Mark Hahn Photography

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Category: Flood

Bombay Beach, Salton Sea – Solar Culture Gallery

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Opening Saturday 27 February 2016

6-9 PM

My Photos on display:

Solar Culture Gallery is located at 31 East Toole Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85701

These photos were taken in the near ghost town of Bombay Beach on the western shores of the Salton Sea in California. While a dike was built to protect this section of the town from flooding, it is being ravaged by time and neglect just as decisively as the homes and trailers that have been devoured by the sea outside the protection of the dike.

My girlfriend and I made a quick stop here a couple weeks ago on our way to LA to pick up her artwork from the gallery where she had a solo show. Swinging past the Salton Sea was not that far out of our way and it was a nice detour into memories of going here together a few years back. It was nice to find that things hadn’t changed.

We had already been in all these trailers and small deserted houses, but very little had been touched. The same things where still sitting on the deserted tables collecting dust. The same chairs and sofas sat in silent rooms, only now perhaps splitting open a little farther at the seams.

There is something peaceful in this desolation. Even though there is an almost endless stream of tourists and gawkers driving through to experience the ruin and desperation, the few remaining locals seem to take it in stride. None even paid us any mind while we quietly entered the abandoned homes — some with tax documents tacked on the door stating the back taxes that could be paid to take ownership of these properties. One particularly intact trainer sitting on a nice lot could be had for only $7,000. It made me think.

What would it be like to tell everyone to go fuck themselves, plunk down $7,000 and just move in? I’d guess that on a quiet day, my new neighbors would come by to talk, if only out of curiosity to find out why the hell anyone would move here. Maybe they’d understand that you just get fed up with all the bullshit of life and get to a point where you don’t want to be bothered by anything. Maybe they’d be of the same mind. Maybe you’d stop smelling the dead fish and putrid algae blooms after a few weeks.

People buy lottery tickets so they can dream their way out of their current life. I have too much of an understanding of statistics to buy into those dreams, but the dream of moving to Bombay Beach is a plausible fantasy that I can briefly entertain for at least an afternoon. Sometimes anything can look good when seen in the right light.

For more information, contact Mark Hahn at markhahn2000@gmail.com.

All images and content copyrighted 2016 by Mark Hahn with all rights reserved.

Twilight Falling On the Salton Sea

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Born from a 1905 engineering accident which ended up flooding what was then a long time dry lake bed, the Salton Sea is the largest inland body of water in all of California.  As beautiful as it looks at first glance, the high salinity and accumulation of agricultural toxins, has slowly made it inhospitable to most fish and migratory birds. The salinity increases each year due to the sea being a land locked body of water with no outflow whatsoever. The sea lies more than 200 ft. below sea level. The high salinity coupled with periodic algae blooms has resulted in repeated mass fish die offs. The smell from the sea assault you from more than a mile away from its putrid shores.

Driving into Desert Shores, you are confronted with many abandoned and vandalized homes and businesses. The town was founded in the 1950’s as part of the recreational development boom around the sea. During this time, the California Department of Fish and Game actively attempted to stock the sea with game fish. Vacation properties were offered for modest prices and snapped up by nearby Southern Californians. Hollywood big-wigs – such as the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Guy Lombardo and the Beach Boys docked their boats there and frequented the growing number of posh yacht clubs springing up around the sea. The highly publicized Salton Sea 500 was a world class speed boat racing event that drew huge crowds.

Thousands of lots were sold by speculators, mainly to other speculators, but unfortunately, for those that bought into the dream, the underlying ecological instability of the sea soon became apparent. By the late 1960’s, the sea began to stink from algae blooms that were driven largely by the fertilizer runoff. This sent huge rotting mats of algae onto the beaches. In the late 1970’s, large scale flooding wiped out many seaside businesses. Bombay Beach, across from Desert Shores, was especially hard hit during the years of flooding where a dike was built to protect portions of the town while those with properties outside the dike were destined to be destroyed during the next wave of flooding. In the early 1980’s, the avian and fish populations began dying off in biblical proportions.

Other than thrill seekers driving sand-rails, dirt bikes and quads across the apocalyptic landscape while playing some form of a Mad Max fantasy game of survival, the only other tourists seem to be photographers out in search of “ruin porn.” There is very few places in the USA as devastated and inhospitable as the broken communities around the Salton Sea. Everyone can find whatever aspect of human existence they want in this landscape and these ruins. What makes the Salton Sea’s failure unique is that at its root, it was built on greed, speculation and the search for luxury and leisure. This doesn’t make the hopelessness and desperation felt by many of those who cling to their belief in the sea any less real, but it is a far cry from big business or big government taking advantage of the less fortunate – this boom was built on the human nature to get something for nothing while denying the laws of nature.

Driving into Desert Shores at sunset on a Friday night, you see small groups of children playing in front of piles of building debris. A few parents can be seen sanding away in the shadow, congregated in groups while drinking beer together. These are the hardcore remnants of those who moved here expecting to find a paradise in the desert. Even before you get out of your vehicle, the year round stench of the sea hits you. The Bible describes Hell and Satan’s lair as smelling of Sulphur (brimstone) and dead fish. This is exactly what the breeze coming off the Salton Sea smells like today. It put me into a visceral state of distress. The shores are crusty with dried alkali salt deposits covered with great depths of dead fish, tortured and severed fish heads and white bleached fish vertebrae instead of sand. Local children can be seen running along the shore seemingly unaware of the repulsiveness of the scene.

At the heart of Desert Shores stands the remains of the Marina Mobile Estates Clubhouse – now completely trashed and wide open for explorers and vandals to enter. Behind the clubhouse is a marina and harbor. An old fishing barge is scuttled along the shore of the harbor. Scattered all along the jetty are corroded and salt encrusted remains of docks and hoists. The sun was setting over this scene on our backs and I was mesmerized by the beautiful light. I quickly scrambled across the millions of dead fish parts and ignored the stench while taking these photos. Then in a matter of minutes, the light was gone and it was just bleak and disgusting and I felt the need to flee before I threw up from revulsion.

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Back by the parking lot, the Desert Shores Fire Department shows off their shiny fire truck. It even looked as if it ran. I imagined that anyone with homeowner’s insurance would hope that their home burned to the ground and wasn’t saved by the volunteer fire department. The payout would maybe be enough to grab your family and flee this godforsaken place. But after thinking about my own life and how often I wistfully thought about how freeing it would be if everything I owned was burned up, I realized that my initial elatedness is always followed by thoughts of things that I would be worried about losing. I guess when you are somewhere, there are always good things to hold onto and the people living here seem to find peace in the hopelessness and desolation.

Landscape – Kelvin AZ

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Kelvin Arizona is a small unincorporated community north-west of Kerney. You can reach it either by Arizona Highway 177 or via the (mostly dirt) Florence-Kelvin Highway. After getting totally creeped out by the prisons and oppressive law enforcement that is present in Florence, we took the Florence-Kelvin Highway just to get out of Florence and away from people. This is how we stumbled onto Kelvin. The desert along this highway is desolate and beautiful. Kelvin is built along the Gila River and a railroad line servicing the nearby mining interests. By the banks of the Gila River is a lush flood plain that is dotted with a few old homes that have been either burned or flooded out. This is where these photos were taken.

Wet Playa at Twilight

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South of Wilcox, Arizona, are extensive playa landforms (mostly dry, but intermittent lakes). When these lakes dry up, the alkali flats that are left behind form an impermeable mineral crust on the surface. Any water that falls on or flows into these areas has nowhere to go. Playa literally means simply “beach” in Spanish, but in geologic terminology it means “sink,” as in a sink full of dirty water. It lies there in a trapped puddle forming a slick layer of mud over the desert floor as it evaporates. Even the hardiest and most drought resistant desert plants have a hard time taking root on these flats and those that do are often killed during the next flood. Other than the violent storms that periodically hit the Arizona desert, the Wilcox Playa is also the main drainage basil serving the nearby Dragoon Mountains (where these night photos were taken). We stopped on the playa right at twilight after a light rain. The mud was thick and stuck to our boots in thick sheets, though the stillness felt being out alone in the region was amazing. It is truly a no-man’s land. The military has use the playa for explosives testing and the locals rip it up with off road vehicles and leave shooting trash wherever they go. It is also an important area for endangered migratory birds. Everything in life seems to converge on this one place on earth while it makes you feel like you are completely nowhere.

Little Storms and Their Aftermath

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In Arizona, when the time is right, little storms come right out of nowhere. It can be sunny and bright where you are standing, and then, Boom! You’re suddenly hit hard and can no longer see a single thing outside the storm around you.

These storms are as violent as they are sudden. Lightning and flash flooding occurs in minutes. Small wildfires start wherever there is enough fuel to burn. The desert is a tinderbox.

Roads are washed away and power lost. The poor soil often becomes unstable. All you can do is ride out these storms.

While driving toward Globe, just south of Mammoth, we stopped to take in the little storms forming over the landscapes around us. It was still peaceful and calm where we were standing.

 
When they’re done, the waters rush away and within moments, there is nothing left of the little storms other than the cooled air and the smell of fresh green growth. Small flowers burst from nowhere. The scars are transformed into beautiful new growth. After they pass, it’s hard to remember how bad the storms ever were.

Just past Winkelman, the remains of a wild fire were just visible from AZ Highway 77. We stopped and walked through the small valley that had been cut through the rugged mountains by the Gila River. The contrast between the burned forest and the new growth gave a feeling of hope to the hot damp air.

Storms come and go, but the beauty of nature always adapts and things continue on.

Trees at Dusk – Saint David, AZ

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About eighty years ago, a tributary of the usually dry San Pedro river flooded across the highway and washed away a bunch of cars. They’re still stuck in the sandy wash, half exposed and rusting away. From a few of them,Trees grow out of the broken out windows.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is a narrow swath of land that extends from Saint David Arizona to the border of Mexico. There are threatening Private Property signs everywhere around the protected land. You know the signs are all backed up by guns and anger. Nearer to Bisby, which is farther south, we came against a sign proclaiming, “Trespassers will be shot, those that survive will be shot again.” This is the reality of living in Arizona — religious fanatics, gun nuts, Border Patrol and smugglers.

Saint David was founded by Mormon settlers in 1877 after being scoped out by a Mormon battalion that passed through in 1845. There are no records of important massacres occurring here, but it is known that the entire region was populated by Native Americans prior to U.S. troops clearing it for settlements. The population of Saint David remains strongly Mormon to this day. According to the current census, there are precisely 666 households in the town. The entire town is reported to be haunted by “screams and cries.”

The Stone Tape theory postulates that hauntings are the result inanimate materials or places absorbing some form of energy from living beings — the hypothesis being that these “recordings” come from moments of high tension, such as murder, rape or during intense moments in someone’s life. Arizona was built on violence, a fact that we all have to ignore to move on, but in the case of Saint David, as a passerbyer, it’s hard not to wonder what the source of these haunted screams could be — ancient disturbed magic, U.S. atrocities against the Native Americans, domestic violence that occurred in the once isolated town or the ongoing violence between drug smugglers, locals, human traffickers and the Border Patrol.

A little farther north on AZ Highway 80, in Benson, one of the waitresses in Reb’s Cafe told me that the were many homeless people living in the desert in this region. They mostly survived on small fixed incomes provided by the government or some retirement fund. They came into town to cash their monthly check, buy some booze and stumble around drunk for several days before disappearing back into the desert. Once when I was at Reb’s, a tattered man came in, crazed and desperate. He apparently had already spent his whole assistance check and was begging for food. The waitress went into the back, came out with a large styrofoam cup filled with chili and told him to be on his way. The man disappeared into the night holding his chili. I wondered how it felt when he fell asleep alone under the stars with nothing to look forward to but the next month’s temporary drunken stupor.

Anyone who has driven through the Arizona desert knows that you can easily drive a hundred miles without seeing a single tree. There is nothing but rock, dirt and scrub — dark mountains loom in the distance. When you reach Saint David, there are suddenly trees everywhere. These follow the San Pedro riverbed. Also, there are many manmade ponds, fed by the local artesian wells. This water is also used for agriculture. You drive through groves of pecan trees and locals selling hay.

We were exploring the area when we turned off the 80 onto a dirt road that wound past fenced yards and houses barricaded and barred. There was no avoiding the sensation that we were in a hostile frontier. What we didn’t see made us more fearful of what might actually be there. A large compound filled with many RV’s and trailers made us imagine a cult or militia gathering. Houses with blocked out windows brought back images from old horror movies we’ve seen. It was hard not to feel isolated and vulnerable when we left the highway.

We turned on a dirt road that was across from the cemetery. We passed the wash filled with the 1940’s dead cars when we reach the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. It felt like another world.

There was a government sign stating that the area was designated as a firebreak area. Aside from the periodic major flooding, fire is the second most common form of natural disaster that the town is subjected to. Due to the dryness of the season, it was easy to see that the whole area was a tinderbox ready to go up. I didn’t see how the area would function as a firebreak as it was. I think the government ran out of funding after they put up the sign.

Amongst the trees with the dry grass blowing in the breeze and the sun starting to set, there was a stillness and remoteness that felt really nice. When we got out of the car, my girlfriend looked around and said she wanted to shoot the place with her Holga toy lens. I thought about it a moment and decided I would join her by shooting my crappy adapted Russian Industar-69 lens — not really a toy lens, but kind of the same in the sense that the results are always unpredictable and never technically very superb.

We hiked around the area saying very little. It was a moment to just let go and take in our surrounds for what they were. Shooting our toy lenses, guess focusing and capturing our surroundings without the constraints of trying to take technically perfect photographs freed us to see the landscape for what it was — something new. A place to find ourselves in the openness between these trees.

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Photo: Kim Nicolini

Willcox With an Industar-69

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Sometimes a lonely highway and a huge open sky is like nothing else. Especially when you need to get away from all the pressures of life. The high plains desert around Willcox Arizona is one of these places. Sandwiched between the I-10 freeway and the Mexican border, the standing water on the local playa attracts wild migratory birds. The local farms attract illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol works around the clock. Occasionally, birders come out with binoculars too.

Small abandoned structures dot the landscape. These are left over from a time when there was a more personal relationship between the land and those working it. Periodic flooding and the industrialization of agriculture washed out most of these. With the current cloudy skies, you can feel like you are almost anywhere while driving through these barren plains — that is until you are stopped at the border checkpoint. Then you know you are in Arizona. Of course when you’re white, Border Patrol just waves you through. But if you’re brown, these checkpoints are serious business. A misplaced wallet may mean the difference between making it home to your family or a trip to an intern camp hidden away somewhere off the public radar while Immigration sorts out what to do with you.

I gave my girlfriend a pristine Lubitel-2 for her birthday. She’s been shooting it on our trips down here. I serviced and adjusted the focus so everything worked smoothly for her before giving it to her. Has anyone ever gotten a Russian camera that actually worked right out of the box? Certainly not me and I’ve bought way too many Russian cameras over the years. I knew she would like shooting it.

I bought my first Russian camera — a Lubitel 166B — while traveling across Eastern Europe. I had been forced to illegally trade some Western currency in order to get a hotel room on a cold rainy night in Prague and ended up with more unregistered local currency than I could easily spend. I bought the camera, a set of laborer’s clothes and a fancy Russian watch that broke almost immediately. Somehow I was hooked. The promise of what could come from the labors of a failed utopia was too metaphorically strong to compete with logic.

Even after selling much of it, I still have a medium sized box stuffed full of old Russian cameras. The discovery of each new model led me on a search to find a pristine copy along with the hope that through it I would somehow rediscover something new in photography. The Lubitel-2 that I gave my girlfriend looked as if it had never been used at all. I had gotten it at the Tucson Camera Show because it was so beautiful, complete with lens cap and shiny Naugahyde fitted case. I had never used it myself. I thought that it could be a great experience for her since she had never shot a TLR and aesthetically, there is nothing else quite like the Lubitel.

I’ve been happy watching her shooting it when we’ve been out together, but somehow my old Russian camera fetish got the better of me and I was feeling jealous of seeing her handling the old mechanical beast while I was just shooting my all electronic Olympus E-P1 digital. After my Nikon film scanner died and manufacturers stopped making affordable ones, I grudgingly transitioned to digital, though I will always love the way film looks and how quirky old mechanical cameras feel.

Before we left for Willcox, I remembered that I had an old Industar-69 Russian half frame camera lens that I had modified to fit on my E-P1. I had never really used it because from the couple test shots I took after adapting it to the Micro 4/3 camera mount, I could see that it was clearly crap — really soft and flared all over the place. It had come off a broken Chaika-II half frame camera.

Since we’ve discovered Willcox, my girlfriend and I have been going there a lot. It’s an easy getaway and a fun place to take photos, but the photography, no matter how good, never feels like we’re there to take “once in a lifetime shots.” It’s more about the adventure. Getting away together. If we miss some shots, we can always go back — and as I always say, there are infinite shots to take anyway, so no reason to worry about missing a few.

This made it a perfect trip to use my Industar-69 . I’d just commit to shooting the crappy lens and working with all its flaws. On my Micro 4/3 camera, the Industar-69 works out to be roughly equivalent to a 56mm lens on 35mm. I like shooting a long “normal” lens, so that part of the experience was something I felt comfortable with. I also typically like shooting pretty good lenses, so the “toy camera” aspect of the Industar-69 was a little outside my comfort zone.

We didn’t have much of a plan for the day, just decided that it would be nice to take the back roads from Willcox to Benson. The road where most of these photos where taken wasn’t even on the map. It would have been good day just driving, talking and feeling the miles of highway unwind beneath us, but it was also nice finding places to stop, explore and take photos along the way.

The way the Industar-69 works on my Olympus means that in bright sun, it’s impossible to focus with the lens stopped down and the exposures are way off. I can adjust the exposure, but for focus, I just used the little universal snap-shooter’s icons on the side of the lens. At f11, almost everything can be thought of as either a group of three people or a pine tree with cabin next to it.

It’s a matter of just guess focusing, framing and shooting. You get what you get. It’s really pretty fun. My girlfriend did about the same with the Lubitel. Who can really focus a Lubitel with that little flip-up magnifying glass in the bright sun? It’s hopeless!

So these are the photos I came away with from the day. They are what they are. Even if you think they’re crap — and they kind of are — they were fun to shoot and it was really nice day.

An Impressive Storm

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The storm was impressive in magnitude. It blotted out the big sky. Icy cold wet Pacific Northwestern winds blew thick clouds across the desert playa south of Wilcox. This is where we found this small house. Flooding occurred as if it was nothing. It took no notice of us. The land had been shaped by it. Only a periodic occurrence, people forget how devastating it can be. They say we needed the water. This is the type of weather that drives people indoors.

After The Flood

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The flood hit Southern New Mexico in early autumn. Roads were washed out and trees knocked down. A wall of mud filled with rocks the size of fists from the past burst through the small notch canyon. It was only one fissure in the psyche — the barrier between then and now. All brought down by the rushing water. Debris gathered debris and overtook everything in its path. Only the strongest withstand the forces unleashed. After the fury of the storm, everything is left in a different state. Drugs and Alcohol are less effective. Hastily settled matters rest where they lie. Pools of tranquility are the last vestiges of what has passed. Stillness is scattered here and there in the path of destruction. Letting go of everything and finding beauty in the now is the only hope, even when the road to get there is broken.