Water makes all the difference between life and death. That immutable fact of existence on our blue planet has preoccupied the art of photographer Robert Dawson throughout his 30-year-long career. A native of California’s agricultural heartland, Dawson has always been attuned to how water rules the rhythm of survival: Too much rain or snowmelt, and floods can wipe out the crops, too little, and the farm fields turn to dust.
One of Dawson’s first photography projects involved documenting the unnatural destruction caused during the draining of California’s Mono Lake. From 1979 to 1982, Dawson repeatedly returned to the lake to illustrate how diverting the water for urban use was destroying the local environment. A subsequent multiyear project, Water in the West, involved collaborating with other photographers to chart the precariousness of life in a parched land. As Dawson wrote in a statement accompanying the project: “We are living on borrowed time in the West, and many of us know that an extended drought can occur here at any time.”
The images featured here reveal how water serves as a kind of wealth. For those without – like the residents of Bombay, India, who have to rely on illegally tapping a water main – getting water is part of the daily scramble for survival. Similarly for the Guatemalan villagers whose well went dry. The shadows running into the arid hole are eerie, like a reverse mirage, a phantom lifeline of a people threatened by thirst.
For those in the industrial world, where giant aqueducts move millions of gallons as if by magic, water is taken for granted. All you have to do is put some quarters in a vending machine and the clear, cool water appears. This is the society in which, as ecological historian Donald Worster has written, “Water … has no intrinsic value, no integrity that must be respected. Water is no longer valued as a divinely appointed means for survival. … It has become a commodity that is bought and sold and used to make other commodities that can be bought and sold and carried to the marketplace.”
Dawson’s photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of American Art in Washington, DC, the San Francisco MOMA, and the Library of Congress. A book of his photos, What We Share: Photographic Projects of Robert Dawson 1984-2000, was recently published by Cavallo Point and Edition One Studios. You can view more of his images at robertdawson.com.
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