Exhibit tells stories of the Salton Sea

by Aimee Sung | 3/31/14 4:12pm

A glance through the glass walls of the Hopkins Center’s Strauss Gallery reveals vibrant and intriguing photographs hanging on its whitewashed walls — the works of senior studio art lecturer and renowned photographer Virginia Beahan.

“Elegy for an Ancient Sea,” the collection showcased in the gallery, tells the stories of the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, located in Southern California.

Beahan uses a Deardorff camera for large format photography, which captures greater details than other types of photography and makes larger prints from the negatives.

“I like the way it links me to the entire history of photography because the first cameras were very much like this,” Beahan said. “I see myself as a part of a long tradition of landscape photography.”

The collection begins with an interior shot of artist Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, an installation on the landscape of the Southern California desert, east of the Salton Sea. Made of adobe clay and paint, the work celebrates the beauty of nature and expresses Knight’s religious devotion.

Beahan said Salvation Mountain was one of the reasons she returned to the Imperial Valley. She had seen the area in the 1990s, after the Salton Sea had flooded nearby communities, and decided to begin “Elegy” after returning in 2012.

“I always like to revisit places and see what has changed,” Beahan said.

The 10-year span showed the Salton Sea receding, she said, an issue whose environmental, social and political facets she wanted to explore.

“I guess I always liked that idea of literature,” Beahan said. “I don’t want to just tell a single story, so I’m attracted to landscapes that tell many stories.”

The Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, was born in 1905 in what Beahan called an “accident of irrigation.” The Colorado River’s waters, which had been diverted to irrigate the dry desert lands, flooded after snowmelt and heavy rainfall. The area slowly became a tourist attraction in the 1950s, but declined into deserted land as a result of flooding and agricultural runoff.

“It is emblematic of some of the worst outcomes of human intervention,” Beahan said.

Today, communities once again encircle the Salton Sea. At the entrance of Salvation Mountain is Slab City, an abandoned former military base. The only occupants of the base, Beacon said, are concrete slabs left over from army barracks and people who live there for free without electricity or running water.

The Imperial Valley serves as a refuge for people from all walks of life, Beahan said. Its inhabitants, she said, include people who have lost their homes to foreclosure, those taking refuge for the winter and outsiders having trouble living as a part of society.

In her work, Beahan seeks to explore the relationship between people and the environment. She is intrigued by the concept of the “sublime,” a paradoxical state in which something can be simultaneously terrible and beautiful, she said.

“The Salton Sea is simply one lens through which we may learn more about our motives, our aspirations and our ultimate nature,” Beahan said.

Studio art professor Brian Miller, a colleague of Beahan’s, learned of her works as a student.

“[Beahan] is a tenacious artist,” Miller said. “She is completely dedicated to what she does as an artist.”

Miller also called Beahan an “incredible colorist,” someone who understands how light affects the presentation of subject matter.

Noah Smith ’15, one of Beahan’s students, said that Beahan “has the ability to pull color out of things that don’t have that color.”

Beahan said she has always been fascinated with light. She prefers photographing late in the day to capture the “rose-gold color of late daylight.”

“[The light] carries a sense of forgiveness and speaks about time,” Beahan said.

Beyond the visual aspect of photography, Beahan has considered words to significantly enhance her photographs’ meaning. Audrey Sherman ’14, another student of Beahan’s, said that Beahan stressed “the importance of writing and words,” often introducing her students to complementary passages and quotes.

“I’m interested in reading the landscape,” Beahan said. “The first thing I do, as someone new to a place, is try to understand what it is that I’m seeing. That’s why I use captions to elaborate on things that may not readily be known at first glance.”

Beahan said that “Elegy” remains in progress, calling it “just a preview” of her recent work. Her last project, a photography collection focusing on Cuban history, took almost 10 years to complete. Although Beahan said she does not expect this project to take as long, she has yet to finish telling all of the stories of the Salton Sea.