Southern California’s eerie desert town of Bombay Beach is set on the Salton Sea, which formed when a levee of the Colorado River burst in the early 1900s, creating a lake 200 feet below sea level.

“Ghost Ship” by Sean Guerrero photographed by Damon James Duke

In the 1950s, the people begun flocking to the area with trailers and even built vacation homes: It was the new Palm Springs, but with water. Over the years, however, intensive agriculture poisoned the water, killing vast amounts of wildlife. Today, the lake’s shores are covered in calcified fish corpses, and only a handful of eclectic locals remain.

“Trailer” by Damon James Duke

Bombay Beach Bienalle

Recently, artists have been finding inspiration in the apocalyptic trailer park town. In 2015, Tao Ruspoli & Stefan Ashkenazy decided to throw a renegade art event called the Bombay Beach Biennale. Artists built installations in dilapidated homes and even started buying up the properties to turn them into year-round art installations.

“A Dream In Death” by Damon James Duke

Having attended the first two iterations of the Biennale, photographer Damon James Duke exhibited at 2019’s edition and documented the weird and wonderful event and its singular setting.

“Open House” by Keith Jones & Lee Henderson photographed by Damon James Duke

Duke shoots mainly in black and white, with heavy shadows. “I’m inspired by wide open spaces, isolation, decay, and hope,” he says. And where better than Bombay Beach to explore those themes? You have this gorgeous dying lake surrounded by mountains with migratory birds flying in formations overhead, bizarre trailers-turned-art-installations, an old train that runs just outside of town creating a gentle hum in the distance… not to mention all of the strange and beautiful people that live there,” he continues. “It’s hard to take it all in.”

“Distant Train” by Damon James Duke

A dream in death

Entitled “A dream in death”, in a nod to a Godspeed You! Black Emperor song, Duke’s photo installation was hosted in a friend’s abandoned trailer. “It’s fitting because I feel like the work we’re creating out there as a collective is our dream in death,” he says. “People look at Bombay and see decay and desolation, but I see a lot of hope. I see a rebirth.”

“A Dream In Death” Trailer by Damon James Duke

Duke spent several months on and off in the desert shooting hundreds of photos of the town. Mostly using his trusty Mamiya RZ67 fed with expired Fuji FB 3000b instant film. His stills were accompanied by video projections of footage shot around Bombay Beach cut to ambient noises and samples from Godspeed You! Black Emperor songs. He also painted a coffin pink and filled it with ball pit balls for people to lounge in, and installed a swing in the water.

“Swing” by Damon James Duke and Chris “Ssippi” Wessman, photographed by Damon James Duke

While he was in town, Duke also shot a music video for his friend Goldiii. An experimental neoclassical opera singer who he met during the first Biennale. “Spoiler alert: In the video, she commits suicide. I had to have the coffin made for her and dig a hole out in the desert. Not surprisingly, the locals didn’t think it was weird,” he says.  

“Vera Sola” photographed by Damon James Duke

Back in Berlin, where he’s based, Duke reflects on the message of his images of Bombay Beach, and of his work more generally –  “I’d like to consider myself an optimistic nihilist,” he concludes. “I look for hope in the darkness.”

“A Dream In Death Ball Pit Coffin” self-portrait by Damon James Duke

Damon James Duke –

Instagram – @damonjamesduke