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Grotesquely Polluted Landscapes ... or Beautiful Art?

In an ideal world, there would be no burned-up lakes or horrifically denuded strip mines and David Maisel would be out of a job.

Environmental damage on the epic scale has become Maisel's bread and butter ever since the photographer started chronicling blighted mining sites in the 1980s. Typically working from inside a Cessna airplane, he's shot brilliantly colored but cyanide-stricken "leaching fields" in Southwest mines, the befouled lands around a Utah magnesium company that the EPA sued for hazardous waste and a huge lake that's been sucked into a dry, toxic dust-spewing desert by the people of Los Angeles.

His oeuvre is full of these depressing odes to human progress and industrialization, although they don't much appear like photos of mass contamination. With their curious juxtapositions of oil-paintlike shapes and hues, funnily enough, they almost look like what a CEO of a polluting chemical company might hang on the office walls as "abstract art."

Museums across the country have hoarded Maisel's work, and now the photographer is hitting another artistic milestone with the first comprehensive survey dealing with his cursed landscapes. Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, published by Steidl, is filled with photos that Maisel handpicked for their uneasy meshing of allure and destruction. “It's almost like beauty and horror are two sides of the same coin in this work,” the photographer says from his Bay Area studio.

Maisel recently took the time to chat about his lifework, as well as whatever else popped into his head, beginning with the surprisingly grotesque territory around Utah's Great Salt Lake.


"Terminal Mirage" (2003 - 2005)

The Great Salt Lake is a surreal obstacle course of industrial evaporation ponds, dioxin-contaminated dirt patches and storage facilities for mouldering chemical weapons. The striking colors around the lake are created by sodium, potassium, chloride, perhaps molybdenum, algae, bacteria and other fun stuff.

"For me, it's interesting that the lake has essentially become a mine because it's a terminal lake," Maisel says, who first came there to see Robert Smithson's seminal spiral landwork. "That means there's no natural outlet, and mineral content has been building up in the lake for millennia. There are all these ways that various minerals are mined from the lake – it's for a large part industrialized." Some of the more popular commercial extracts include sodium chloride for water-softening systems, roadway ice melters and livestock salt licks, and brine shrimp embryoes to feed Asia and South America's pet fish.


"The Lake Project" (2001 - 2002)

Much of Owens Lake was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 20th century to slake the growing city's extraordinary thirst. That turned out not to be a great idea, because the dried-up lake bed started pluming off huge alkali-dust storms, some of it containing carcinogens like arsenic and cadmium. What little water is left is stained blood red by salt-loving bacteria. The governments of California and L.A. occasionally clash now over the costs of maintaining a mitigation program for the lake's flying particulate matter, which the city in a lawsuit has called the "most expensive dust control program in the entire nation, and likely the world."

Maisel noticed the barren waterway while driving when its alien-world appearance tore his eyeballs off the road. “It was this glittering, pink lake bed that went on for miles and miles and miles," he says. "That piqued my curiosity."


"Oblivion" (2004 - 2006)

These eerie photos of Los Angeles marked a departure for the photographer in a couple ways: They were black and white, obviously, and he shot them from a helicopter rather than a plane. "That's because there's a lot of air traffic over the urban environment," he says, recalling the copter's radio chirping, “There's a 747 coming in, and you need to go down to 9,000 feet and park there for a while."

Maisel chose to shoot in monochrome to strengthen the "graphic qualities of a city that goes on and on and on.” He says this series doesn't so much deal with environmental destruction as criticisms of "urban planning, or lack thereof."


"The Mining Project" (1987 - 2007)

Maisel's done extensive work above decrepit and active mines in Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere, shooting treeless wastelands dotted with pools of cyanide-tinged water (the poison is used to recover tiny bits of gold from waste tailings). Because he started in the days before the Internet, his hunt for pestilent holes like the one you see above in Carlin, Nevada, often would begin at the public library, where he'd peruse the federal government's annual publications on the mining industry. "It was done state by state. I'd just read through, and there were no pictures at all," he says. "I liked it – you don't know until you get there what you'll see."

The cost of cleaning up some of these sites can be extraordinarily high, rivaling the value of the metals extracted from them. (You're looking above at a mine in Butte, Montana.) "Sometimes mining companies go out of business, or a mine gets mothballed because it's cheaper to mine in South America," the photographer says. "The environmental problems might not be evident right away, but tend to come out decades later when the mines are no longer active."

And yet somehow his mine series is not designed to be an overt critique of mine companies. Maisel would rather they simply serve as a visual conduit to contemplating humanity's gradual but stunning alteration of the environment. "They're not really meant to be pointing a finger at any specific industry," he says. "In fact, photography uses minerals and metals and papers and water. I'm embedded in the subject matter of this work as much as anyone."

For those who want to see Maisel's work firsthand, he has shows closing May 11 at the CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado Boulder and opening June 1 at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona.

Photos used with permission of David Maisel

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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