The Salton Riviera

Familiar Territory by Christopher Landis


Traditional landscape photography tends to perpetuate a rural dream, the "myth of an idyllic world." Photographers have typically "romanticized the garden" by picturing man-less edenic views of unsullied wilderness.[1] In the mid 1970's the optimism and romantic innocence of this modernist esthetic was challenged by the New Topographic photographers. To these artists, images of pristine natural spaces were anachronistic "pin-ups" of an unreal world. Evidenced by roads, fences, refuse and suburban development, the New Topographic school portrayed a land invaded by man. Their pictures document an embattled, "man-mauled" landscape with a detached forensic clarity.

What is remarkable about these distinct traditions, is that both classic landscape photography and the New Topographic representations make the same argument. In each, the criteria for a correct natural order seems to be defined by the absence of man. One pictures the garden, a world as it should be, while the other proposes that we have "spoiled the garden,"[2] the world as it is. Both long for the same place. Behind the New Topographic images of a ravaged land and the modernist views of beautiful scenery lie an essentially romantic position that yearns for untrammeled wilderness. The nihilistic cynicism of the one school and the utopian representations of the other each argue for an equally unreal and idyllic world.

Both schools imply that human environments are degenerate incursions on an otherwise perfect world. Each esthetic excludes man from nature. This artificial separation of natural and unnatural on a basis of human marks and products is ecological schizophrenia.[3] I believe it may be more correct and perhaps ecologically sound to consider our built environments as a form or force that is not necessarily unnatural.[4]

Though it is widely held that we will find salvation or rebirth in a return to wilderness, I have always found that the home, backyard and highway are also suited to reflection, eternal or otherwise. No offense to Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Thoreau, but many of my favorite places have always been the highway margins, farmlands, paved viewpoints and towns in the middle-of-nowhere.

The West is my native home. Since childhood, it's open spaces have been familiar ground. My grade school years were spent in the high desert town of Palmdale. As a construction and test site for the new aerospace industry, in 1959, the Mojave community promised to be California's next big boom-town. Our space age future was reaffirmed daily as new cowboys, test pilots like Carl Yaeger broke the sound barrier in the sky above us.

Like many Western towns, the fortunes and opportunities that attracted settlers were often limited and temporary. In Palmdale, an itinerant work force came to build airplanes. When contracts ran out, people left as quickly as they came. While this boom-bust cycle was repeated, neighborhood homes were boarded up and left vacant only to be reoccupied by a new group months or years later. Our family planned to stay. Dad built a church; Mom a reluctant pioneer raised two boys; little brother and I found the playground par-excellance in the open lands just down the street.

Avenue Q was the boundary of civilization. Three miles of tract homes lined its west side. To the east lay a dull gray wilderness of endless sand and sage; a great place for treasure hunts, war games and fort building. My favorite desert pastime, one that still interests me, was a search for human objects, the ruins and refuse that littered the land. I was endlessly entertained by the discovery of auto parts, mattresses, appliances, furniture, abandoned shanties and house-less foundations.

Western boom-towns struggling against odds to survive, still occupy my attention. Today, I explore their desert boundaries with a more critical eye, but the allure of these fantastic haunted landscapes that bewitched me as a boy continue to animate my work. Though they are charged with new meanings I remain spellbound by these artifacts and ruins. The sites I photograph are familiar territory. Before any social, political or historic commentary, I hope that my pictures evidence my affection and respect for desert places.

Western communities and spaces like these are the subject of my pictures. Though the work draws references and inspiration from both the "straight" and New Topographic traditions, mine are vernacular landscapes depicting sites where our structures and ruins, successes and failures...our history remains a part of the Garden.

[1] Andy Grundberg, Crisis of the Real: Writings on Photography 1974-1989. (New York: Aperture, 1990), pp50-65.

[2] Mark Klett, A View of the Grand Canyon: A Homage to William Bell. ed. Chris Bruce, Myth of the West. (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), p84.

[3] Wes Jackson, "Wilderness as Saint" Aperture 28 (Summer, 1990), p 50.

[4] J. B. Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p27.


In Search Of Eldorado: The Salton Sea


Probably no other local environmental issue has received as much publicity and attention as has California's largest inland body of water, the Salton Sea. At one time heralded as "California's New Mediterranean," the Sea today is viewed by many as a sick ecosystem desperately in need of being saved.

In 1990, photographer and historian Christopher Landis began taking pictures at the Salton Sea. What has emerged is a poetic representation of the Sea and its surrounding landscape. Landis' photographs document the sublime beauty of the region. The images also reveal the damage done to past and present environments by decades of rising salinity, heavy nutrient loading, and recurring floods.

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when a mismanaged irrigation project providing water to the Imperial Valley backfired, allowing the Colorado River to flow into the dry Salton Basin for two years. In the 1950s and 1960s, land developers believed this huge body of water, turned salty by runoff agricultural water, could be a "Mecca" for tourists. But ever-increasing salinity, floods, and other environmental problems eventually deterred dreams of commercial success.

Landis notes that, "As an artist, I come to the Sea a desert native who remains spellbound by the beauty of this fantastic landscape. As a historian, I believe the Sea's story is an epic Western tale... not the colorful mythic West of cowboys and gunslingers, but a real Western saga about aridity and irrigation, real estate ventures, boom-towns, Native American land, military test sites, and recreational use. From its accidental birth until now, the Salton Sea story epitomizes the complex problems involved in the use and management of Western lands."

Photographer Christopher Landis' 44 Nash Editions digital prints tell a human history of the Salton Sea. His pictures capture a sense of the decades-old dreams at an important and sometimes forgotten Western place.