Virginia Beahan’s haunting photographs of Southern California’s Salton Sea and its surroundings capture the lake’s layered history and precarious present in a exhibit opening July 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.
In Elegy for an Ancient Sea (up through Sept. 6), Beahan presents her explorations of the California desert, bringing a nuanced eye to the landscape’s fraught past.
Through her photographs, the Salton Sea becomes a kind of character, struggling to sustain life as its physical reality deteriorates.
The Salton Sea, 85 miles east of San Diego, stretches across the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea was created in 1905, the result of an engineering accident. When irrigation canals, dug to feed water from the Colorado River into the valley, flooded, water rushed into the historically dry lakebed. The newly formed lake experienced a tourism boom in the 1950s and ’60s, then dubbed “The Riviera of the West.”
Now fed largely by agricultural runoff and drainage systems, the lake is not only shrinking, but also rapidly increasing in levels of salinity. These continuing changes have resulted in the death of the lake’s once-great variety of fish, the decrease of the nearly 400 species of birds that use the area as a rest stop on migration paths, toxic dust storms, and a strong sulfur odor, as well as a steep decline in the local economy.
Some images feature rust-colored water, bare expanses of lakebed and fish carcasses. Others record the state of abandoned homes and dilapidated trailer parks. One group of images documents the so-called Slab City, an abandoned military zone now a self-organized, off-the-grid community known for its brightly colored sculptures and makeshift architecture.