Photo story: California's surreal deserts

Vestiges of early American history — the storied Wild West — linger in the Southern Californian deserts, home to resilient animals and humans with a penchant for ephemeral sands and the slightly surreal

By Kris Davidson
photographs by Kris Davidson
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:14 BST
Modern art in California desert
Photograph by Kris Davidson

In the mid 1980s, Leonard Knight began building a mountain in the desert out of adobe and straw, painted with colourful messages of love. A bright beacon of hope in a barren landscape, Salvation Mountain gradually drew other creatives to the area and, over time, the experimental, sustainable art communities of East Jesus and Slab City were formed.

Photograph by Kris Davidson
Photograph by Kris Davidson

Time seems suspended in this otherworldly desert environment. The ramshackle library — open 24/7 — in Slab City provides the familiar touchpoint of stories and knowledge, readily prescribed by the one-legged proprietor. And if words won’t cure you, then perhaps the Mad Max-style art down the dusty lane in East Jesus will.

Photograph by Kris Davidson
Photograph by Kris Davidson

An unexplained ‘carhenge’ rises from the sands near Niland, Imperial County, at once both ominous and whimsical. The desert has its own cadence, unfolding like a dreamscape in which the bizarre becomes commonplace.

Photograph by Kris Davidson
Photograph by Kris Davidson

Strange, beautiful and slightly dangerous, the desert catapults us inward, in the manner of a dream, more than any other landscape. Timeless stars twinkle in the night sky. It feels like being on another planet until a plane soars by, heading for Los Angeles which glows faintly on the horizon.


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