Understanding the Salton Sea

Understanding the Salton Sea

Photographer Shares Tale of Unusual Place

(Crystal A. Proxmire, 2/16/2011)

Windsor-based photographer Sandi Wheaton spent a cold snowy Saturday night here in Ferndale explaining to guests at State of the Art how her visits to the Salton Sea in California have touched her life and affected her work.

Wheaton came to Ferndale two years ago as part of the 2009 Gallery Walk (http://oaklandcounty115.com/2009/09/01/gallery-walk-super-coverage).  At that time she was showing her Route 66 Exhibit, a collection of black and white prints that were mainly landscapes.

The Salton Sea, an ecologically troubled and culturally abandoned region in Southern California inspired Wheaton to work in color.  From rust-red water, to orange and purple sunsets over murky gray-muck beaches crusted with white salt crystals, to the subtle brown and silver tones of rotting fish carcasses, her work reflects the beauty and tragedy of a place that humanity has forgotten.

The down-to-earth photographer talked for over an hour about the sea and her work there, then presented a screening of the documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a light-hearted yet informative documentary directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters.  Between Wheaton’s travel accounts and the film, attendees came away with an understanding of a unique place they would not likely have ever known about otherwise.

The Salton Sea is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, in the middle of the desert in California.  It was made accidently in the early 1900s when man’s attempts to control the Colorado River had unforeseen results.  In this case the area flooded and water settled in the basin.  It continued to be fed by run off from farms.

In the 1950s the area was discovered by investors, who sought to turn it into a happening resort town.  They built up marinas, yacht clubs, beaches and subdivisions and it became a popular weekend destination and retirement community.

But then in the 1970s run off from surrounding farms increased and there were several large storms, flooding out the valley and destroying much of the property. When it became clear that the area would never make a sustainable resort community due to the unpredictable water levels, the Salton Sea was nearly abandoned.  Surrounding the giant lake are only about 20,000 people, mainly the poorest who could not afford to move elsewhere and the stubborn who shun the urban alternative.  Many are simply old people who remember the good old days, and are staying put until they die.

There are also environmental workers who handle the devastating mass fish and bird kills that come about each year as the salty water heats up in the desert sun and millions of fish suffocate and die.  As they rot the stench fills the air, and birds flock to the Salton Sea eat the floating fish.  The fish are full of bacteria and infestations, so the birds get sick with botulism and die in droves as well.  Each year employees at the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuse and Salton Sea State Park work to clean up the fish and save as many birds as possible.

Levels of the sea are going down as more and more water has been diverted away for use in farming or to be sent to the major cities.  As the water recedes, what’s left behind is a salt-covered crust over mushy sediment that is thick with farming chemicals.  Eventually the muck dries and the powdery residue gets sucked up into giant clouds of smelly, harmful dust.

In some places the sediment has buried, or partially covered large items like telephone poles, playground equipment and homes.  These oddly exposed items seem to pop out of nowhere in what appears to be an otherwise smooth beach.  The fact that Wheaton shoots mainly in the soft morning light or the warm glows of sunsets, makes the photos look eerily beautiful and intimate especially compared with the tragic and harshly lit images that other photographers tend to use.  Wheaton’s gift to the Salton Sea is her soft touch and forgiving eye.

“In 2000 I was doing a lot of black and white pictures in Joshua Tree National Park, an hour away was the Salton Sea,” Wheaton said.  “People kept talking about it and finally in 2004 I went there for my first shoot.”

“My girlfriend was quite freaked out, and kept saying ‘this place is creepy, let’s leave.”

But Wheaton was fascinated.  She took black and white photographs that day that she simply wasn’t happy with.  Something about the water could not be captured in her treasured old-school Kodak infrared black and white film.  It was the thick red color of large puddles throughout the flooded town, due to bacteria, that needed to be immortalized.

On her subsequent trips to the area, Wheaton has met a man building a giant mountain of art to share the love of God. She has visited an abandoned Marine base called Slab City where off the grid survivalists use solar panels to run trailers with no official addresses. And also a single square mile city where there is no gas station and the residents use electric golf carts to get around.

To learn more about the Salton Sea, and to see some of her stunning photographs for yourself, please visit her website at http://sandiwheaton.com/Salton_Sea_project.htm.

Wheaton’s work was recently shown at LA’s new Annenberg Space for Photography as part of the “Water: Our Thirsty World” slideshow night.  It will also be featured in a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Windsor from March through July, 2011.

It will  be on display at State of the Art through the end of February.  State of the Art, at 918 W 9 Mile, is a custom framing shop that often has local artwork or photography on display.  Their website is www.stateoftheartonline.net.

For other art related stories, check out http://oaklandcounty115.com/category/art/.

To see these images and more, visit Wheaton’s website – http://sandiwheaton.com/Salton_Sea_project.htm.

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