Thursday, August 23, 2007

Salt Dreams: Reflections from the Downstream West Tour Blueprint


The Salt Dreams exhibition consists of approximately twenty-five platinum palladium photographic prints of the Salton Sea, California’s largest (man-made) lake, and its surrounding environs, made by artist Joan Myers. Six additional prints depict other greatly-altered landscapes in Hawaii and Arizona. All of the prints contained in the exhibition are recent acquisitions for the NMA’s Altered Landscape: Carol Franc Buck Collection. The book published in coordination with the exhibition, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, written by William deBuys, and published by the University of New Mexico Press, contains both portfolios of Myers’ photographs of the Salton Sea area, as well as fine essays by deBuys. The book won the 1999 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

The exhibition lends itself to discussions of California history, themes of immigration and settlement, water issues in the west, human alteration of landscapes, and agriculture, as well as ecology, biology, and chemistry. Finally, the photographs present a wonderful opportunity to discuss the processes and methods of photography, particularly of the platinum palladium variety.

The exhibition of Salt Dreams was originally organized by the California Council for the Humanities in conjunction with the Museum of History and Art, Ontario, California.
This exhibition is presented here as part of the NMA Art + Environment exhibition series, an initiative that brings community, artists, and scholars together to explore the interaction between people and their environments.

Joan Myers, “Salton Sea Telephone Poles” n.d. Platinum palladium print with watercolor. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art.

Artist’s Statement
Forty miles southeast of Palm Springs, California, lies a great saltwater lake called the Salton Sea. Heavily polluted yet home to a large population of fish and birds, the lake has attracted get-rich developers, gullible buyers, and aimless retirees for nearly a century.

The Salton Sea was an accident. In 1905 the Colorado River burst a poorly made irrigation heading and for two years flowed unimpeded into a giant prehistoric lakebed called the Salton Sink. The water formed a spectacular lake in the arid southwest desert.

For the last fifteen years, I have photographed what has happened to the Salton Sea. In the years since the landlocked sea was formed, irrigation run-off from the Imperial Valley and industrial waste from Mexico have slowly raised salinity, pesticide and toxic mineral levels of the water. Poor water quality now endangers the teeming fish as well as the fishermen and birds that eat them.

Environmental abuse has been matched by the avarice of real estate speculators. Over the years developers built subdivisions on the shores of the Salton Sea. They planted palm trees along wide curving avenues named Marina Drive, Dolphin, and Acapulco. Yet I found that few homes were built on the thousands of developed lots. I marveled at a once elegant yacht club, motel, and golf course that today lie abandoned. I photographed the weeds growing up through the cracks in the wide roads.

Today great flocks of pelicans fly over what has become a fetid sump. Desiccated fish line the sandy beaches. The lake lies fallow, a pastel shimmer in the harsh Colorado Desert, a symbol of dead dreams and the beauty of a landscape man has uncaringly exploited.

Platinum Palladium Photography
Photographs made using platinum and platinum palladium printing processes are among the most sought-after photographs because of their relative value, their increased archival longevity over silver gelatin prints, and because of their much higher tonal range. Writer and photographer William Laven explains them this way: “The qualities of a Pt/Pd [platinum/palladium] print have long been heralded by photographers, curators, critics and collectors; it has a long, rich and delicate tonal scale and unmatched archival quality. What might be a monochromatic black on a silver print, for example, will be rendered as a series of subtly differentiated tones in a Pt/Pd print. Similarly, middle and highlight tones are more delicately defined. Since the prints are hand-coated onto rag paper, the image actually sits in the fiber of the paper so the texture and weave of the paper become integral to the image compared to silver prints where the emulsion layer sits on top of, rather than in, the paper surface. Pt/Pd prints therefore, have a tactile quality unique to hand-coated non-silver materials. The long scale and tactility of a Pt/Pd print are what cause many people to describe them as ‘precious’ or ‘jewel-like.’” (From an essay in View Camera magazine, July/August 1998, Vol. 11, No. 4.)

Platinum and platinum palladium prints require ultraviolet light to be printed; therefore, they require considerably more exposure time than other silver salt-based printing processes. However, unlike gelatin silver prints, platinum and platinum palladium prints do not need to be “fixed” with chemical stops.

Joan Myers, “Salton Sea Birds” 1987. Platinum palladium print with watercolor. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art.

Tour Framework

  • Explain that the works in the exhibition were created by an artist named Joan Myers, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

  • Explain that Joan Myers was born in 1944 in Des Moines, Iowa, and had an early interest in the sciences and mathematics. In the early 1970's she turned to photography. Today she utilizes various digital methods, as well as the platinum-palladium photographic process and continues her exploration of hand-applied color. She uses medium- and large-format view cameras.

  • Ask guests why they think there might be a large, increasingly salty lake in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Why might it be of interest as a subject to Myers?

  • Explain that today the Salton Sea is located in Imperial County, in the lower Colorado Desert Province of California. It is not actually a “sea,” but a human-made lake filling up the Salton Sink or Salton Trough, the dominant geologic feature in this area of California. However, in ancient times, there was a naturally occurring occasional lake in this area called “Lake Cahuilla,” named for one of the primary groups of people indigenous to this area of California.

  • People in our area will understand the similarity of the Salton Sink to the Carson and Humboldt Sinks, so making the connection for them may be helpful.

  • Explain that the photographs in this exhibition are platinum palladium prints. This means that the prints are made with an iron salt “emulsion” that contains platinum and palladium, as well as hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals, which is painted or rolled onto a piece of paper and allowed to dry. The photographer then projects an ultraviolet light through a negative onto the paper, and the light reacts with the iron salts, platinum, and palladium, causing the platinum and palladium to build up to varying degrees in the image. In this case, Myers then hand colored the prints with subtle watercolor washes.

  • Explain that artists and collectors value platinum palladium prints for their non-reflective surface; their very delicate and large tonal range; their tendency to resist curling; and their archival stability, due to their frequently being printed on 100% rag papers.

  • Stop at the photograph entitled Horse Intaglio (Altered Landscape Gallery). Ask guests what they see in the photograph. What do they see first? What do they think the artist has done to make that element stand out? Ask guests if they know what the word intaglio means. Explain that intaglios are ancient pieces of land art created by indigenous peoples—they are images incised into the surface of rocks or the ground.

  • Explain that the geographical area depicted in the photographs is the ancestral homeland of the indigenous peoples sharing the Yuma languages, including the Cahuilla, Quechan, and Cucupa bands of American Indians. These peoples were variously dependent upon desert springs, the Colorado River and its delta, and its related plant and animal communities for survival. Explain that these peoples frequently created large-scale intaglios incised into the surface of the earth.

  • Stop at the photograph called Torres-Martinez Reservation. Explain that the 1905 flood that created the Salton Sea inundated half of the lands belonging to the native peoples resident in the region. This after the lands allotted to them in treaties from the 1870s gave the Indian people small pieces of non-contiguous land.
  • Ask guests whether they think the photo of Torres-Martinez Reservation depicts an “American Dream,” or whether it offers a commentary on the notion of the “American Dream.”

  • Explain that Spanish explorers began passing through the Salton Sea area in the 1500s, and in 1540 Hernan de Alarcón, part of Coronado’s land expedition through the southwest, traveled up the Colorado River. Melchior Díaz, also part of the expedition, probably ventured as far as what is now called the Imperial Valley. The area’s extreme aridity and lack of gold meant that the region remained relatively untouched for three more centuries.

  • Ask guests what major historical event they know began in 1848-49 in California.

  • Explain that following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California, in 1848, tens of thousands of migrants moved west across the U.S., and north from Latin America, hoping to strike it rich. Approximately 10,000 would-be gold miners crossed the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sink depicted in these photographs.

  • Explain that U.S. Army explorers returned to the region in the 1850s under the auspices of exploring the possibility of a railroad in the Pacific Railroad Exploring Expedition of 1853. Expedition geologist William Phipps Blake noted that the Imperial Valley, though arid, could be successfully irrigated to support agriculture.

  • Stop at the photograph called Date Palm in the Altered Landscape Gallery. Explain that between 1869 and 1891, Major John Wesley Powell also saw the potential for agriculture in the Imperial Valley, calling it the “Egypt of America,” as it was “the land of the date palm.” As such, a connection was drawn between the fertile richness of the Nile River and its agricultural bounty and the arid Imperial Valley, if irrigation were realized. Ask guests if they can see texture in the photograph. Explain the difference between “real” and “implied” texture. Ask how the date palm in the photograph looks like it would feel if they could touch the plant. If guests could touch the photo, would it have the texture of the date palm?

  • Explain that, realizing the potential for agriculture, the California Development Company (CDC) and its subsidiary, the Imperial Land Company (which is how the county got its name when it was incorporated in 1907), began to develop a vast system of irrigation canals to bring the waters of the Colorado River to the desert floor.

  • Stop at the photograph called Imperial Valley Canal in the Altered Landscape Gallery. Explain that the CDC built the Imperial Canal and over 700 miles of waterways to bring the Colorado River’s water to the desert floor of the Imperial Valley. By 1902, some 100,000 acres of land were in cultivation. A good image depicting the cultivated lands is Imperial Valley Field, Spinach, immediately adjacent to Imperial Valley Canal. Ask guests if they see a pattern in the photograph. Where? How does the way the artist composed the image move your eye around the image?

  • Explain that a spring flood in 1905 burst through the CDC’s irrigation headings in the canal system, flooding the valley floor. Eventually, nearly all of the Colorado River’s water was flowing through the canals, and emptying in the valley floor, forming what is now the Salton Sea depicted in the photographs. The flow of the river’s water into the Salton Sink was not stemmed for two years.

  • Explain that after the Southern Pacific Railroad built flood control gates (1907) on the river and canal system to protect its railways, less water entered the Sea, and, combined with evaporation, the depth of the lake shrank from 80 feet to closer to 30 feet by 1930. Eventually engineers diverted more Colorado River water to maintain the depth of the lake at about 30 feet.

  • Stop at almost any of the photographs depicting evidence of development, including Salton City Golf Course (Bridge) (Altered Landscape Gallery), Salton City Golf Course (Palms) (Installation Gallery), or any of the photographs of the Salton Bay Yacht Club. Explain that in the late 1950s land speculators, real estate developers, and others believed that the Salton Sea could be transformed into an inexpensive version of the resort community of Palm Springs, located 40 miles to the north northwest. Can guests see subtle colors in the golf course photographs? Where? What effect does the coloring of the photographs have on them? Do the subtle watercolor washes convey the colors of the desert around the Salton Sea?

  • Explain that this version of the “American Dream” was never truly realized because of the lack of industry, inadequate infrastructure, the extreme heat, and the water’s foul smell due to its stagnation, increased salinity and eutrophication, and resulting die-off of fish and birds.

  • Explain that as a result of decreased flows of Colorado River and canal waters, as well as increased flows of New River and Alamo River waters, which contain a great deal more salt and nutrients from agricultural runoff, the salinity of the lake’s waters is increasing at an alarming rate. In addition, the nutrients from the agricultural runoff cause algal blooms in the water, which reduces the oxygen content of the water, and results in fish and bird die offs.
  • Ask guests if they can find evidence in the photographs of the fact that the Salton Sea is today of major ecological significance to coastal California.
  • Explain that as a result of development in southern California in the twentieth century, the varied landscapes there that once supported diverse wildlife populations no longer do. The Salton Sea thus became a human-made refuge for wildlife, particularly migratory waterfowl. Today the Salton Sea is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating water birds. However, the increasing salinity and eutrophication of the Sea’s waters is endangering the health of the birds and fish, resulting at times in the die off of large numbers of the animals. What kinds of textures do the photographs of the dead fish and birds contain?
  • Explain that today, were the water level of the Salton Sea not to be maintained, there would be toxic levels of salt and other chemicals built up in the sediments of the lake, that, were they to dry, could cause health concerns downstream and downwind of the Salton Sea. (This is similar to the problems at Owens Lake documented in David Maisel’s Lake Project photographs).
  • Explain that arguments erupt from all points of view about how best to manage the Salton Sea. Today the water level is maintained at a specific level, but even so, runoff is causing increasing salinity and eutrophication. These photographs ask, in effect: Why is the American Dream so pervasive? Why do people try to alter the landscape, first to irrigate the desert for agricultural purposes, then to turn an “accident” into a (failed) “resort community”? What can be done about the increasing salinity and eutrophication of the water? What is the best, most cost effective, or otherwise pragmatic solution?
Our guests, particularly school groups, choose to visit the museum to give students a special opportunity, to enrich their learning experiences, and to have fun. The information and the tour framework suggestions contained in this blueprint are avenues into the Salt Dreams: Reflections from the Downstream West exhibition. The blueprint is designed to provide ideas for engaging guests of all ages in exploring the artistry of Joan Myers photographs, as well as ideas for helping student visitors engage in thinking about the photographs through frameworks of history, social studies, biology, ecology, and geology.

Joan Myers, “Salton Sea Small Building” 1987. Platinum palladium print with watercolor. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art.