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Story Behind the Photo: Salton Sea

December 16, 2009


Leica M6, 35mm, Tmax 3200 + fog

“Is that someone in the lake?” I asked myself.

“No, it can’t be” I mumbled as I shifted my eyes back to the road.

“I’ve been out here a dozen times and I’ve never seen anyone actually in the water.”

My eyes shifted from the road to the water down below. It was summer and the light was harsh, hot and dusty. It’s always like this but summer brings its own version of harsh.

Down below the light bounced off sand, dirt and the surface of the lake which was dead, flat glass. You could smell it even from the road. Tree stumps, burned out and looking dead poked from the surface like post apocalyptic matchsticks snapped in half.

And then one of them moved.

I glanced back at the road, then quickly back at the lake. Two stumps were moving, and were leaving small v-shaped wakes in their path. Somebody was IN the lake.

I quickly surveyed my location. There was a lot of steep distance between myself and these two figures but I knew I HAD to get down there. Every possible scenario ran through my mind, including, “I’m gonna blow this if I don’t get down there right frickin now.”

If I pulled the car over and ran I’d never make it. Too far. Too steep. And the figures, whoever they were, would probably freak out seeing this crazed man running downhill directly at them. I didn’t see any vehicle near them which made me wonder just how they got where they were.

I punched the accelerator to the floor, and the tiny hybrid engine whined and moaned as the complicated little motor did what it could to get me where I needed to go.

I only had one camera and lens with me, Leica and 35mm. I kept my eyes on the road, but my right hand reached over to find the body, which I knew was loaded, but I wanted to make sure I had at least four or five frames left. And then I saw the road.

Just ahead, a small paved road off to my left, heading down towards the waterline. My eyes kept darting from the road to the figures, road to the figures. They were on the move and were heading to the shore. I had maybe a minute at best.

The road led into an abandoned park of some kind, leftover parking spaces, dead trees and emptiness. I swerved and weaved around rocks, palm fronds and glass as I finally reached lake level. Camera in hand, unbuckling my seat belt. My heart was pounding.

It wasn’t like this was a grand moment of moments in the scheme of life, but it was for me because my brain had already assigned a “high priority target” to this image and there was nothing in the world I wanted more at that very moment.

I flew down the beach, still in my car, as I could now see two figures wading in the lake, one wearing a conical, Vietnamese style hat. Even better.

I angled my car toward the pair and jumped out, camera to my eye as they waded directly at me. It was dead calm. I could hear them talking.

I just shot, two frames, three, four, five and I knew I had it. I began talking to them, but never took the camera down. “I can’t believe your in the lake,” I said. “I’ve never seen anyone in the lake.”

If you have never been to the Salton Sea, all I can say is, it’s not a normal lake. The water is thick, dark brown, sometimes red and can smell like you can’t believe. It’s not exactly inviting.

“I used to come here as a kid, and we would do the same thing,” one of the men said. “And there were so many fish you could feel them swish around your legs.”

Those days are gone, as the salinity level of the sea rises and massive fish die offs occur. It was rumored a few years ago, during August, the hottest month, seven million fish died in a single month.

As the men drew near I walked closer to the water, the land crunching beneath my feet. Looking down I realized the beach I was on was made entirely of bone, fish bone, decomposing.

We talked for a few minutes, I thanked them for allowing me to photograph and then it was back in the car. The light was slowly getting better, and I knew there might be another photo or two, but I knew I wasn’t going to get anything better than these two guys in the water. Not unless an alien landed the road.

The sea area is photographed a lot, but the bulk of the images are void of people. There are many odd landscape features, abandoned buses, buildings, etc, but I’m always saddled with the issue that I’m a people photographer. Those other items only do it for me when I’ve got people in the image. Not sure why, that’s just the way it is for me. I think adding people increases the photo-difficulty exponentially, in fact I know it does, so for me I have to hunt a little harder. There are places at the Salton Sea loaded with people, a beach town and another place called Slab City, but unless you have the time to spend with people you have no business going there. I’d been to these places before, spent time, talked with people, explained who I was, what I was doing and made a few images, but this day I was hunting something else. I wasn’t sure what it was at the time, until I saw the figures.

I worked my way around the north side of the lake and then eventually headed for home. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I shot two rolls of film that day. When I told another photographer, younger photographer, this fact they just sat there looking at me. “What do you mean you mean you only shot two rolls?”

“Two rolls, so what?”
I asked. Think about it, 72 frames can potentially mean 72 different images. In this case, I’d burned four or five on the figures, so okay, I’m down to high 60’s in terms of potentially different pictures.

This isn’t the modern way. The modern photographer might shoot 72 pictures before leaving the car, and in a day like this might shoot several thousand images. I guess that’s just another method, style, philosophy. That’s just not how I work. I’m looking for moments, real ones, that only exist for a brief time and then disappear forever, and they are few and far between.

I’d been to the Salton Sea a dozen times before and had probably made a few hundred images.

The lab I used was in Los Angeles, and at the time I made this image I’d used them forever. But a friend in Orange County said, “Hey, you should try this local lab.”

I did, and it almost cost me the entire enchilada.

The next day I drove to this local lab, one that still processed film by hand, which I really love because you can really fine tune your process, as well as use many different chemicals. Film, chemistry, temperature, etc, are like a painter choosing colors. You have an almost infinite number of looks.

I gave my film to the lab and was told to come back the following day.

When I walked back in I knew something was wrong. The same guy who had taken my film the previous day was there behind the counter, but he didn’t look happy. I walked to the counter, he looked at the ground.

“I had a little accident,” he said.

“Really, what happened?” I asked.

“Well, I was processing your film, forgot I had my cell phone on my hip and right in the middle of the development, my phone went off,”
he admitted. “I fogged your film.”

For a second I was deflated, but the ONLY thing I could think of were those figures in the water. How rare that had been, and yes, how bummed I was that it was gone forever. But, a part of me laughed inside, thinking, “Okay, this is the way it is gonna be, just means I’m supposed to go back to the sea because something better is waiting for me.”

I could see how crushed he was. I felt bad for him, and frankly I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I had never, in all the years of shooting, ever had film ruined at a lab. I’d ruined my own film, I’d had digital cameras corrupt, drives fail, cards fail, etc, It was just part of the job.

“Did you save anything?” I asked.

He reached behind the counter, handed me an envelope and I pulled the fogged negatives into the light. And there it was.

The film was BLACK right down the center of the contact sheet, totally black. But at the edge of the negatives, two figures were staring back at me. There they were. And the smell of the sea came racing back.

The fog crept right to the edge of the frame, probably a little over, but the sea of grain, shadow and form was still there. My figures were still there, burned into the grains of silver.

I’ve been to the sea many times since then, but this is still my favorite image, and I’ve never found anyone else in the lake. I’ll keep going back, adding to my work, but a small part of me feels content about this place.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wissinger permalink
    December 17, 2009 3:15 am

    That’s a good image, Dan. One that you can look at for a long time and go a lot of different places while looking at it. Darn ggod thing it wasn’t ruined.

    You should consider getting your own reality show…that story had me on the edge of my seat! Maybe it’s a slow day but I really enjoyed reading it!

    • December 17, 2009 3:52 am

      Thanks David. I’m going to make a good print of this image, finally. I love that area of CA. And I love grain. Reality show for me, might be the end of me.

  2. December 17, 2009 5:42 pm

    Transcendental. Conjoined. A happening.

    • December 17, 2009 6:35 pm

      Is that good or bad? It’s just a photo of two guys in a lake.

  3. David Wissinger permalink
    December 17, 2009 7:23 pm

    Grain: I just got back my first roll of 3200 B+W film. As some recommended, I shot it at 1600. Some of the images have an odd washed out look to them. Not appealing at all. Others have annoying graininess. A few I like. This photo from the Salton Sea absolutely revels in grain, and it works.

    It’s interesting that the current trend is to eliminate grain as much as possible. I kind of like it though, like you. Seems a part of photography to me. Crystal clear images are cool too, but this one would not have all of its power without the grain.

    • December 17, 2009 7:36 pm

      TMZ is a film you really have to experiment with to you how to best use it. The rating will change, as will the development. You can shoot it at 800, pull the process and have a nice tight grain, or push it, like this image, and have it explode with grain. Personally, I love grain, and much of my best work was, and still is, done with this film. Why do you think, fifteen years into the digital game, that companies are STILL writing actions to simulate film grain? Kodak was the first to do it, and I still hear digital folks saying there is no reason to ever use analog ways again, all the while they are applying film actions to their digital files. Enjoy the grain, it also gives you depth.

  4. December 18, 2009 8:49 am

    Dan, I had a similar issue! While I was downloading images from my card my cell phone went off! I was afraid I would fog the images but alas, they looked just as I expected. I guess I’ll have to find some fog of my own… 🙂

    Love the image! Love the blog! When are you going to be around my neck of the woods so I can buy you a beer?

    • December 18, 2009 10:20 pm

      Oh man, you’re in the frozen north. Not sure when I’m visiting those parts. You should come to where the earth is warm.

  5. December 29, 2009 8:37 am

    Wow. Great story, and I find the end photo to be spectacular.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about photography, “If you work hard, you’ll get lucky.”

    This story is the ultimate example of that in my book – the combination of instinct, technique and a stroke of luck! I love it!

    • December 29, 2009 6:53 pm

      Thanks Jennifer,

      I’m planning another trip out there in the coming weeks. This time for a little stock perhaps, but I’ll have the Leica too, snooping for whatever I can find. Thanks for reading.

  6. January 4, 2010 6:34 am

    I’ve been to the Salton Sea numerous times and have never seen anyone in it. What a story. And of course what a great image!

    Jon Ball

    • January 4, 2010 5:46 pm

      Hey Jon,

      It was quite a surprise, I have to say. I’ve seen images of people in the lake, from the 1970’s, but I personally had never seen anyone in until this moment. I’ll be out there again in the coming months, fingers crossed, perhaps I’ll be surprised again. Thanks for reading!

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