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This is a document from 1982. It is included here for historical reference.

MONO LAKE
The Artist and the Land

A case study of the landscape
as a source of
artistic inspiration and political commitment

Supplement to Creative Work for Masters Program in Creative Arts Interdisciplinary San Francisco State University

STEPHEN JOHNSON
December 1982

 

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AT MONO LAKE
The Creation of a Photographic Exhibition

The waters of California’s ancient Mono Lake have splashed against it shores longer than homo-sapiens have walked the earth. Geologists report that the lake is certainly one million years old and may date back three million years. Visually, biologically and geologically, this huge lake is a magnificent sight. Three hundred miles north of Los Angeles on the eastern Sierra, Mono Lake is one of the oldest continually existing lakes in America. Mono has been chilled by glaciers, boiled by volcanoes spewing forth lava and ash, and until recently it was held sacred by all who knew it. Mono has become home for the largest breeding population of California Gulls in the state and provides a precious oasis of food and rest for millions of migratory birds crossing the vast, waterless expanses of North America’s Great Basin.


In 1940 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power completed an extension of its Owens Valley aqueduct and began exporting water from Mono Lake’s main sources of fresh water. Since that time the lake has been dropping due to un-replenished evaporation at a rate of one foot per year, and since 1970 at two feet per year. Mono Lake has now dropped over forty-seven vertical feet and left 24,000 acres of former lakebed exposed. As a result, a land bridge has formed to Negit Island, providing access for coyotes and other predators to prey on nesting gulls . This intrusion has destroyed Negit’ s irreplaceable state-protected rookery. Where nearly 50,000 gulls once nested, in 1979 only 3,000 managed to rear their young on small islets to the northeast of Negit, which are also rapidly being overtaken by the growing land bridge. In 1981, the winter population of brine shrimp dropped to 10% of its normal numbers and consequently 95% of the gull chicks born that year starved to death· in the early summer.


My first visit to Mono Lake in 1974 left me fascinated by the strangeness of this high desert sea. As the years passed I felt compelled to return to the lake many times, drawn by a magical light I’ve found few to her places. Slowly I began to understand some of the lake ‘s moods and the tragedy unfolding on its dying shores. It became clear to me that this land demanded far more than to merely record its abundant light on film. The lake became a metaphor for the damage we have done to the Earth and consequently also became a source of deep political commitment to the land. Intertwined in Mono’s winds and the clouds that dance across its skies is a call to help stop the madness that destroys sacred places like Mono Lake.


I began to search for a way to make my photographs function on a political as well as aesthetic level. There was ample precedent that this could be done successfully. In 1864 Carleton Watkins’ majestic photographs of Yosemite Valley were an integral ingredient in the decision to establish it as a park. Eight years later the newly formed United States Geological Survey presented to Congress a portfolio of William Henry Jackson’s magnificent photographs of Yellowstone and then lobbied for its protection as our first national park. Ansel Adams produced the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938 expressly for the purpose of convincing Secretary of the Interior Inkles and President Roosevelt that California’s Kings Canyon was of national park significance. Later, in 1955, Adams and Nancy Newhall created the photographic exhibit This is the American Earth for the La Conte Lodge in Yosemite Valley. It was later toured both nationally and internationally. The Sierra Club, under the direction of David Brower, created a book from that exhibit in 1959 which Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas hailed as “one of the greatest statements in the history of conservation.” This is the American Earth was also the first in a series, and a model, for what became known as exhibit-format books. These large format, beautifully reproduced books with their often eloquent texts, became the best known and loved tools of the conservation movement. Their power to appeal to the romantic tradition of the grand western landscape made them a powerful tool in the fight to preserve many wilderness areas.


In 1979 I contacted the Mono Lake Committee, then an adjunct of Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and asked what I could do to help with the fight to save the lake. I made it clear that I wanted to find a way of using photography as a tool to communicate the beauty and uniqueness of the lake. I felt that the strongest voice for the lake would be its own, and that if I could somehow gather evidence of its visual eloquence and present it to the public, the case for saving this place would ring loud and true. I considered the assault taking place on the environment of Mono Lake to be a unique opportunity to continue the tradition of making photographs function as a means of expressing political concerns for the land.


I set out to create a major photographic exhibition with wide contemporary participation and a broad historical perspective. My goals were to discover as much as I could about the photographic history of the area, gather what I knew to be an extensive body of recent work and to stimulate new work by many people who might not otherwise bring their talents and perspectives to bear on the lake.


My first task was to arrange for a few well-respected photographers to help me with the selection process and secondly to get a commitment from some major artists to participate in the exhibition. By phone I contacted Don Worth and Al Weber who immediately agreed to serve on a selection committee. With their commitments in hand I asked Brett Weston, a self-declared “mono-maniac,” and Ansel Adams to lend some prints to the exhibition. Both enthusiastically agreed to help. With their commitment in hand, 1 was sure I could succeed in putting the exhibition together.


It soon became clear that a sponsoring organization would be necessary serve as a non-profit entity through which to raise funds and serve as a focal point for mail, telephones and other organizational needs. I was introduced to David Brower, President of Friends of the Earth and he agreed to help in any way he could. We set up an account in Friends of the Earth Foundation and it has since served as our parent organization. However, I was careful to leave all decision making power with the exhibition Selection Committee. Shortly thereafter, the Sierra Club, the Mono Lake Committee and the National Audubon Society all agreed to help in various ways. In a few short months, the exhibition had managed to become a credible project, an absolute necessity for people to feel comfortable loaning prints and giving money to the effort. It was the best of both worlds, I had managed to secure help from most of the organizations involved with the lake and kept the exhibition as an autonomous entity. From the start I sensed that in order to get the show as widely shown as possible it was very important to minimize direct connections to the environmental movement. I had no intention of creating an overtly political exhibit, and I had to be very careful it didn’t appear as such

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Although we did feel that it was important to minimize any political connotations to the show, nonetheless we wanted to encourage our audience to make their views known to the appropriate people. An information card was designed with a list of addresses of politicians, water agencies and environmental groups concerned with the issue. “For information and comments regarding the Mono Lake issue, the following people may be contacted,” proceeded the address list. With that simple introduction, visitors are encouraged to write, and provided with the basic information they needed to do so, without putting the exhibit in an advocacy position regarding the political issues surrounding the lake. An introductory panel was also provided, explaining as simply as possible what is happening to the lake. Nowhere do we say “save Mono Lake.” The photographs say it for us, and with greater eloquence than any simplistic political slogan. Rather than win a political debate, we were trying to win hearts.


To add further visibility to the project I then contacted the Western Association of Art Museums, a national arts touring organization to see if they might be interested in the project. Their Board of Directors decided we were indeed putting together a major exhibition and agreed to tour the show in 1981 and 1982. In the fall of 1979, 1 sent out announcements. that we were gathering prints for the show to every arts organization, college and photographer I could think of in California and elsewhere. David Brower financed the printing of finely reproduced brochures designed to make galleries and museums aware of the exhibition. With the design and printing of that brochure, the exhibition was officially launched.


Money was an important early problem for the exhibition. An initial solution was found in previewing the show at various places around the state for one-night fund-raisers sponsored by various environmental and college groups. Eventually I faced up to the fact that we would also have to seek some grants to help finance the show. With no previous experience, I began the arduous process of seeking out foundations and corporations that might be interested in our project. We received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Polaroid Foundation, Sierra Club Foundation, the Mono Lake Committee and many individuals. Friends of Photography in Carmel loaned badly needed crates and frames. A poster was also printed on an investment by an exhibiting gallery and the Mono Lake Coalition, which in addition to a recent grant was the beginning of an ongoing source of funds that will hopefully be at the genesis of a fine arts book from the show.


Through my work with the show, I inevitably became involved in the political fight for the lake and was soon known as a photographic resource person for the effort. The show was seen as a vital link in the chain of what was becoming a broad-based effort to save the lake. Friends of the Earth, the National Audubon Society and the Mono Lake Committee were suing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Mono Lake Committee was actively pursuing legislative remedies and everyone was working for greater public awareness. The Mono Lake Coalition was formed as a gathering point for all of the various groups working on behalf of the lake. As one of the founding members of the coalition, my exhibit naturally became its step-child. Both the coalition and the exhibition had accounts in Friends of the Earth Foundation, which made the relationship somewhat fraternal as well.

The exhibition AT MONO LAKE focuses its attention on one of California’s most spectacular and least known natural treasures. The sheer beauty of this ancient lake is portrayed through the eyes of many of America’s major landscape photographers. It is a rare occurrence to have artists of the stature of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Edward S. Curtis, Timothy O’Sullivan and Philip Hyde in this single, unique exhibition. That we were able to gather prints from such a wide variety of photographers became, in and of itself, a great tribute to the intriguing beauty of Mono Lake’s serene landscape.


Despite the large body of fine photographs that we knew had been made at the lake, I suspected from the outset that photographs, by their very nature, would be hard pressed to communicate the breadth of what Mono is. We knew that the air, the space and the light of this magical place were not easily captured on a piece of paper, and that unique photographic vantage points and technologies would broaden this ability. I spent days pouring through U. S. Geological Survey microfilm in search of an image that could symbolize the stark grandeur of Mono’s setting. I found such an image taken from 570 miles above the earth by electronic cameras on board NASA’ s Landsat satellite. It is a surreal infrared composite rivaling the strangeness of walking Mono’s shores. The San Joaquin Valley, Tuolumne, Yosemite, Mono, Kings Canyon, the Owens Valley, the White Mountains and the open desert of Nevada are all within sight. The Sierra slices through the image with Yosemite resting beside Mono’s inky-blue expanse. Human constructions are splashed across the print, but barely seen. Ancient shorelines of the lake stretch out across the Mono Basin onto the vast deserts of Nevada. I had found the symbol I had hoped for and ordered a large print for the show.

Providing an historical context to our view of the lake was an early goal of the search for prints. I began an extensive search for old photographs of the area and was rewarded with Israel Russell’s 1883 Quaternary History of Mono Valley. With its many etchings drawn from photographs, the work still stands as the major geological study of the area. Prints of the beautiful old lantern slides from Russell’s original photographs became an important historical contribution to the exhibit. The now parched-dry Heart Lake on Paoha Island is portrayed brimming with water in an 1883 photograph by Russell. The “wonderful transparency of the dry atmosphere” emerges clearly from his images. He observed “the brilliant colors of the naked rocks ... the desolate grandeur” of vast treeless vistas with Mono glowing at their focal point like “a wide sheet of burnished metal,” and concluded that “no scene in nature has ever appeared... more attractive or more worthy a sacred corner in t he memory than (this) bare, silent... desert.” The care with which Russell explored this basin, studied its geology, constructed his descriptions and exposed his photographs was singularly impressive. tufa

A tip from the Eastern California Museum in Independence led to Burton Frasher, whose photographs from the 1920’s and 30’s proved invaluable. Frasher’s studio in Pomona, California served as his headquarters, but apparently the Mono Lake/Mammoth Lakes area was his spiritual home. Frasher was an integral part of the growing community of Mono County before World War II. He photographed annual boat races, beauty contests, the “Mark Twain Day” celebrations and the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Frasher travelled on boat tours to Mono’s islands and promoted tourism by bringing in a movie crew from Southern California. The mural by Frasher in the show, with hundreds of nesting gulls on Negit Island, together with his pristine views of the lake before diversions of water and dust storms, embodied many of my aspirations for AT MONO LAKE.


Among the materials and processes employed in this ninety print exhibition are gelatin silver prints, albumin, gum bichromate, gravure plates, bleached/toned prints, color work of various kinds, electron micrographs and transmitted television images. The variety of approaches contained in the show are united by one theme, the unswerving directness of this solemn, seemingly misplaced sea. The photographs range in size from 4x5 contact prints to a 27x60 mural and date from 1868 to 1980.


We have made use of the exhibit in a variety of ways. During hearings in the State Assembly in Sacramento, we borrowed prints from the show to illustrate the beauty and uniqueness of the lake. Openings for the exhibit are frequently used as fund-raisers for the campaign as a whole. 1 made sure the release form all of the photographers in the show signed, gave us permission to use the images on behalf of the political fight to save the lake as well as to promote the exhibit. We have taken advantage of that option and hope to make ultimate use of it in a major photographic book drawn primarily from the show. Such a book would make perfectly clear the demise of the lake and the need and means to avert such a tragedy. As has been demonstrated before, with such a book, we would have a powerful portable visual document that might well become the most effective political tool in the whole effort.
AT MONO LAKE has been on tour since March 1980. It has been shown extensively in California and various other western states. As of December 1982, it has been seen by one million people. It is difficult to know what effect a group of photographs can have on a volatile political issue like water rights for the City of Los Angeles and the survival of a unique, ancient ecosystem. However, I have no doubt that we are creating a positive awareness of Mono Lake in the minds of those who see the show. Like so many conservation battles of the past, this awareness is crucial to the creation of a political constituency to support the efforts to save the lake. At the very least, the show is helping to do that. A book from the show will obviously go an important step further in this same direction.


This photographic exhibition provides these artists with a special opportunity for their work to have an effect on issues that deeply concern them, and also underscores the power of the photographic image to influence our culture. AT MONO LAKE helps make clear the unique and important role the artist can play in the understanding and preservation of our wilderness areas.


While important ecological issues are involved, this exhibition is not a discussion of water rights or any other of the legal questions involved in the continuing destruction of Mono Lake. This collection was never meant to be a documentary of the area. It is a visual statement about a splendid, ancient place by some artists who have a deep reverence for it. AT MONO LAKE is predicated on the belief that there is great value in telling Mono Lake’s story visually, with the clarity and beauty of these photographs.


Next Mono Lake Photography Workshop:

Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra
October 8-11, 2011


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