ELEGY FOR AN ANCIENT SEA
Like a mirage floating on the desert floor, the Salton Sea’s ethereal beauty belies the trouble beneath its still, reflective surface. The sea itself is emblematic of some of the worst outcomes of human intervention, and as such, may also present opportunities for some of our most dramatic and creative solutions.
Measuring 525 square miles, the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake. Located in southern California 85 miles east of San Diego and 60 miles north of the Mexican border, it lies 226 feet below sea level, almost as deep as Death Valley. The San Andreas Fault literally runs beneath it, making it geologically unstable.
An accident of irrigation, the present incarnation of the Salton Sea was formed in 1905 after engineers created canals to channel the Colorado River toward desert areas selected to be transformed into acreage for farming. Breaching a dike after heavy rains and snowmelt, the mighty river flowed into the Salton Sink for two full years before finally being dammed.
The Salton Sea’s shoreline is punctuated with the remnants of a more glorious era: rusted hulks of hotels, dilapidated vacation homes and abandoned trailers are strewn across a landscape of desiccated mineral deposits and acres of fish carcasses--hardly the vision that drove early developers of the region. After a boom period of tourism in the 1950’s and 60’s, and disastrous flooding from agricultural runoff in the 1990's, California’s largest lake is now shrinking. Water from the Imperial Valley is being diverted to slake the thirst of San Diego, and environmentalists fear the massive lakebed will become a toxic dustbowl, the largest of its kind in the nation.
I use my 8”x10” view camera to make large format photographs that investigate the complexities of the historical, environmental, social, and political issues that collide in this surreal and remote section of the U.S. I am interested in the long view of geologic time, harsh realities of life and work in an extreme environment, and the concept of the sublime.
This work also engages the idea of reading landscape: how we enter new places and gradually learn to understand what is before us. Many clues to this endeavor are visual, but they are only the beginning of a process that raises questions about what we have done in the past and where we are heading. The Salton Sea is a unique lens through which we may discover more about our motives and our aspirations as we consider the quality of our environment and its capacity to sustain us.
// Virginia Beahan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She received a BA degree in English from the Pennsylvania State University and an MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She has taught at Harvard University, Massachusetts College of Art, Wellesley College and is currently Senior Lecturer in Photography at Dartmouth College. She is a recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the Mellon Foundation. Her photographs have been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Hood Museum. Professor Beahan has also received a Distinguished Lecturer Award from Dartmouth, as well as grants from the Leslie Foundation for the Humanities and the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.