An Oneiric Look at the California Drought

A documentary series filled with metaphors, There is it. Take it, by British photographer Carl Bigmore, offers a subtle take on California’s environmental bankruptcy.

© Carl Bigmore, from the series, There is it. Take it.

A few years ago, photographer Carl Bigmore came across an article addressing California’s future. Due to the increasing lack of water, scientists predicted a new wave of migration, the opposite way to the one John Steinbeck related to in The Grapes of Wrath. “The challenge in the project was to tell this well-documented story of California’s desertification while avoiding clichés. So, I decided to revolve around the idea of what may become of California in the future”, Bigmore explains.

Mixing archival images shot at the Los Angeles Museum, documentary photographs, and more oneiric snapshots, Bigmore’s narrative loosely follows a journey towards North. As we progress through the series, the photographs move away from reality and reach the imagination, as if transitioning towards a hypothetical time. Elements of the mythology of the place fill the essay - in a series of portraits, Bigmore references the pioneering settlers. Later, he includes idealised representations of what the reality used to be. And all along, details of American culture sprinkle the story. “It’s a country where people went and settled, especially on the West Coast, and there is a spirit they carry from that”, he notes.

© Carl Bigmore, from the series, There is it. Take it.

“Pray for miracle rain”, a painted script reads on the back window of a Chevrolet. First missing then desirable, at times abounding, the water in this series takes on different aspects. This gradual change of representation echoes that of water itself – a resource trapped and exhausted for the sake of development. “There is it. Take it”, William Mulholland, the engineer responsible for building the infrastructure to provide a water supply that allowed Los Angeles to grow into the largest city in California, said when inaugurating his aqueduct.

When they started building the aqueduct, a lot of angry farmers attempted to blow it up – it was called the California water wars. They were fighting against the idea of water treated as a commodity, as a protected resource, owned by the State”, Bigmore says. He consistently navigates various temporalities, sometimes in the same image. In one photograph, a shack barely stands on a sandy land, surrounded by harshness. In the background, white mountains hold the promise of water, though the peaks are relatively depleted of snow.

© Carl Bigmore, from the series, There is it. Take it.

Bigmore’s multi-layered story-telling allows for a reflection about the dual purpose of water - a human right on one hand, and a commodity that can be sold as a resource on the other. And in doing so, he invites us to contemplate present choices and project into the future. Almost concluding the series, a stuffed bear from the LA museum erupts from a deep-black background, arousing feelings of both anxiety and nostalgia. “In the end, I wanted to go back to the beginning of the journey and look back at the past, or what would be the past”, Bigmore explains. “It’s hard to talk about climate change. I like the idea of being able to create an ambiguous narrative, because it’s hard to say, “look at what we have lost”. For me the solitary bear is a melancholic ode to the natural world.”

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Carl Bigmore is a UK photographer whose work explores the space between fact and fiction to capture an essence beyond the everyday. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

Portfolio review month, April 2019 | PHmuseum Education
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