During a road trip through the States, Italian photographer Stella Asia Consonni stumbled across an intriguing landscape. Driving through the West Coast desert, she discovered the Salton Sea, once a thriving town that was created as a result of canal bursting its banks in the 50s and re-filling an old lake bed. The land fell victim to the pesticides that made their way from the crop fields twenty years later, destroying the environment and forcing most of its residents to leave. Stella travelled through the deserted ghost town, and the photographs she took became part of her beautiful photo series ‘Nothing Behind Everything Ahead’, of which you can see below. The pictures show both the destruction of man and the resilience of nature, fighting back against decay. Here she talks about the experience and explains more about the intriguing wilderness.
Tell us about where your photo series ‘Nothing Behind, Everything Ahead’ was set?
“The series was set in the West Coast desert, between Bombay Beach in the Salton Sea, Slab City and the Salvation Mountain, last spring. Bombay Beach was a thriving holiday destination in the 50’s and 60’s overlooking a man-made lake, the Salton Sea. By late 70’s the ecosystem was quickly deteriorating: pesticides, no drainage and zero rainfall caused high water pollution which killed all the wildlife that found home around this man-made sea. Nowadays it looks like a large lake with frothy grey water, abandoned trailers, few inhabited houses, a semi-abandoned wasteland.
Slab City is an unusual place, an off the grid self-sufficient community armed with solar panels and water tanks. Some have pretty cacti gardens and turned their porches into art installations; others have keep-out signs and guns. The Salvation Mountain is a colourful, physics-defying, 50 ft high and 150 ft wide hill made of clay and donated paint, a tribute to God. A guy called Leonard Knight claimed that God itself appeared to him asking to create the ‘outsider art masterpiece’ to spread the message written across the hill: ‘God is love’.”
Why were you drawn to this particular place?
“I travelled there with my boyfriend, my partner in crime. During our previous travel, a road trip from LA to San Francisco the year before, we briefly drove through the desert to reach Palm Springs and Vegas. I fell in love with the magnetic stillness of the scorching air, the never ending empty road ahead and even the taste of dust in my mouth… So we decided that our next adventure would have been the desert.”
What was the most striking thing about the location upon arriving? What did you discover as time went on?
“When we arrived at the Salton Sea the first thing that I noticed was the unreal silence, contrasting with the blasting punk music in our car. I felt like muting the speakers, out of respect of the weird death feel in the air. The pollution that was around us in the air stung my eyes. The sea and the sky seemed tinted of an unnatural shade of pink, and between them, there was a thick grey haze similar to what you can see when looking at London from far away. Few birds were hanging around, they all looked pretty battered but I thought it was a good sign, nature was slowly recovering from the high pollution.
I kept noticing that my feet were getting covered in a weird yellow and white sand. Then I remembered a book I read few years before – it wasn’t sand, it was crushed fish bones. I was walking on powdered skeletons of the fish that died when the artificial-made lake became polluted years ago.”
How long did you stay and what was your experience of the whole journey?
“I stayed out there for two weeks. The experience was rather alienating. I was extremely fascinated by the community which carried on living normal lives in such a bizarre setting. Their attachment to such an arid, brutal and polluted land was somehow touching, whether it was a conscious choice to live off the grid, like the inhabitants of Slab City, or loyalty to their roots. At first, I felt like it would take an enormous amount of guts to live out there, hours away from the first town or hospital, next to vandalised and derelict trailers, abandoned cars, thickly polluted air and scorching sun. Then I grew an unconscious attraction to the intoxicating beauty of the landscape and it all made sense. The paradoxical dystopian freedom of this lawless land is the fascinating part, where people can live off the grid but are almost slaves to a bitter nature, poisoned by the human race, searching for redemption.”
Most of the photographs show some form of life used to be present. Why did the people abandon their lives here?
“The first time the place got abandoned was when the man-made sea got polluted. Some people decided to stay and build their life there. Since then it has always been a land that has existed between abandoned and inhabited.”
There’s both a sense of life and death in these images – the overgrown shrubbery and the dead fish, the reminder of human life existing alongside the overgrown weeds. What was your main motive for taking these photos?
“The place itself seems to be a limbo between life and death. It’s not quite dead as there are a few people that still live out there and some animals – birds, snakes, a few stray dogs and tonnes of flies that feast on the dry fish carcases and decomposing birds. But it’s not quite alive neither; the air itself, thick with pollution and heat, is a constant reminder of the destruction humans are capable of.”
Do you see this place as a place of the living or of the dead, or both?
“Definitely both. A unique example of active coexistence of the two.”
You’re planning a new trip to Texas, what will you hope to capture there? How do you think it will differ?
“Over the course of 3 weeks, I am gonna be travelling by car from Austin again out in (another) desert to the town of Marfa and then heading east to New Orleans and through the Southern States, ending in Miami. I don’t have a precise plan; I prefer to let the land inspire me. Few things I am especially looking forward; vibrant Austin, the Texan desert with its starry nights, shoot portraits of rodeo boys, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Southern States swamps and giant plates of food!”