A Photo Trip to the Sea… No, Not the Pacific Ocean…

(Click on an Image to see it full screen)

Salton Sea — I confess… Sunday afternoon (11/11/12) I should have been home, feet nailed to the floor in front of my computer doing my least liked activity… grading.  I have a pile of it to do before Tuesday but I just couldn’t stand it.  I HAD to go shooting… I just had to.  If I didn’t aim a camera at something, my head was going to explode.   Soooooo, with gear in the Montero for whatever might appear in front of me, it was out onto I-8 headed east toward the desert since it was supposed to be cool there.

As I started to descend into the desert floor on I-8 the wind that was blowing steadily over the mountains was really kicking up through the canyons and blowing the car around.  I was glad I was not in Rocinante or it would have been some dicey driving.  But the wind was possibly good news for my project of the moment because sometimes if the dust was being raised in Anza-Borrego then shooting from the east side of the Salton Sea back toward the mountains might yield some really cool stuff.  Often when the wind is blowing around the badlands and butte tops in the park area it creates a dust haze which, when looking back to the west from across the water, the water, the background, and the sky all blend into a surreal and nearly seamless backdrop.

I’ve done some shots I really like in conditions like that so perhaps this might yield some similar views.  So straight out to El Centro then north through Calapatria toward the Sonny Bono Wildlife Preserve we went.

But, the surreal version of the place was not to be.  Once on site the mountains to the west were hazy but were not obliterated by the dust.  Bummer.  Still, this is such a weird landscape something might stand out.  And at the Red Hill portion of the wildlife preserve one option leapt out at me.

In a flat pan that used to be underwater, at least in the spring, are some trees that are nearly iconic features of this part of the area.  Those gnarly old trees have been photographed countless times by famous, infamous, and internationally unknown photographers under various conditions.  But the Salton Sea is evaporating… and fairly rapidly.  This whole area is now water free.  Still mucky and soft under a thin crust, but a long, long way from the water’s edge, the flat ground was devoid of all other living things.  Here and there lay the dessicated remains of a fish poisoned by the increasing salinity and suffocated by the rapidly receding water.

And the famous old trees were now dead themselves from the nearly toxic environment and are starting to give way to time and their own weight.  One has fallen over into a neighbor who is trying to hold up its fallen comrade it as best it can.  They may soldier on a bit longer but their days are numbered.

Before they are all gone entirely it was time for one more shot.  I was struck by the sense of desolation; the trees alone breaking up the flat pan and hills due, to refraction of light through the dust and water vapor, looking like they were rising out of the sea.  Their world failing around them, these stalwart old trees were all that remained to remind the viewer of the former majesty of this place.

These dead and dying trees are all that remains on this area that was once under water and a great marsh for birds along the Pacific Flyway. Taken with Canon 5D MkII and Canon 85mm lens. Click on the image to see it full screen.

Then it was on to another spot where I have tripped the shutter many, many times: Bombay Beach.   Between the main part of town and the water’s edge is a large berm, a sort of dike standing guard against water that will now never really threaten the town again.  Driving up onto the raised ground reveals a scene of decay and devastation.

When I first came to this spot, this flat ground was the site of a number of abandoned trailers and other structures including one old Airstream slowly being dissolved into the ground composed mostly of years and years of accumulated dead fish.  What looks a lot like coral sand is actually crushed fish bones.  Combined with the salinity that would float an anvil this decomposing mass has, over the years, eaten an old delivery van and steadily attacked the trailers.  This Airstream was the last to succumb; a testiment to its quality and also to the inescapable ravages of this environment.

Now, with their frames dissolving into the compost of this ground, the structures, and the trailers including the airstream have gone the way destined for the trees shown above.  I’ve photographed this trailer over the years but this time, its bright sheathing gone, the wooden framing eaten by its own turf, it has collapsed into a heap.  What once was legendary for its sleek “modern” somewhat art-deco design, has come to this: a chaotic pile of broken and rotting wood where only a stove was stout enough to remain identifiable amid the wreckage.

Some scientists would contend that hidden in this mass of twisted rubble was a definable pattern, something mathematically predictable if the variables were known.  I looked for it but could not find it.  Broken framing pointed in all directions; the grain of splintered plywood led your eye back and forth with the type of chaotic and frenzied rythym you would expect from hand of a psychotic painter.  It was like the scene of a titanic struggle between the trailer, fighting for its life and the implacable acidic monster devouring its skeleton and then its skin.

The only overriding thing I saw was the color… or lack of it.  The blowing “sand” had turned everything the same drab brown: the ground, the wood, the remains of carpeting… all becoming a monochromatic pile.  Since color was not a part of the story here but tone and texture was, I decided to render it as a monochrome image.  But when editing it, that colorless version went just a touch too far.  So I decided to try some split toning on it.

I first did a version where the split tone was more like a dramatic duotone but it now went too far in that direction. It was interesting but too “bright” and was not the telling the right narrative.   The scene was actually a little sad for me and always has been.  Not just this trailer, but much of the “town” of Bombay Beach bears witness to the hopes and dreams of so many who came here when this area was thought to be the next booming tourist area complete with even a gambling casino with alleged mob attachment.  But the dreams did not pan out, the area never thrived, and now some folks who invested everything in a dream saw that dream shattered and now were so underwater in their investments they were trapped in a place with an increasingly ghastly odor in summer and a tourist Mecca blowing away with the dropping water. (In fact, the town on the north end of the Sea is named “Mecca” as a symbol of how people believed this place would lure visitors.)

I settled on a version that has a very slight amount of split toning with the shadows just a bit cooler than the mid tones and highlights.  It built a sense of contrast missing from the single toned version but did not make it garish and a caricature of the proud old trailer.

All that remains of a once sleek Airstream trailer. I have photographed it over the years and this pile of rubble is all that is left. This is an internal pano of five overlapping frames taken with Canon 5D MkII mounted on a Wista SP 4×5 using a Linhof-Select Schneider 210 mm lens. It is just under 500 Mb in native size. Click on the image to see it full frame.

I made this shot with the 5D Mk II mounted on the Wista SP technical camera since it allowed me to tightly control the plane of focus and depth of field.  It is an internal pano with a native size, after cropping, of just under 500 megabytes.

One good thing was happening in the area, the old casino along the north shore area that Lee Peterson, Steve Burns, and I photographed a few years ago when it was also in ruin and decay, has been restored and is now a visitor’s center for the region.  Perhaps a new hope, this time based in more realistic expectations is rising for this area.

I stopped to see it but the sun was just setting over the hills and right into the camera lens from a position I wanted to shoot.  It was great to experience the moment, but there was no photograph for me.  That is a hard lesson sometimes, to realize that even though it is very cool to be there and experience the place and time, it is NOT the time for a photograph.  I took a camera and walked around trying to find a composition without the sun right in the fairly wide lens needed for the shot and none was to be found.  So I just watched and enjoyed.

In any case, the light was fading so it was time to head home.  We were far enough north that I went around the north end of the Sea and out through Borrego Springs.  I was about 45 minutes too late to get a shot of the soft, pastel light on the mountains and eroded hills along the way.

I guess I’ll just have to come back…

But not Monday since I do need to get the @#$*&!  grading done.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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