My decision to photograph the Owens Lake was in part inspired by the work done by the visual artist David Maisel, who photographed the Lake Project back in 2001 and 2002. Even though the current focus by the city of Los Angeles is in restoring the Owens Lake to somewhat of its former natural terminus state, it is nevertheless an important link in the water chain in California, as it is the direct impact of human beings’ intervention with nature for their own gain.
In his Report from the Lake, Maisel writes, “We had dreamed of building cities, fields of glittering towers, urban fantasies meant to house our hopes of progress; now we seek out dismantled landscapes, abandoned, collapsing on themselves. Rather than creating the next utopia, we uncover the vestiges of failed attempts, the evidence of obliteration.” In revisiting Lake Owens, I wanted to consider how much had changed since Maisel brought to attention the ongoing destruction and deterioration of the lake, that resulted from the diversion of the Owens River via the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913.
According to the LA Department of Water and Power “$540 million has been spent to control 43 square miles of dust.” This figure excludes the cost of maintenance that reaches an additional $17.5 million a year. In speaking to many residents of Los Angeles, my impression is that they remain ignorant about the Owens Lake and associated events that led to it’s destruction and current state. Many of these residents still carry on the tradition of maintaining lawns and flora that are not native to the area. In short they seem to be content living in what American historian, Kevin Starr referred to in, Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s, as “the most exquisite invented garden in history.”
How much has changed since Maisel’s investigation and on-going work is hard to quantify when I read or hear about local residents still living near the lake. In an article for the High Country News, Jane Braxton Little quotes Sam Wasson, the unofficial mayor of Keeler, “When it’s blowing real bad, you have to go inside. That dust collects on your hair, your clothes, everything…It’s enough to make your eyes and nose sting until you get out of it.”
On April 2013, a Stage 2 air pollution health advisory was issued warning the towns of Keeler, Bishop and Independence, to keep from any type of strenuous outdoor activities in their respective areas.