The Story Behind Joel Sternfeld’s Iconic Palm Springs Flood Photo

A photographer shares how he got the shot of a Rancho Mirage flash flood.

Joel Sternfeld Arts & Entertainment, History

A photo of the aftermath of the 1979 flash flood in Rancho Mirage. 

When I was on the road, I often received helpful advice from strangers.

At times, I have thought that I should simply spread out a map on the hood of my car outside of a convenience store and let the suggestions pour in before even thinking about getting out a camera.

There is one picture in American Prospects that resulted from more than a suggestion. You could say it was largely the product of a kind fireman who took an interest in my enterprise — and I was simply the camera operator.


Here’s how it happened:

In July 1979, I was in Los Angeles when word came on the radio of a major flash flood in Rancho Mirage. As a New Yorker, I had never seen a flash flood, and in fact, I didn’t really understand the phenomenon.

I immediately drove 120 or so miles to the affluent desert community, but it wasn’t solely out of idle curiosity that I did so. In the 1960s and ’70s, there was an incipient feeling of human invincibility through science (ergo progress). We can go to the moon if and when we want, we can dam mighty rivers, we can get machines to do our work (and our thinking) for us. I wanted to suggest that nature wasn’t done — or ended.

When I got to Rancho Mirage, it was already extremely hot, and the humidity, which is usually low, was high because of all the evaporating runoff. My Volkswagen camper had no air conditioning, and there was no ice to be found because the power was out. I needed to do something to keep my film cool. I noticed that firehouses had electricity from emergency generators, and so I walked into one and asked if I could leave my film for the day.

The firemen readily agreed: They Xeroxed maps of the area and marked them to indicate the most dramatic damage. I have found that if I can describe my ideas to people, they will oftentimes respond with particularity and with enthusiasm. There seems to be genuine enjoyment in helping to solve a puzzle, especially if that same puzzle has been crossing their minds too.

I worked as best I could that day, but at times I found it difficult to function at all because of the heat. Within sight of a Baskin-Robbins that had regained power, I passed out in the back of my van. Later, walking to it, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a mirage. I didn’t make any good photographs, and when I returned to the firehouse in the dusk, it must have shown on my face.

The firemen were disappointed. They asked, “Did you see the Trans Am down the ravine?” — they had highlighted it in my morning briefing, but not being sufficiently knowledgeable about muscle car culture, I hadn’t pursued it as aggressively as I might have. I muttered something about Bob Hope Drive being closed, and Bing Crosby Drive being closed too.

They sprang to action: “We’ll take you out there!” Before I knew it, I was a kid getting a ride on a fire truck, lights flashing, sirens wailing.

On location, they aimed a beam of light down the ravine, and there it was, spotlight on a Trans Am. They were so excited, I figured I had better be excited too.

I spent the next three hours in a payphone booth trying to get permission to stand on a bridge at dawn.

Around midnight, permission was granted. I got to spend four hours in a supermarket parking lot in my van before I went out and made this picture.

I have long maintained that there is a wellspring of good intention in the American people. For me, this was a case in point.

There must be a God looking out for hapless, but earnest, young photographers. There certainly was one for me during those American Prospects years.