High & Dry: A Collaboration Surveying the American Desert


High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff will document human activity, past and present, to inform decisions about future development.

Surveying the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert, "High & Dry" is a partnership of writing and photography. Voice, structure and the nature of collaboration will be its subject as well as its process. We will be examining how images and words can enhance each other. There are big philosophical issues at stake: truth, beauty, inquiry, the very nature of language and visual information. First person explication and collaboration are complex and on-going investigations.

Osceola Refetoff introduced me to two books: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans and "Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)" by Errol Morris. Long periods of discussion ensued as we shaped the overriding structure of the project, struggled to articulate our mission and got to know each other's working style.

We discovered we have much in common personally but we have lived very different lives. Refetoff lived all over the world in urban settings and seemed to know what he needed and wanted in the association. He had collaborated several times before.

I have lived in the Mojave at the edge of the Great Basin for forty-two years and during that time have developed an empathy with arid lands. In that sense I am very comfortable with the people of the desert. Osceola sees me as an "insider," while he remains an "outsider."

"It's a Mess Without You!," Cinco, CA, 2011. Abandoned farm worker's trailer, now demolished. Currently construction site for Beacon Solar Energy Project. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

Natural vista 'despoiled' by water tank, painted rocks and rear end of Chris Langley's dog, Simon, 2013. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

I feel at home with the people there. In turn, many desert inhabitants appear comfortable, after a moment of trust building, in opening up and telling me their stories. We both share an overriding passion and love for the desert and that has brought us to work together.

In our mission statement we wrote:

The myth of California's deserts is charged with human hope and inextricably tied to that most American ambition: the pursuit of freedom and happiness. Iconic images of these arid lands are part our cultural DNA, essential to our collective understanding of the West and to our assumptions of what it means to be an American.

Against these grand ideals exists a loose patchwork of struggling communities, military compounds and vast open spaces, long a refuge for loners, dreamers, and broken spirits. In the near future, immense wind and solar projects will likely dominate many areas, transforming the landscape in ways that are complex and irreversible.

I wanted to learn more about the desert and to write about that understanding. I was not sure beyond that what I brought to the project. The collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans became not so much a guide as a departure point. Now as I read and studied Agee's writing, I understood how brilliant a writer he was.
Refetoff and I continued to read the Morris book in our respective locations. Then one night he emailed me a section of Agee's application for a Guggenheim grant made in 1937. In the application, Agee had written, "It should be as definitely a book of photographs as a book of words: in other words, photographs should be used profusely, and never to 'illustrate' the prose. One part of the work, in many senses the crucial part, would be a strict comparison of the photographs and the prose as relative liars and relative reproducers of the same matter. The sectioned that I have italicized jumped out to me. I gained a new understanding as soon as I read it.

Water Tank, Lone Pine, CA, Infrared Exposure, 2013. 'Despoiled' vista receives more formal treatment. Dogs instructed to clear frame prior to exposure. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

I realized that I was not there merely to write about or even caption the photographs Refetoff took, as I had feared. Instead, I was there to bring a kind of meta-description or commentary to the project. This led to the following flash of insight now part of our mission: Our objective is to engage you with compelling images and stories of an extraordinary region we hold dear to our hearts....Our hope is that you will find beauty not only in its spectacular vistas, but also the puzzling juxtapositions and remarkable narratives that embody this distinctly American landscape.

When we began our association, I had started writing a "Landscape Journal," which in the first year swelled to hundreds of pages. It was a personal exploration of all these issues, which we are discussing in reference to landscape, photography and the exact nature of the project's teamwork. When it became clear I would be writing "Dispatches" and he would be adding accompanying photographs in the spirit of Agee and Evans, I thought my journal and all the various experimental styles and voices I had used would be of great assistance. The journal was a wonderful assistance to my life as a writer but not as a collaborator writing the dispatches. They did not translate into the "Dispatch" form I was trying to create, with Agee's example in mind.

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Agee again sets the bar very high when he describes the writing he (and I, as it turns out) finally set as a goal. In the application he wrote: "The record I want to make of this is not journalistic; nor on the other hand is any of it to be invented." He identifies it as 'scientific,' yet not acceptable to many scientists. He labels it as skeptical and analytic. Agee identifies two points: "to tell everything accurately as possible, and to invent nothing." By the way, Agee did not receive a Guggenheim.

Of extreme importance to Refetoff and me, as it was to Agee and Walker, is how this kind of writing works with photography and how they affect each other. More importantly we must explore and understand how they can best enhance each other in the pursuit of truth. In that spirit we begin.

William 'Burro' Schmidt Cabin (at left) and Abandoned Caretaker's Tunnel, Last Chance Canyon, CA, Infrared Exposure, 2011 | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

The first dispatch finally published on our website was one on Burro Schmidt where our collaborative explorations of the western desert had begun. I concluded that essay with:

Burro's secret disappeared with him. I know many of the facts of his story. I know it tells something very important about the desert. The desert is a cruel cold mistress to which some men dedicate their passions and their loyalty. It is all about solitude, work that breaks you physically, and the dreams that often remain forsaken. For the people who stick around for a lifetime, to use Refetoff's words, "Something compels them to be in the desert..."

Our motivations are simple: we share a passion for the desert. We have no particular agenda; we are not funded by any agency, art group or any group involved in political advocacy. We want to give a voice to the people of the desert, who like Agee and Evans' Alabama sharecroppers, have been marginalized to the point of silence.

We are consulting with the people who live in the desert and who are never consulted. The dialogue with these people will take place in local media, and in art installations and exhibits, and on the internet through our website and social media. Books will gather the work together and preserve it for future consultation.

Our next major focus will be on the town of Trona, California and its tenacious population. Trona, a hundred-year-old mining town just south of Death Valley, clings to life despite some of the harshest economic conditions we have witnessed in California this century.

Searles Valley Minerals Plant, Trona, CA, Infrared Exposure, 2011 | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

With a shrinking population (from both people who have decided to migrate to greener pastures and workers who have resettled their families to the nearby city of Ridgecrest), challenges to the survival of the town are growing. Yet, mining the brine in the three plants continues, producing over a million dollars a day of "product" including borax, potash, soda ash and other chemicals. We have set the scene in our dispatch, "Emerald City of the Salts." Many issues and decisions will come to bear in the near future for the desert. Green energy projects, solar plants and windmill fields, are spreading like a wild fire across the open wind swept lands. The efficacy of the desert as a garbage dump and toxic disposal area, not to mention a military test site, are questions that are growing and have enormous impact for the future.

'Never Say Never, 'Katlynn & Alyssia, Trona Centennial Weekend, 2014  | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

We intend to tell the peoples' story with compassion. We will endeavor to minimize the voyeuristic nature of the photographic process. In general, Trona and the western arid lands are conundrums. Only with both photography and writing do we have any hope to untangle and tell the story of the desert and its people.

Our desert project "High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain" is well underway. The early results are gathered at and on Facebook. A solo exhibition of Refetoff's desert landscape photography was presented recently at the Los Angeles Art Association Gallery 825. A four-artist exhibit quickly followed.

We look forward to reporting future developments of High & Dry here at Artbound.

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Top Image: Entrance to 'Burro' Schmidt Tunnel, Last Chance Canyon, CA, Infrared Exposure, 2011 | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

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High & Dry will survey the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert.
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