as disastrous as it is-– locks in pollutants, preventing them from being carried in the air to populated areas. More care is being taken to protect and use what the area gives us. The remnants of 1950’s dreams are slowly being replaced with suburban structures and air-conditioning systems. The window is closing on the unique and surreal photography this place can offer. While the characteristics of the landscape are not likely to change much, just like with Mount Everest, our adaptation to these extremes will slowly diminish the character of the mystical Salton Sea.