Robert Dawson’s photograph, Edge of Sea and Sky, Salton Sea, could be a Salvador Dali painting, its
features elongated by their shadows in the water.
The surreal quality of the picture made it easy prey for Palm Springs Art Museum curators organizing Contemporary Desert Photography: The Other Side of Paradise.
The exhibition, which opens Dec. 17 and continues through March 12, includes work by 26 photographers, each offering his or her perspective, interpretation, and technique. They show the desert landscape in a way that few people will stop and see it on their own.
During the past 20 years, photography has gained a more prominent role in documenting the changing landscape. As desert communities become aware of population growth, accompanied by housing development and new commercial land use, a sense of urgency prevails among photographers to address the impact of these changes.
Organized into three themes — “Land and Sky,” “Environment,” and “Living” — Contemporary Desert Photography suggests a visual narrative. Early on, the curators introduce the leitmotif of the photographer’s vehicle — a means of transportation to provide access to the vast desert.
The exhibition surveys the artistic vision and expressions of altered landscapes and the impact of human presence on the land. For example, in the “Environment” segment, photographers reveal the dilemma of reconciling human use with environmental values. The Russian Thistle Crisis, a black-and-white image by Kathryn Miller and Michael Honer, considers a field of countless windmills, for example.
It’s a perfect segue into the “Living” segment, which examines isolated desert houses and abandoned structures, and raises the final question: Whose paradise is this and why? — Steven Biller