An expedition through Kim Stringfellow’s Mojave
Tecopa Hot Springs
Five bathers, mostly nude, one wearing long sleeves and a black beanie, lounge among ocher and brown reeds, the murky water of the hot springs coiling through sand. A blue camp chair draped with a towel stands nearby; behind it, clothing is piled on a rock. The water holds the image of a cloudy sky, muted blue rippling through white the texture of cotton balls. In the background, sand dunes are framed by towering navy-blue mountains smeared with rusty pink. The hot springs appear isolated; there is no other water. The undulating, arid landscape extends to the edge of the frame, hinting at the desert that lies beyond.
In early fall, Kim Stringfellow, a landscape photographer, camped in the Pahrump Valley, a stretch of the Mojave Desert just over the Nevada border, near a fenced-off solar facility owned by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company. The Yellow Pine Solar project was still under construction, and partially assembled solar panels gleamed in the late afternoon light. Conservationists were there to protest the way they claimed it had destroyed Mojave yucca and disturbed the habitat of the protected desert tortoise, just as previous industrial-scale renewable energy developments had. Stringfellow, who considers herself an environmentalist, gave a brief speech before the assembled activists and writers about energy extraction in the desert. Consumerism, she said, was fueling our need for energy. “We can cover the entire planet (in solar panels),” she said, “but it will never be enough.”
Stringfellow spoke of her own sprawling Mojave Project, an ever-growing art project that includes a reported essay and a photo series about industrial solar development in the desert. “The work I’m most interested in is work that is about the environment,” she told me. “It’s art as activism.” To Stringfellow, Yellow Pine and similar developments reinforce an anachronistic stereotype of desert as wasteland, desert as barren, a landscape from which humans could take and take until there was actually nothing left. To counter that stereotype, Stringfellow, who is 59, has dedicated much of the last 25 years to documenting the complexity of life — both human and nonhuman — in the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
Using photography, her primary medium, as well as audio, video, and essays written by herself and others, she examines the ways in which humans intervene in the landscapes we inhabit, from homesteading in Wonder Valley to the Manhattan Project and Cold War-era radioactive testing and manufacturing in southeast Washington. For decades, urban artists have flocked to the Mojave, often gawking at the desert’s extremities or using the landscape as a canvas rather than a subject in itself. Stringfellow’s aim is to resist exploitation of all kinds — including artistic — by creating a multi-decade project massive in scope, one that relies on months of research per essay and hours spent interviewing people who live in the Mojave. It’s also participatory: Through field tours, she brings people into the places she documents.
The online header graphic for The Mojave Project is a map published by Time magazine in 1955, whose defined points of interest — mineral extraction sites, military installations and national monuments — reflect the “archaic values” that she seeks to repudiate, Stringfellow wrote in an essay for the magazine Desert Report. “Absent are references to the Mojave’s many Indigenous nations or their respected boundaries,” she wrote. “Nor are there any references to the complex biodiversity of the Mojave Desert. Over time, I hope that The Mojave Project rewrites Time’s 1955 map into an inclusive topography that celebrates the region’s underrepresented histories, voices, and richly diverse ecology.”
Old Woman Mountains
In one photo, Matt Leivas Sr., a Chemehuevi elder and founding board member of the Native American Land Conservancy, holds a long walking stick as he poses in front of a rust-brown boulder surrounded by shrubs and protected by a wooden gate. Another photograph shows a petroglyph, which, according to Leivas, depicts a map of the Lake Havasu region, pre-contact. In the main photo for Stringfellow’s essay, titled “Bringing Creation Back Together Again: The Salt Songs of the Nuwu,” Leivas sits, face tilted upward, behind a rock outcrop at the Old Woman Mountains Preserve, a sacred site for the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) people. The sky is white and gray; spindly cholla and hedgehog cactus spring from granite crevices. He is singing part of the Salt Song, an interconnected ritual song map of the Nuwu’s spiritual and physical landscapes, of which the Old Woman Mountains are a part.
Leivas met Stringfellow, who is white, about a decade ago, at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend, the late ethnic studies scholar Phil Klasky. Afterward, Leivas said, they kept in contact, and eventually she invited him to participate in the Mojave Project. “I said, ‘Certainly,’ because nobody really knows about our history here,” he told me.
Stringfellow’s work, he soon found, unfolds slowly, with weeks, and sometimes months, of reading, driving and interviewing behind each dispatch. Over what he estimated were 40 hours of conversation with Stringfellow, both in person and over the phone, Leivas covered a wide span of topics: his family’s displacement from the Chemehuevi Valley after damming flooded the region in the 1930s; his spiritual awakening when he moved back to the valley as the chief tribal game warden, once the United States federal government recognized the Chemehuevi people and their rights to parcels of land in the area, his work to preserve the Salt Song cycle and his local environmental activism.
“It’s art as activism.”
He appreciated Stringfellow’s inquisitiveness, her candid questioning. “It was like talking to a friend,” he said. Leivas had felt an urgent need to tell his story, too, because his health was in decline. “I had a lot of friends who didn’t have any inkling that I was deeply involved in a lot of these land protection or sacred site protections,” he said. “Now they’re all finding out.”
The Mojave Desert spans 16 million acres across four states. The xeric shrublands in the Sierra Nevada’s rain shadow are home to 200 endemic plant species, hundreds of animals, rock formations that are billions of years old. Indigenous peoples have lived here for millennia: The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe’s point of creation is the mountain Avi Kwa Ame; for the Southern Paiute, creation stems from Mount Charleston and Mount Potosi, in Nevada’s Spring Mountains. Across the desert, Stringfellow has photographed, interviewed and written about a wide range of groups: Rockhounders and land racers. Amateur rocketeers. Water conservationists, UFO enthusiasts and small-claim miners.
In an interview for KCET, the Southern California public broadcasting outlet that has co-published most of The Mojave Project’s essays, Stringfellow spoke of the kinship she felt with Catherine Venn Peterson, a homesteader who initially moved to the Mojave in the 1940s, during a homesteading boom prompted by the Small Tract Act of 1938.
Stringfellow told me that she related to Venn’s independence, her love of the desert’s solitude, while also acknowledging that such homesteading, much like her own relocation to Joshua Tree, is often only available to the privileged. Stringfellow has never married. “I’m hard to be with,” she told me. She’s intense, a private person, and her work is often all-consuming. Her life has little to do with her art, she said. And yet, the personal and the artistic collapse in The Mojave Project: The desert is both her subject and her home.
Stringfellow is a newcomer to the desert, part of a movement of largely-white artists to the area starting in the 1960s. Raised in Renton, Washington, she grew up visiting her grandmother in Carson City, Nevada, and became fascinated with the desert ecosystem of the Great Basin. In 2010, she moved to Joshua Tree in search of creative community.
With tourists flocking to the national park, a popularity boom spurred, in part, by the pandemic, Joshua Tree has gentrified even more in the 12 years Stringfellow has lived there. The median housing price shot up more than 80% between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022. The number of short-term rentals in Joshua Tree grew by 64% during this same period. On Stringfellow’s street alone, three Airbnbs have sprouted in the past several years; one short-term rental owner chainsawed a Joshua tree to build a pool.
Meanwhile, over the last century, the Mojave has warmed by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Bird species are declining, and Lake Mead is at an alarming historic low. Humans are part of nature, but, Stringfellow told me, “I wish we weren’t taking so many other things down with us.”
The morning after the protest at the Yellow Pine Solar project, Stringfellow and I drove back to Joshua Tree together, about 200 miles. We curved along a mountain road and descended into the Amargosa Basin, a region at the entrance to Death Valley, where the Mojave meets the Great Basin. The desert there was lush, nurtured by the 125-mile-long Amargosa River, which flows, mostly underground, from Pahute Mesa in Nevada to its terminus in Death Valley’s Badwater Basin. Thick vegetation — native screwbean mesquite and smoke trees, and non-native saltcedar and arundo — fawned over the road. “It’s almost like blackberry thickets,” Stringfellow said.
The Mojave is a dynamic landscape: Sands shift, dry lake beds fill with rainwater and evaporate, towns boom and grow and sometimes die. This dynamism is often natural, but humans cause much of the change, a theme to which Stringfellow frequently returns. In one essay, she examines the growth, promise and pitfalls of Antelope Valley, where development has beckoned people priced out of the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs, many of them people of color. In the early 1990s, Palmdale was the country’s second fastest-growing city, and its Black population grew nearly 1,000%.
Development has also brought something more sinister. A photo accompanying the essay shows a suburban subdivision walled off from a patch of desert, Joshua trees and a juniper scraggly in the foreground. The caption indicates it’s a neighborhood in Lancaster. Soil from the site, Stringfellow writes, has tested positive for Coccidioides, the fungus that leads to an infection that can cause valley fever, a potentially severe respiratory illness for which there is no vaccine.
“I think that destination travel from city to city, like LA to Vegas, reinforces the desert as wasteland, conceptually,” Steve Williams, a biologist who accompanied us on our drive, said. We’d been talking about Interstate 15, the major Western freeway that runs from San Diego to Sweet Grass, Montana.
Claire Vaye Watkins, who is from Twentynine Palms and the author of two novels and one short story collection based in California and Nevada deserts, told me that Stringfellow is one of the few artists she’s seen who “gets” the Mojave, who depicts her home as it is, as opposed to rendering it empty, or romantic.
She especially appreciates The Mojave Project’s wandering ambiance. “What’s so pleasing about the dispatches is that they have the feeling of turning off a main road with your bravest friend,” Watkins said. “It’s unhurried, deep hanging-out.”
In an essay titled “Anyone for Hounding Rocks?”, Stringfellow recounts how curiosity took her from her intended research in Boron, California, to a locale that caught her eye: the gem and rock shop Desert Discoveries, owned by David Eyre, a “fortyish looking man with a serious rockabilly pompadour.” She ended up dedicating an entire essay and photo series to him, describing him as “a gem and mineral collector/distributor, third-generation Boronite, community good deed doer, and hot-rod enthusiast who drives a different classic car or bike every day of the week.” Her portraits bring his character to life. In one, the rockhound, wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, his brown hair flipped upward like a dolphin fin, grins in front of a retro sign reading, in all caps, “ROCKS.” In another, he holds a small square piece of calcite between his index finger and thumb and peers into its depths, his brow furrowed.
“It’s a pacing issue,” Vaye Watkins said. Slowing down — that’s when you begin to see.
Yes, Stringfellow has made romantic photos for The Mojave Project: A sunbeam piercing clouds over serrated red rock, a dramatic storm swirling over golden dunes. But for the most part, her images are, in her words, “harsh” and “deadpan.” She has taken many of her photographs in the heat of the day, when the light is extreme, almost expressionless — the time most photographers avoid. “I don’t want to romanticize the desert,” she told me. “I want to show that it is formidable and it is intense, and if you are not prepared properly, you can die.”
It is a style she developed in the ’90s, when she started photographing the Salton Sea. It was her first time there, and she was drawn in by the landscape: the ruined remnants of a once-thriving resort community set on an eerily beautiful shore. When California drained 90% of its original marshland over the 20th century — more than any other state in the nation — the Salton Sea became a major stop for migrating birds. But over time, agricultural runoff contributed to the water becoming increasingly brackish, and ecological disaster ensued. Photographers had already been working in the area: In the 1980s, Richard Misrach shot airy, quiet photos of the Salton Sea for one of his “Desert Cantos” series examining human impact in the desert Southwest, and Christopher Landis made haunting black-and-white images. Stringfellow appreciated their work but wanted to develop a style that would differentiate her vision from theirs.
“What’s so pleasing about the dispatches is that they have the feeling of turning off a main road with your bravest friend.”
In the years that followed, Stringfellow returned to the area to shoot photos for her master’s thesis exhibition with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which she later turned into a book titled, Greetings from the Salton Sea: Folly and Intervention in the Southern California Landscape, 1905–2005. Her stark, saturated photos documented the tragic consequences of overdevelopment: fish carcasses rotting on the water’s surface; a rusting bus sinking into a noxious red puddle; a snow goose slumped lifeless near the shore. “It was meant to be a mirror into the future,” Stringfellow told me.
In later projects, she examined the controversial environmental history of Los Angeles aqueduct system and documented the environmental justice battles along Interstate 5 in California. She recounted the cultural history of Wonder Valley’s homesteads, a physically demanding project that involved miles of walking in the desert to shoot photos of abandoned cabins. The project also included an audio tour, so people could see these places for themselves.
The Mojave Project is her longest and most involved work. It has no end date, in part to reflect the ever-shifting nature of the Mojave — the way time in the landscape feels nonlinear, layered. Checko Salgado, a photographer from Las Vegas, told me that the photos are “like she shoots from the hip,” documentation the focus, not necessarily aesthetics. Take, for example, a photograph of a pile of spent heap leach — rocks and other waste left over from cyanidation, a heap-leaching method that uses aqueous cyanide — part of a three-part series on gold mining. In the foreground: a dirt road with tire tracks, and a rusty chain-link fence with a sign reading “No hunting or trespassing.” In the background: the pile, a brown hill dotted with shrubs. The photo would be unremarkable without the context; in the caption, Stringfellow writes, “Notice how the mountain of ore has been graded to appear more ‘natural.’”
Stringfellow’s work, which she calls a social practice, crosses disciplines, incorporating geography, ethnography and biology, though she’s formally trained in none of those fields. The Center for Land Use Interpretation, a research-based arts organization that examines the relationships between humans and nature, has long been a model for her. The organization has led trips, including a 2009 boat tour through Houston — Texas’ “petrochemical artery” — and it creates virtual and gallery exhibitions, using sound recordings, photos, maps and videos to address themes as varied as the ways in which landscapes influenced American presidents and industrial fertilizer production.
According to Hikmet Loe, an art historian who has taught at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Stringfellow’s work can feel overwhelming: There is so much information, and some of it, like hydrology and the mechanics of mining, can be dense. Forty-four essays, 26 audio recordings and more than 100 photos are available on her website, in seven print books, and, occasionally, in exhibition settings. And her subject is impossibly large. Inevitably, Stringfellow leaves out stories and perspectives. (Absent from the project, so far, is a dispatch on Las Vegas, a major Mojave city.)
Yet taken in at a slower pace, each piece of the work unearths another layer of the Mojave’s complexity. Stringfellow sees her audience as general, made up of desert dwellers and aficionados, though she’s pleased when experts respond to her work. Recently, a professional water manager reached out to say he’d shared her dispatch on the overused, drought-shrunken Colorado River with his colleagues.
Though The Mojave Project has been showcased in museums across the desert, Stringfellow is not making art for the “white cube” of gallery interiors. Her work, which is primarily funded by grants and fellowships, is not particularly commercial: “I’m not interested in decorative.” Rather, her art involves “critically looking at the world around us,” she told me. “It’s less about the personal, and definitely not about the market.”
In April, Stringfellow held an immersive arts and earth sciences field tour over the course of a weekend to bring people into some of the areas she’s documented. Stringfellow acted as a curator. It’s a role she plays throughout her work. Her presence hovers in the background of her essays; she writes in the first person when she’s on the ground, interviewing people, but she is never central to the work. In the past, she has brought guests to Joshua Tree and around the Morongo Basin, as well as to communities in and around Death Valley. This time, the tour was set in the Amargosa Basin.
At Devils Hole, a limestone cavern at the base of a peak near the Nevada-California border, Ambre Chaudoin, a biologist for Death Valley National Park Aquatics Program, talked about the site’s enduring mysteries. The cavern, she told us, was full of “fossil water,” which left its main source in Nevada’s Spring Mountains some 10,000 years ago and eventually bubbled up at the edge of Amargosa Valley. Much is still unknown about the cavern — how deep it is, for example, or why an isolated species of pupfish subsists there, in the consistently 93-degree water. “Are they considered the rarest fish in the world?” Stringfellow asked. “One of the rarest,” Chaudoin said. “We like to say it’s the smallest habitat for any vertebrate species, and it’s one of the most extreme.”
At the cavern, Emily Eliza Scott, a professor of the history of art at the University of Oregon, and Derek Berlin, then a graduate student studying land-use conservation, peered from a platform suspended 50 feet above the pool. Underneath its murky surface, more than 250 remaining pupfish lived. “Did (Chaudoin) say anything about the impacts of climate change?” Berlin asked Scott and me.
“That’s an interesting question. There must be so much less snowpack,” Scott said, referring to the aquifer’s source, the Spring Mountains. “Hopefully the rate of evaporation is low, because it’s so protected.”
Berlin asked Chaudoin how climate change was affecting the cavern. “Is it evaporation? Is it less flow of the aquifer that feeds in?”
It’s both, Chaudoin said — along with the heat. “These air temperatures over that shallow critical habitat, they’re already spiking up, like beyond really what the fish can survive.”
The conversations I overheard during the weekend were inquisitive and roving, touching on urban environmentalism, wildfire ecology and earthworks, the guests exchanging knowledge and expertise. The 60 or so in attendance included a lawyer who was fighting to achieve threatened species protections for the western Joshua tree, several curators and a local date farmer. “I’m a photographer, but that’s really not the experience I want you to have,” Stringfellow told us the first night. “The art is about the conversations you have with one another.”
The Amargosa Chaos
On the last day of the field tour, Marli Miller, a geologist at the University of Oregon, brought us to the Amargosa Chaos, an area in Death Valley that geologists have been puzzling over for years. The area is highly faulted, so “thoroughly broken up and shuffled that nobody’s been able to put everything back in its place,” Miller wrote in an essay for The Mojave Project. No one knows how to date the rocks there, or what geological event, or series of events, created such disorder.
“We all experience time in a different way,” Miller said as we gathered around a rock formation. “One of the things I find most moving about studying the earth is to think about geologic time and how vast and incomprehensible it is.” She picked up a rock from the ground and identified it as a Precambrian siltstone, latticed with mud cracks, likely 600 million years old. It is both humbling and horrifying, Stringfellow said, to know that humans occupy such a small frame on the Earth’s geological timeline. “Something that is 600 million years old — how do you fathom that concept and place yourself?”
Stringfellow told me she needed to understand geology to write about the Mojave. Not just the surface of the desert, but what was underneath — the layers of bedrock and crust that revealed the story of this place. “For me to understand a landscape — this is what I’ve come to understand myself — I can’t just go out and go, ‘Oh, this is attractive, I’ll photograph this,’ and not know that this yucca could be 1,200 years old,” she said. “How can I be a landscape photographer if I don’t truly know what I am pointing my camera at?”
“We are part of this larger system, and we’re all related,” she told me later. “There’s no hierarchy, or exceptionalism for humans.” She often refers back to Devils Hole, where water has sloshed up the cavern’s sides in the minutes after distant earthquakes; on Sept. 19, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake near the Colima and Michoacán states in Mexico triggered four-foot-high waves in the pool. “We are implicitly tied to Earth’s natural systems, its rhythms and overall health, just as Devils Hole is connected to some unlikely distant spot on the planet some 2,000 miles away,” Stringfellow wrote in a 2015 essay on the cavern.
Ultimately, The Mojave Project is a celebration — and an appeal. Through its essays, photos, and various events, Stringfellow shows her audience that places like Devils Hole and the Amargosa Chaos and the Pahrump Valley exist, and not only that they exist, but they are complicated, wondrous, and, on the geologic time scale, fleeting. Stringfellow is saying, Look. Look at what’s here. Look before it’s gone.
This piece was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
Meg Bernhard is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She’s reported for The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Guernica, Hazlitt, The Virginia Quarterly Review and others.