Washed up dead fish in Sask. turn into strange, beautiful art project

When Vera Saltzman saw fish wash up on the shore of Echo Lake, she had no idea it would become her next art project.

Vera Saltzman uses a process called lumen printing, where she lets dead fish bake in the sun

This photo was made with lumen printing, where a dead fish baked in the sun. (Vera Saltzman/Submitted to CBC)

When Vera Saltzman saw fish wash up on the shores of Echo Lake, Sask. she had no idea they would become her next art project.

"There were hundreds of them, literally, washed right up onto the shores," the Saskatchewan artist said. 

Saltzman had grown up in Atlantic Canada and thought she understood fish well. This was fascinating to her, and worth looking into.

"Fish is in my blood to be honest. But I'd never seen this number of dead fish. I'd seen a few here and there which I think is pretty common, that'll happen, but not in the numbers I did that time."

I was walking along the shore with rubber gloves and garbage bags and my neighbours thought I was crazy.- Vera Saltzman, artist

Dead fish are common in southern Saskatchewan lakes, according to Patrick Boyle at the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency. He calls them "fish kills" and says the most common cause is oxygen depletion caused by algae blooms in the mid to late summer months. When fish become trapped in shallow areas of a lake, the oxygen depletion can kill them. 

The cause of the algae is complicated. Boyle says the Qu'Appelle River system is naturally nutrient rich and has been for a very long time, but that treated wastewater effluent from the City of Regina has contributed nutrients and increased algae growth, as well as runoff from Saskatchewan's rich soils. But Boyle adds that the lakes in the Fort Qu'Appelle area experienced significant algae blooms before settlement and the expansion of agricultural practices.

When wind conditions develop, dead fish will wash up on the shorelines. That's where Saltzman found her next weird medium.

She uses a photographic process called lumen printing. It's a camera-less process. She placed the dead fish on the lumen paper in the sunlight and waited.

"I was walking along the shore with rubber gloves and garbage bags and my neighbours thought I was crazy," she said.

This photo was made with a process called lumen printing. Dead fish baked on lumen paper. The artist Vera Saltzman then adjusted the photo in Photoshop. (Vera Saltzman/Submitted to CBC)

She let the dead fish on paper bake in the sun. The longer they bake, the stronger the imprint will be she says.

"There's a chemical reaction that takes place between the expired paper and whatever the organic matter is that you lay on it."

Once it was done she washed off the sticky paper, dried it, and took it to her house. They smelled bad, so she scanned them and worked with them in Photoshop. Her photos are the product of dead fish prints and some play with the density and contrast settings.

Saltzman says she hopes the project makes people think about their water.

"What can we do? What's the province doing? What can individuals do? What are scientists doing?"

Saltzman's collection Cry of the Lake Dwellers will be on display at the Slate Fine Art Gallery in Regina until April 10. 

The collection Cry of the Lake Dwellers will be at the Slate Fine Art Gallery in Regina until April 10. (Vera Saltzman/Submitted to CBC)

With files from CBC's Shauna Powers


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