High & Dry: Through a Window Darkly

"It's a Mess Without You!" Cinco, CA, 2011 | Photo: Osceola_Refetoff
"It's a Mess Without You!" Cinco, CA, 2011. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

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


They didn't bother locking the front door when they left for the last time. The alfalfa farm failed because of economic challenges. When there was not enough water, the grass shriveled to a crisp brown. These were tough times for the families. They left the provided furnishings behind.

Now these trailers that had once been filled with family noises: laughing, squabbling, and snoring were silent. Walking inside the trailer you could feel the loneliness as the home waited for residents. None came.

The view from the windows remained the same day after day except for the subtle changing of the desert seasons. The winds gnawed and picked at the roof sheeting. They found imperfections in the outside corners of sun warped paneling and the desiccated shrubs that constituted landscaping. It worked on every snag as the screws and nails grew loose. Slowly this skin was peeled away from the house.

Everything was cheap, flimsy and meant for the poor migrant worker. No one expected it to last very long. The transformation to waste and ruin was slow but steady. The desert is a persistent agent of dry decay.

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The photographer Osceola Refetoff was drawn to these ruins in some irresistible way. All about the trailers lay ruin that testified not to millennia, centuries, generations or decades. These ruins were made from material not intended for durability. With the crumbling of these homes, the memory of them was also passing quickly away. The photographer intended to create a permanent record of what was before him.

When he went into the house through the flapping door, he became silent in respect and focus to recreate in his imagination the people who once lived here. He wanted to ponder who they were, how they lived and what was left behind. He wanted to consider what they saw looking out through the windows.

He began to apply his visual skills, his photographic technique and his sense of presence in these wasted homes. Determined to fully realize what was before him in permanent images, Refetoff visited many of these impermanent homes that infect the stark beauty and abandoned communities that dot the Mojave. He used the same process, developing it slowly to make each image more realized. He revisited sites on different days, in different light, the skies and even the view constantly transforming as he re-photographed the subject.

He would stand before the windows and take in the view of the ruins and bleak views that now monopolized the landscape outside these houses. As he illuminated the interiors around the window, the scene took on a symbolic power.

"Love, Faith, Hope," Cinco, CA, 2010 | Photo: OsceolaRefetoff
"Love, Faith, Hope," Cinco, CA, 2010. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

All through the history of art and photography, the window has had various and even parallel meaning in individual works of art. Carla Gottlieb has described many of these secular symbols exhaustively. They include "splendor of light;" "death and the darkened window;" "cosmic dynamism;" "photographer's eye;" "surrealism: sex and ax;" "the vanity of knowledge;" "pictorial dialectic;" "the play upon words;" and so forth.

Refetoff focuses his camera on the view through the window. For instance, he focuses on the window over the sink and imagines the dishwasher staring outside as he or she works. He also illuminates the frame, the walls, and the sink and gives the view important and meaningful context. He builds up several layers of meaning: the inside of the view, the window and its frame, the outside view and the high and dry desert beyond. The images then are complex, multi-leveled and ironic. The view is one of ruins and wastelands, and the transitory nature of memory and even human presence in the Mojave Desert.

Three powerful images in the series are worth examining briefly. The first is "Love, Faith, Hope;" the second one "Desert Kitchen;" and the third is "It's a Mess Without You!"

The first on a vertical plane shows a two part white sink in a faux white and black marble setting. The window has a rust red frame, clean glass without wood pane separators and a view of a decayed wooden fence, a dried short grass covered desert flatland with barren hills beyond. There is also a weathered structure reminiscent of a covering for a patio. The sink is half full of detritus and there is broken plaster to the left.

The words of "Love, Faith, Hope" have the look of an embroidered, old fashion sampler, and the muted light of the entire picture reflects a mannered look of a tapestry. The window frame stands in for a frame for the scene outside, and symbolizes the artificial presentation of this view. Again the words ironically express positive attitudes that everywhere are undermined by waste, ruin and loss of hope. If the resident in the house retained faith it must have been a courageous act of will.

As to the words themselves, Refetoff posits they were art directed for the purpose of being somehow recorded. An empty can of red paint was found discarded just outside that matches the color of the window frame. He speculates that the scene is an art project or perhaps the abandoned set of a film or music video. If true, this adds another ironic layer of meaning. Everything here has been repurposed. Thus these are not true ruins now, but transformed into "ruin commodities" to be sold. A postmodern transition from real to ruin to commodity is discerned. We are left with a copy of something that no longer exists, and may never have, technically called a simulacrum.

"Desert Kitchen,"  Cinco, CA, 2010 | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
"Desert Kitchen," Cinco, CA, 2010. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

The second photograph is again through a kitchen window. This time the outside image of another trailer, torn by the wind, and vandalized by passersby is seen. It appears like a mirror image of where the photographer's camera has been placed. The view then appears a self-referencing image to a "Home Sweet Home" picture hanging on the wall. It is not a picture pasted on the glass in the window, as if everything is all right. In fact, things are not alright.

The light is unromantic and one cabinet is without a door and empty, the other veiled by a wood front. The appearance of the kitchen has less artifice or presumption. The peeling wallpaper, the sink full of junk and even the window frame are basic to the point of plebeian.

The third photograph in the series is of the same kitchen and window, but is taken a year later from an angle to the left. Now we see the crudely spray-painted black words: "It's a mess without you!"

The words are poignant. The window here might announce death, or the loss of relationship or the terrible passage of time as illustrated by the scene through the frame. The symbol of loss of some kind is persuasive. It could be a simple apology for bad housekeeping habits, yet much more loss is evident. The window and its view of desolation and loss are enhanced by the words haphazardly sprayed on the wall.

These three photographs are both ambiguous and a reflection on the loss of memory and the passage of time. They remind that much of our culture and economy are transitory, unsustainable and leave only wind worn wastelands behind. We will soon forget the trailers, but not Refetoff's photos of them.

By the way, the trailers are gone, wiped from the land to make way for the Beacon Solar project off Highway 395 north of Mojave, CA. Even now, their memory is all but gone.

By Christoper Langley


Osceola Refetoff on his photo series:

An irony of this series is that many of the interior spaces look more real than the exteriors. Since the images are not composites, they are both equally 'real.' The quality of artificiality of the exteriors came about somewhat unexpectedly while preparing the prints for exhibition.

The physics of lens optics makes it impossible to focus on both the foreground and background simultaneously. Only a single focal plain can be in focus with this type of camera. Using a small aperture, an optical illusion called the 'circle of confusion' allows the exteriors to appear in focus, while only the foregrounds are actually in focus. This illusion begins to break down when the images are printed in larger sizes.

I wanted the views outside the windows to be as sharp as possible, as the eye is naturally drawn to them. Digital prints are typically sharpened for enlargement, so I selectively applied a bit of additional sharpening to the exteriors, introducing a slightly 'processed' feel. This caused the 'natural' exteriors to look a somewhat 'artificial' while the cheap trailer interiors appear almost painfully 'real.'

Another solution to this dilemma would have been to take two photographs, one focused on the interior and one focused out the window. A program like Adobe Photoshop would allow these images to be seamlessly combined, a technique called 'focus stacking.' Would this be a more 'honest' method of achieving the same illusion if the intent is to communicate the human experience of viewing the scene from the camera's perspective?

At that point, why not add some puffy clouds to the scene? These could easily be captured a year or so later, perhaps from the window of a Los Angeles apartment.


To explore more High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain, visit desertdispatches.com.


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