NEW YORK, NY.- The Salton Sea
by Debbie Bentley (Daylight, June 2020) documents the last days of a dying California lake located just south of Palm Springs and north of the Mexican border. The lake was accidentally created in 1905 when the Colorado River breached its levees and flooded into the Salton Sink. For almost two years, an abundance of water from the Colorado River kept pouring into the sink resulting in the creation of California's largest inland fresh-water lake. The Sea would become an oasis for migrating birds and birders and a sportfishing paradise for anglers.
In the 1950s, the Salton Sea was transformed into a popular vacation destination boldly branded "The Salton Riviera." The lake attracted millions of visitors, including Hollywood celebrities, who flocked there for its water sports, swimming, and fishing. However, by the 1970s, the Sea was receding at an alarming rate. As the sunbaked playa was exposed, desert winds kicked up the toxic dust containing remnants of fertilizers and chemicals carried into the Sea and trapped there creating a serious air-pollution problem. This hot spot getaway turned into a crumbling ghost town.
Debbie Bentley, a self-taught documentary photographer born and raised in Colorado, first travelled to the Salton Sea in the mid-2,000s to embrace the warm desert climate and investigate the area which piqued her interest. She writes in her preface to the book: "The area was an oddity, full of dilapidated houses, rotting fish, and horrible smells. Despite this, I found the lake itself beautiful, vast, and haunting ... such a dangerous beauty." She observed the realities (and failings) of state dust remediation pilot projects attempting to find solutions for the toxic dust filling the air. At the end of 2017, California mandated water transfers to the Salton Sea ended. From this point forward, the Sea would recede at an unprecedented rate, releasing ever-increasing levels of poisonous particles into the environment.
Bentley's photographs in this book present a melancholic portrait of the Salton Sea in 2018 after water inflow had officially ended. The second section of the book focuses on evidence in the landscape of remediation activities, abandoned or active. An abundance of water gave birth to the Salton Sea. Lack of water inflow will be its death. The lake that Bentley photographed so exquisitely and passionately over 18 months will never be as it was at that moment in time when the water stopped, nor will the remediation efforts woefully behind schedule to deal with the increasing dust. Simply put, Salton Sea is a man-made public health and environmental disaster waiting to happen, and little is being done to stop it.
In his introduction in the book, Mark Murrmann writes: "For a year and a half, photographer Debbie Bentley has documented what's at stake as the inflow of the Sea turns into a trickle and California's largest lake dies. Given that the Sea has been locked in a slow death-spiral, essentially since its heyday of the '50s, it's not wholly accurate to say Bentley's work captures the beginning of the end. The Sea has been dying longer than it was alive and thriving. But, with the end of the Sea fast-tracked by increased water diversion, Bentley provides crucial witness to its last days."
Today, the communities of the region are largely low income. Resident's exposure to the fine, airborne dust has caused the State's highest rate of asthma in children. Should these children also become infected by covid-19, they could be put at risk of an even more serious illness.
The Salton Sea includes an introduction by Mark Murrmann, photo editor, Mother Jones, which is an overview of what this "magnificent, mystifying place" means to different people in the region and beyond, and an essay by Debbie Bentley titled "Salton Sea: Of Dust and Water," which provides a history of the lake from its inception to the present day and the role it played in the California Water Wars which inspired the 1974 film classic Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski.
Debbie Bentley is a documentary photographer currently living and working in Vacaville, California. "My work focuses on places, and the connection places have to the internal parts of people. People who live at a place, people who die at a place, and how as artists we need to see and record this connectivity. I am a film photographer, and use cameras from the early 1900's to the early 1980's. As an artist, I often use various photo transfer techniques in mixed media projects, as well as book art project