Leonard Knight passed away last year but he left an incredible legacy, an embodiment of love, that is Salvation Mountain. From 1984, he painted and remodeled a little hill in the California desert that’s colorful as a cupcake and truly meaningful. And if anything ever would have been meant to be shot with Lomo cameras, it would be this psychedelic, holy hill.
It was during a stay in L.A. that my friend @satomi, queen of cool, took me on a field trip across the sunny state to Salvation Mountain. It’s not that easy to find but with a little back and forth and zigzagging, you will manage. It’s close to the Mexican border and we even got checked by a police officer. He was quite confused by the fact that a German and a Japanese are hanging around in the desert. To check that we are humans he even asked us if we like Depeche Mode! Guess we passed the test.
Salvation Mountain is not too far from the Yellowstone National Park and is a stone’s throw away from Salton Sea. At 1,000 square meters, it is the biggest lake in California, which ought to be stinking up to Los Angeles because the salt lake produces large amounts of sulfur due to fertilizers and the lack of water. What a contradiction to the beauty of Salvation Mountain.
When you first see this 100-feet long screaming, colorful hill, you would probably think that it’s part of a comic in a different dimension. And that is the magic of it. I want to believe that it is also a criticism to the world we live in today. California is the eighth largest economy in the world. But it is good to refrain from the greed of money and time and take a minute to think about love—just that. Knight was never paid to do what he did, to take 500,000 gallons of paint and put it in layers on a hill. It is a vision of art and compassion, although a bit cuckoo. But the creator didn’t take himself too seriously, labeling himself a little hobo-bird. Once a welder, soldier, and guitar teacher, he dedicated his life only to the sole purpose of creating Salvation Mountain.
When he started in 1984, Knight only wanted to spend a week or two working on his project. But then he ended up working tirelessly for 30 years on his piece of art that was never meant to be finished. It is full of religious symbols and biblical messages. Everything is centered around a massive God Loves You on the top with a simple giant cross. There is a pathway leading up to an artificial Lucy in the Sky poppy garden. Paint fumes may have done something to alter Knight’s imagination. There are little man-made caves around the hill, with wires formed into sculptures of urban life. Leonard gathered what he could find to add up to his installation, and in time people donated material to him. You can also find boats, motorcycles, cars, and a trailer which was painted in the same fashion as the mountain. The trailer was also his retreat when he worked. He didn’t stay all the time there because life in the desert is harsh, especially at an old age. There is no water and electricity, and telephone poles were only used in his installation.
Salvation Mountain is not a place to live, but to love. There is no entrance fee; you are just obliged to treat the holy hill with respect, to leave it untouched. But I guess it was always the creator’s interest to spread the word. To be featured in tales such as this one. There is a non-profit organization that tries to preserve Salvation Mountain. It is what it is, hopefully eternally, because there have been setbacks over the decades. Once, a lightning destroyed the original cross, and desert rain washed the paint away.
It was great to spend time with Satomi and seeing her photographic process. How meticulously she bent the exposure times of the Diana F+ to achieve the great results she always displays. She made an amazing LomoKino film from our time there, which I consider one of the best to date as well.
It was actually one of the first LomoKino movies ever. She tested the camera before it hit the market. That’s why she hid the camera when I shot her in the process. I think it’s one of my favorite shots because it is simply amazing.
I am not religious and wouldn’t go more often into a church after visiting Salvation Mountain. But I admire the work of a single man, the dedication and conviction to follow a vision. That is spiritual for me and I believe in that. I think that’s the thing. You just have to be believe in something; otherwise, you are a restless soul.
The Sean Penn flick, “Into the Wild,” built Salvation Mountain a cinematic monument. Even the motion pictures could not resist its magnetic power and made even Emile Hirsch and Kirsten Stewart a little bit cooler. There, you’ll have a glimpse on Leonard Knight as well.
To honor Knight, I would like to conclude this article with his words: “There is Mount Rushmore, and there is Salvation Mountain.”