Near the start of Salt, Murray Fredericks points his video camera at the hard earth leading to Lake Eyre in South Australia. The frame shows two sets of bicycle tracks. “That’s last year’s track coming back in,” he says from off-screen. “And my track this year coming back out.”
Fredericks’ narration helps to underline just how alien and stark this place is. He’s the only one who’s been here. He’s the only one going there. Throughout the film, premiering 17 August as the first in POV‘s new season, the photographer and videographer shares his experience, describing what’s in frame and also what he’s thinking about what’s in frame.
Much of this experience is arduous, just physically demanding. The land stretches endlessly, treeless and arid, and Fredericks carries his equipment and gear to the center of the lake on a push-bike and trailer. The site is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least being its distance from anywhere else, both geographically and metaphorically: this huge evaporation basin is located at the lowest point in Australia, at about 49 feet below sea level. Fredericks has been to hard places before, having photographed unusual landscapes in Patagonia, Tasmania, and the Himalayas. But the Salt Project, in process for some six years, begins with a particular premise: Fredericks wants to show a place that lacks conventional markers of place, like trees or mountains, and so focuses viewers’ attention on what he calls “essence.”
In Salt, this “essence” has to do with both subjective and external states. Featuring images—stills as well as video, some time-lapsed—taken from 2006 through 2008, the film documents his effort to create 360 degrees of photographs, a series of 8x10-inch plates to depict the horizon “the whole way around.” As Fredericks begins his trip in 2008, he says, “One thing I haven’t been able to do is convey that sense of total immersion into this space, into this void.”
Fredericks evokes this sense of immersion—in weather, work, and himself. “I find there’s a level of physical exertion,” he says, “which kind of trips my mind over to a dream state, an imagination state.” This state leads to inspiration and so to art, certainly, as his photographs indicate. It also leads to self-contemplation, not unlike that experienced by Sebastian Copeland in making his documentary, Into the Cold: A Journey of the Soul, about his excursion to the North Pole. As different as the locations and the weather conditions may be (and Copeland traveled with a partner), the films yield remarkably similar reflections on human experience in relation to environments.
For Fredericks, this experience of the place—the dryness, the expansiveness, the endlessness—has him thinking about his connections back home. His video diary includes a couple of phone conversations with his family. We hear his side only, the camera watching from outside his tent, the still frame insisting on his solitude in the desert. “Hey babe,” he greets his wife, before he laments, “It’d just be nice if you asked me how I was. ‘Cause I get bloody lonely out here too.”
The inclusion of this moment in the film underlines the intimate design of the project. Though co-director Michael Angus traveled with Fredericks and took footage as well (one shot near film’s end offers a spectacular overhead context: Fredericks becomes a speck on the earth’s surface), they decided the film would consist primarily of Fredericks’ own shots, more than once shots of him taking shots. These include some “video confessional” close-ups, as he speaks to the camera from inside his tent during a rainstorm (recalling images of a shelter-seeking Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man) or notes, “I’m starting to feel a little bit depressed today,” because, before the rain, the days are “exactly the same.”
But more often, the shots of Fredericks include the world around him—the sky, the desert, the tent, and camera. The film enhances some emotional moments with a music soundtrack (sober strings or lively piano), but honestly the images don’t need such familiar cues: they’re effective because, as Fredericks says more than once, they are so other, and so ask viewers to rethink their own frameworks. That’s not to say you feel exactly what he feels—being there seems a singular experience. “There’s an amplification of thought that goes on out here,” he explains, “kind of a heightening of sounds and ideas.” Sometimes his thought is practical (he worries that his work may be costing his family, financially and emotionally) and sometimes metaphysical, even spiritual.
Drawing parallels between the void out there and the void inside himself, the interplay of childhood memories and more recent traumas (the death of his mother, for instance), he describes a peace in looking at—and documenting—the horizon he’ll never reach. “What I find here, when you’re that close to the void, when the space is that overpowering, you actually lose some kind of sense of self. And I love pointing my camera into that emptiness into that space and seeing what happens.” For all its beauty and strangeness, Salt can only suggest what he sees. What you see is yours.