Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
April 7, 2015

On Damon Winter's "Divided" Photos of California's Water Crisis

Published so soon after Governor Brown’s drought emergency speech and his decision to fit a low flow tap on California, I think Damon Winter’s “divided” photos of the Palm Springs area for the NY Times are quite powerful and significant. (There’s a good set here in this “endless growth” article, and another one in this wasteful water piece.)

Yes, they’re temporal and predictive. Because we read left to right, one thing these offer up by way of format, beyond a precipice, crossroad or point of no-return, is the even more terrifying sense or determination of “before” and “after.”

Of course, different photos reflect different tones. Winter’s shot of Palm Desert’s senior community in Sun City, zoomed way out and emphasizing the long, loopy sidewalk as much or more as the ecological divide, is as arty-quirky as a Wes Anderson still and as satirically fatalistic.

The most indelible shot, however, is the one of the pink-roofed, pool-dotted housing tract up against the brush-dotted desert in Cathedral City. (You’ll do yourself more justice by clicking and studying it at a larger size.) I’m not sure what the neuroscientists say about processing such contiguous but contrasting settings. (There are hemispheres, and there are hemispheres.) There is a clear and provocative tension between the conditions, however, each that much more fortified by its own symmetry. The question (expressing itself differently through different eyes, of course) is: how much is the photo  documentary, static and dread-laden, and how much — given California as the defier of boundaries, L.A. its dreamweaver — is this photo more “fluid” and even propositional, less end game than hurdle?

As always, I’m interested in the features you’re focusing on, and your read.

— Michael Shaw

(photos: Damon Winter for The New York Times caption 1: A housing development in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs.caption 2: A golf course in the Sun City Palm Desert community for older adults sits near barren land about 10  miles east of Palm Springs.)

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