Ashort 30 minute drive south from the luscious luxury resort of Palm Springs, lies the Salton Sea. An immense 35 x 15 mile stretch of landlocked water, created at the turn of the 20th century when the Colorado River overflowed, filling a basin in the searingly hot Californian desert. In the 1950s fish were introduced, and by the 60s, local businesses, tourists, yacht clubs and celebrities created a vibrant scene around this accidental sea.
Between the 70s and the 90s however, after unpredictable flooding, followed by increased evaporation, it began to concentrate into a salty soup, with botulism killing thousands of fish each year, and people leaving the hot stench in droves.
Much of what remains today of ‘the miracle in the desert’ resembles a science fiction landscape or a dystopian film set, with only a few isolated communities left. Many photographers and filmmakers have since flocked to this desolate, forgotten place to capture its staggering transformation.
Photographer Alex Telfer visited Salton Sea last year whilst on a break from an assignment in LA. “There’s a lure to places like Detroit and Salton Sea for imagemakers,” Telfer says. “They’re not that old, so people can still relate to them. And their demise has happened pretty rapidly which makes them particularly resonant.”
Whether slow picturesque decay or abrupt apocalypse, ruins have been one of art’s greatest aesthetic obsessions throughout history. These stark, beautiful, and often melancholic places simultaneously act as a memorial to past collapse, and call to mind fragile, imaginary futures. They provoke a sense of ‘ruinenlust’ – the German term describing how we are drawn to what we fear – as we seek out these ruins and linger there.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the past and things that have transformed. How you can see places, and once fantastically beautiful buildings, just decimated,” says Telfer, who being from the north east of England, witnessed the decline of steelworks in the 80s. “It’s that feeling that something’s disappearing, for good, that’s always interested me. And that need to document it before it’s gone.”
Many of his Salton Sea images depict vast dystopian landscapes of fish bone shores and desert plains, details like splintered frames of caravan trailers half sunken in baked-hard salt, and the odd glassy-eyed resident. Reminiscent of the Detroitism trend – photography that focused on the decaying city – these are relatable scenes of modern ruin that evoke the absence of human life.
Telfer discusses commissions seeking the “grittier” side of life, and he talks in awe of the power of authenticity with locations like Salton Sea. “If you were doing a post-apocalyptic film and you had to go to the lengths of building extensive sets, you couldn’t make it as authentic as what you find here,” he says.
As the internet continues to aid urban exploration, modern ruin photography is widely shared, opening debate around the displaced communities and those left behind. Some critics use the term ‘ruin porn’ to describe the type of ruin photography that’s seen as more exploitative – in terms of photographers revelling in decay and romanticising devastation, and viewers who consume images with artistic enjoyment.
Photographer Nicholas Albrecht specifically aimed to avoid this, moving away from landscape work, and, in the hope of representing the experience of living there, he became a resident, abandoning his camera for the first few months.
“My interest in the photographic medium is discovering how land and environment influence social relationships,” he says. “Does the land hold memory, and if so, does it pass it on to its inhabitants?”
He describes a “beast-like freedom” felt at Salton Sea, with many people living off the land, and disregarding the rules of conventional society. He met ‘oldtimers’ from the boom years, who love it and cling to the dream of its transformation; and ‘newcomers’ or runaways, who see it as a rent-free dump.
Many of his photos depict these residents, and part of the reason he chose not to shoot the water itself was because few even still go there. “It seems more like the Salton Sea and its decay are a cloud hovering over their lives, rather than a visual presence,” he says.
Albrecht initially encountered some resistance, for fear around where the images would end up and because so many photographers and filmmakers depict the area in a “negative light” as he sees it. Part of his creative process involved returning to show residents the finished book, to aid trust and openness, which he hoped would be reflected in the work.
“It’s necessary to find new ways to talk about these places,” he says, feeling prevalent visual language to be losing effectiveness due to overexposure. “I think it would be a pity to lose complete interest in places like these, because they are in some way very telling of where we have been and where we are going.”
Similarly to Telfer, Albrecht suggests that images of decay, like vulnerability, can show us something more authentic. “What draws me the most is that everything constructed has been abandoned, everything that has been put up as a façade has fallen apart. That possibly allows for some truthfulness – there’s something real in a dying, decaying or fragile body, or an abandoned home, a burned down house.”
Both artists have described an unusual relationship with Salton Sea: “Its an amazing place to go to. But once it’s time to leave, you are ready to get away,” Telfer says. “I imagine remnants will get less, things like the sunken caravans will eventually disappear, and it will tip over the edge in terms of visual interest.” For Albrecht it’s a more visceral connection. “Every time I go I say it will be the last. But two months go by and I ache for it again. There’s dark sentiment, I don’t feel good there, but I know I have to go back,” he says. “The photograph allows me to be there, it’s my excuse. And it’s the only medium that can speak about this intangible desire to return.”