Updated Monday, August 4, 2014
During a recent excursion to Death Valley National Park with a photographer friend, I visited the virtual ghost town of Ballarat, California, on the way home. I have long-since wanted to explore this desolate town in the Mojave Desert and, with a massive storm brewing over the Panamint Range, it made for a perfect photographic opportunity. Located just outside Death Valley National Park, Ballarat now has a sole resident – Rocky Novak, who operates the general store – and his two dogs. The town is off Highway 178 (Trona Wildrose Road), not far from the small desert town of Trona, famous for the Trona Pinnacles. There are still some ruins remaining, including decayed living quarters, a jailhouse and morgue, a cemetery, and a truck that belonged to Bobby Beausoleil, a member of the infamous Charles Manson Family, who were arrested near the town after the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders.
In the 1960s, Charles Manson and the “Manson Family” of killers moved into a ranch near Ballarat (Barker Ranch in the Panamint Range), and left graffiti and an old truck in the town, a very pertinent fact that I discovered only after departing Ballarat. I simply wanted to kick myself for not going inside the truck; however, I did not know at the time whether the truck was private property and we needed to return home after days in the hot desert. Good sources confirm that the truck belonged to Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, who tried to escape after the Barker Ranch hideout was invaded by lawmen. Beausoleil furiously drove the rickety old truck down the rugged mountains on the washboard roads, ending up in Ballarat when the truck finally broke down.
Ballarat was founded in 1896 as a supply point for the mines in the canyons of the Panamint Range. A quarter-mile to the south is Post Office Springs, a reliable water source used since the 1850s by prospectors and desert wanderers. George Riggins, a young immigrant from Australia, gave Ballarat its name when he proposed it should be named for Ballarat, Victoria, in the heart of Australia’s gold country. In its heyday—from 1897 to 1905—Ballarat had 400 to 500 residents. It hosted seven saloons, three hotels, a Wells Fargo station, post office, school, a jail and morgue, but no churches. Ballarat was a place for miners and prospectors in the area to resupply and relax.
The town began its decline when the Ratcliff Mine, in Pleasant Canyon east of town, suspended operations. Other mines nearby also began to play out, and in 1917 the post office closed and all that remained were a few diehard prospectors and desert rats. The 1969 movie Easy Rider has a scene filmed in Ballarat; after arriving in the town, Peter Fonda’s character, Wyatt, removes his Rolex watch and throws it away before he and Dennis Hopper’s character, Billy, head east on their motorcycles towards New Orleans.
Ballarat is a great place for photographers who love to shoot urbex/rurex and for those into paranormal encounters. The images were taken with my Nikon D800; I will add more photos to this post as they are processed. Meanwhile, you can check my most recent images on my Flickr site.
I am very excited to announce that, over the past six months, my fine art photography has been featured in four publications: two magazine articles, an Arizona visitor’s guide, and an upcoming book on the 125th anniversary of Paso Robles, California. In the summer of 2013, I was contacted by the former Curator of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, who requested an interview on the subject of my photography of abandoned places and techniques used to capture and post-process the images. Featured on pages 26-27 of the November 2013 issue of Journal Plus Magazine (the magazine of the California Central Coast), the article consists of an interview and samples of my urbex/rurex work (urban exploration/rural exploration).
The article is titled SLO County Art Scene: Renee Besta’s Photographic Memory and focuses on my passion for shooting decaying and abandoned structures, as well as why the presence of humans is sometimes best demonstrated by their absence in a photograph. You can read the archived article here, or see the screen capture of the spread below.
In early 2014, one of my images of Native American (Sinagua) petroglyphs was published in the 2014-2015 Experience Sedona Official Visitor’s Guide, produced by the Sedona Chamber of Commerce and City of Sedona. Located in the upper right corner of page 10, the image – Hymn to Our Culture – was taken in the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness area not far from the towns of Sedona and Camp Verde and Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona. These petroglyphs are located on the V-Bar-V Ranch and can be viewed by registering at the visitor center and hiking out about a mile or so. Unfortunately, there is no direct link available online to the page; however, you can view the publication online after registering or have a copy mailed to you by clicking on this Visit Sedona link.
In the February/March 2014 issue of SLO Life Magazine, my image Ever Returning – taken inside the historic Mission San Miguel church – was featured in a two-page spread and mini-article found on pages 18-19. SLO is the local vernacular for the little California Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo. The article is titled Go to the Light and focuses on my love for this wonderful mission gem and why I was compelled to take the photograph. At this time the archived February/March 2014 issue is not yet available online, but you can learn more about the magazine by clicking here.
Lastly, an image I shot of an abandoned farmhouse in a rural area east of Paso Robles, California, will be published in an upcoming book by Bob Flood on the history of Paso Robles in celebration of the city’s 125th Anniversary. When I receive a copy, I will post the page here. The photograph, Once Upon a Time, is below.