California's Once-Glamorous Toxic Lake

The Salton Sea was once a tourist destination, a "Palm Springs with water." Now the largest lake in California is an environmental disaster: The water is toxic and the surrounding area abandoned. It emerged from the desert in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed, but agricultural runoff and increasing salinity have made it poisonous. 

The place has inspired a number of documentaries, including Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a feature narrated by John Waters, and a short recently featured by Short of the Week, The Accidental Sea. One of the winning films at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, Bombay Beach, is about a community of people who live there now. All of them are worth checking out.

In the short documentary below, photojournalist and filmmaker Jim Lo Scalzo contrasts the past and present of the Salton Sea, layering archival footage and new images of the landscape. He discusses his work in an interview following the video. 

The Atlantic: How did you find out about the Salton Sea and come to film there?

Jim Lo Scalzo: I love photographing abandoned places. It’s a weird misanthropic thrill, looking for clues to people’s lives in what they left behind. And the Salton Sea may be the king of the lot, at least domestically. It’s a photogenic no-place.

The archival material provides a counterpoint to the contemporary footage of the landscape. How did you go about finding it and incorporating it?

I came across the footage while the researching the project online. It was a promotional film made for the Holly Corporation (now called The HollyFrontier Corporation), which at the time sold real estate.  Now they’re a Fortune 500 petroleum refiner based in Dallas. I was doubtful that such a big company would give me rights to the footage, and yet they came through. The vice president of their investor relations was extremely helpful and understanding.

As a photographer, how did you get into video? Or did the two practices evolve side by side?

Video strikes me as an organic extension of still photography — some scenes scream for still images, others for moving ones. To have the opportunity, finally, to record both, with the same camera, is liberating. I’m a big believer in a singular vision, in one person doing the reporting, shooting, and editing. And now the technology enables this kind of control.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a couple projects cooking. My employer, EPA (European Pressphoto Agency), just released a picture story I photographed this summer on the resurgence of outdoor baptisms, largely in the American South. And I’m finishing up a project on Virginia’s KKK groups, which EPA will release this fall. I’ll also be teaching photojournalism at George Washington University this fall, which is a welcome departure from shooting.

For more videos by Jim Lo Scalzo, visit 

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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