By srianthi perera, GSN Contributor
Water as it supports life and the quality of what we drink are the topics of a photographic exhibition showing this month in Gilbert.
“Water Flow and Tidal Rhythms,” presenting the work of Tucson-based photographers Kathleen Velo and Stephen Strom, is organized by Art Intersection and runs through Oct. 27 at Gallery 4, HD South in Gilbert. Strom’s images of the tides are complemented by Barbara Hurd’s lyrical essays in “Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea.”
Both photographers find beauty in their surroundings but impart warning messages: One observes the gradual decay of water quality, and the other notes the perils to life within and around the water.
Strom’s images were taken on a variety of isolated beaches along the Pacific Coast. When seas rise, warm and acidify as a result of global warming, it stresses the lives of the creatures that make their home in the tidal zones.
“Anything that lives in a tidal zone has usually found a way to adapt – to move a little to the north or inland or higher up, or to grow sturdier shells, longer stalks or more efficient holdfasts,” Strom said. “They could do it because they had decades, millennia, to adjust. Change happened slowly then, over eons.”
It isn’t like that anymore.
“In geologic terms, the pace of change now is frenetic, and the effect on tidal zones is no longer languorous. For the creatures who live here, there are fewer options. They’re not coming back, those old rhythms,” he said.
In a state where the quantity of water is a big concern, Velo highlights the importance also of its quality.
Her color photograms were created along the Colorado River, from its headwaters in Northern Colorado all the way into Mexico. The project shows a visual comparison of water in different locations with color influenced by whatever is in it.
To make the images, Velo goes into the water long after dark and submerges color photographic paper. At the right moment, the paper is briefly exposed to a light source, while underwater, to create a photogram of the water contents and movement.
According to the Save The Colorado Foundation, every drop of the Colorado River’s five trillion gallons of water is drained every year and diverted to farms and cities.
When the water is returned to the river, it contains pollutants from agriculture, pesticides, municipal wastewater systems, livestock feedlots and prescription drugs, among others, Velo said.
“The contents of the water interact with the photographic emulsion of my paper and an alchemy takes place, which effects the color and shows the viscosity of the water – a visual effect that is captured in my photograms,” she added.
Velo has shown her work in galleries and museums nationally and internationally, including at the Southeastern Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida and The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado. She also teaches traditional and digital photography in Arizona.
Velo’s underwater process to create work is equaled by Strom’s photographs, which are equally painstaking to generate.
A former research astronomer, his communion with the beaches are during the lowest tides of the month and at dawn, when, under a full moon, the ocean waters recede.
“For a few hours, another world is revealed: sand engraved with transient patterns imprinted by the ebbing tide and by marine life scurrying for sustenance; flora and fauna clinging to rocks, finding nourishment before the waters return; rocks and shells polished by tide and time, arranged on a canvas of sand,” he said.
Strom’s work captures expansive vistas and intimate portraits. He outlined the lives of mussels that are upended by the environmental changes.
Mussels, gathered in tidal zones in a “living blanket” might appear to be still, but they are restless with hunger and an urge to stay alive. Each mussel stays attached via a foot that secretes a kind of glue and grips the surface; they congregate and sidle up to one another.
However, increasingly acidified ocean waves slosh around and under the mussel beds and eat away at those threads, changing the proteins in the silky glue, weakening the mussels’ attachments, he said.
Meanwhile, “seawater is slowly rising, and more violent storms hammer the coasts, pound the mussels whose threads, stretched by the force, sometimes snap,” he said.
“The mussel is flung who-knows-where, increasing the force on those remaining, which are now more exposed. The living blanket is ripped, and on and on it goes until not just the mussels are at heightened risk but so, too, are the communities of crabs, snails and worms that live within the blanket and the birds that feed here, and on and on that threat, too, goes.”
Mussels can’t detach and migrate to a better place.
Strom accepts that change is inevitable over the years. For millions of years, the sea has risen and fallen, and life forms have managed to adapt or not.
“But the current pace of change confronts us with a new and urgent question: Can these balanced systems evolve rapidly enough to enable continued sustenance and maybe even a new beauty?” he asked.
Velo hopes her photograms will make people wonder what’s in their water and advocate for better water quality.
“We can all do our part,” she said.
Water Flow and Tidal Rhythms is on through Oct. 27 with a closing reception from 4-6 p.m. on that day at HD South, home of the Gilbert Historical Museum, 10 S. Gilbert Road. Details: 480-926-1577 or hdsouth.org.
Both photographers have published books connected to their photography: “Water Flow: A Journey Through the Colorado River” by Kathleen Velo chronicles the three-year process of creating camera-less, underwater photograms ($40 at kathleenvelo.com) and “Tidal Rhythms: Change and Resilience at the Edge of the Sea” with Barbara Hurd (George F. Thompson Publishing, priced at $35.17 on amazon.com), which features about 100 tidal photos.