San Diego Union-Tribune reviews Greetings from the Salton Sea

25 Sep San Diego Union-Tribune reviews Greetings from the Salton Sea

Wake-up call
‘Greetings From the Salton Sea’ is a strong cry to rescue a unique area

Reviewed by Ann Jarmusch
September 25, 2005

With a cover photograph drenched in radioactive colors and irony, this book rests in the hands like a live grenade. Did we pull the pin? How long do we have?

The endangered status and twisted evolution of the desert-locked Salton Sea, itself a freak of nature, is so bizarre it begs for interpretation by an artist and educator such as San Diego State University assistant professor Kim Stringfellow. Her brief text and portfolio of color photographs, which she shot between 1998 and 2004, make an urgent but measured plea for the restoration of this unique ecosystem about 120 miles east of San Diego.

Stringfellow lets the tragic saga of Salton Sea speak for itself in brief chapters that unfold with a novelist’s flair and a scientist’s precision. This salty sea (actually a lake, doomed for lack of a drainage outlet for its saline hot springs) didn’t exist as we know it until 100 years ago, when El Niño flooding besotted the region and the Colorado River, which had been temporarily diverted, broke through an irrigation canal.

A parade of colorful entrepreneurs, railroad men, resort developers, fun-seekers and desert rats followed, each imposing a self-serving agenda on the area. Tourists and celebrities from Frank Sinatra to the Marx Brothers flocked to Salton City, a planned community with two yacht clubs.

The already fragile environmental balance has collapsed several times since the late 1980s. Sudden massive bird and fish deaths made headlines as scientists rushed to the poisonous scene. The stench carried all the way to Palm Springs.

A frank writer sounding a screeching alarm, Stringfellow seems hopeful about a major restoration proposal now under federal and state review. She also uses her camera to present eye-and soul-searing evidence of the raging environmental devastation: rotting fish and a snow-white bird carcass; skeletal trees; abandoned motel stairs to nowhere; the detritus of military bombing practice.

She softens what could have been more shocking documentary photography by bathing sad and surreal landscapes in the golden light and saturated colors of day’s end or its dawn. But nothing, absolutely nothing, is rosy here.

Surely it pained Stringfellow, who also designed the book, to present her photographs in a small format with seams down the middle of nearly every image. Like her subject, which is but one of the countless environmental time bombs we face worldwide, Stingfellow’s photographs deserve a larger venue.

Ann Jarmusch is the Union-Tribune architecture critic.