April 26, 2013
For almost 30 years, David Maisel has been photographing areas of environmental degradation. He hires a local pilot to take him up in a four-seater Cessna, a type of plane he likens to an old Volkswagen beetle with wings, and then, anywhere from 500 to 11,000 feet in altitude, he cues the pilot to bank the plane. With a window propped open, Maisel snaps photographs of the clear-cut forests, strip mines or evaporation ponds below.
The resulting images are beautiful and, at the same, absolutely unnerving. What exactly are those blood-red stains? As a nod to the confusing state they place viewers in, Maisel calls his photographs black maps, borrowing from a poem of the same title by contemporary American poet Mark Strand. “Nothing will tell you / where you are,” writes Strand. “Each moment is a place / you’ve never been.”
Maisel’s latest book, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, is a retrospective of his career. It features more than 100 photographs from seven aerial projects he has worked on since 1985. Maisel began with what Julian Cox, the founding curator of photography at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, calls in the book an “extensive investigation” of Bingham Canyon outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. His photographs capture the dramatic layers, gouges and textures of the open-pit mine, which holds the distinction of being the largest in the world.
This series expanded to include other mining sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana, until eventually Maisel made the leap from black and white to color photography, capturing the bright chemical hues of cyanide-leaching fields in The Mining Project (a selection shown above). He also turned his lens to log flows in Maine’s rivers and lakes in a project called The Forest and the dried bed of California’s Owens Lake, drained to supply Los Angeles with water, in The Lake Project.
Oblivion, as the photographer describes on his personal Web site, was a “coda” to The Lake Project; for this series of black and white photographs, reversed like x-rays, Maisel made the tight network of streets and highways in Los Angeles his subject—see an example below. Then, in one of his most recent aerial endeavors, titled Terminal Mirage (top), he photographed the Mondrian-like evaporation ponds around Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
All combined, Maisel’s body of work is what Cox calls “a medley of terrains transformed by humankind to serve its needs and desires.” The narrative thread, he adds in the introduction to Black Maps, is the photographer’s aim to convey humans’ “uneasy and conflicted relationship with nature.”
I wrote about Maisel’s photography for Smithsonian in 2008, when his “Black Maps” exhibition was touring the country, and at that time, the Long Island, New York-native hedged from being called an “environmental activist.” As Cox astutely notes, “The photographs do not tell a happy story,” and yet they also “do not assign any blame.” Maisel is attracted to these landscapes because of their brilliant colors, eye-catching compositions and the way they emote both beauty and danger.
Maisel’s photographs are disorienting; it is a mental exercise just trying to orient oneself within the frame. Without providing solid ground for viewers to stand on, the images inevitably spark more questions than they do answers.
Each one is like a Rorschach test, in that the subject is, to some extent, what viewers make it to be. Blood vessels. Polished marble. Stained-glass windows. What is it that you see?
An exhibition of Maisel’s large-scale photographs, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, is on view at the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, through May 11, 2013. From there, the show will travel to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it will be on display from June 1 to September 1, 2013.
April 22, 2013
In 1971, about 70 photographers, commissioned by the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency, set out to document the American landscape on just 40 rolls of film each. They trudged through coal mines and landfills, traversed deserts and farms and discovered big cities’ small corridors. The end result was DOCUMERICA, a collection of more than 15,000 shots capturing the country’s environmental problems—from water and air pollution to industrial health hazards—over six years.
Decades later, a new generation of photographers is collecting ”after” pictures. In the past two years, the EPA has collected more than 2,000 photos, all of which loosely depict the environment. The State of the Environment Photography Project, as the effort is called, asks photographers to take shots that match scenes from DOCUMERICA, to show how the landscape has changed since the 1970s. It also asks photographers to capture new or different environmental issues, with the idea that these modern scenes could in turn be re-photographed in the distant future; the EPA has released several of these shots for this year’s Earth Day. The project will accept submissions through the end of 2013.
The EPA explains that DOCUMERICA became a baseline for America’s environmental history, and that tracking change is key for public eco-consciousness.
There’s more to capturing environmental issues on camera than shooting smoke stacks and nuclear plants. The most effective way to convey them is to photograph people, says Michael Philip Manheim. Manheim, one of DOCUMERICA’s photographers, documented noise pollution in East Boston in the ’70s, portraying the deterioration of a close-knit community as nearby Logan Airport expanded its runways. That’s what made DOCUMERICA strike a chord with the public years ago, providing closeups of miners suffering from black lung and kids playing basketball in cramped housing developments.
“Meet the affected people, let them know how you care, find out what impacts them the most,” advises Manheim about matching his photos today. He still has the cameras he used for his assignment, which he treats as “sculptures” that stay hidden in closets. “After that, it’s time to energize a camera, and not by posing pictures but by reacting candidly to what is going on in the lives of your subjects.”
Though some landscapes remain the same, Manheim says what’s changed since DOCUMERICA is the level of awareness of environmental issues. The photographer attributes this increase to the rapid spread of digital information, a visual online petition that he says Bostonians could have used to fight back in the 1970s.
The “now” and “then” photos show varying degrees of change when placed side-by-side, funky fashions and clunky cars aside. Clumps of unnatural foam continue to bob along polluted waters near industrial buildings, but considerably less smog hangs in the air of some urban cities. In an “after” shot of a section of John Day Dam between Oregon and Washington State, a set of wind turbines appear on the background terrain.
The ease of digital photography will help propel the current iteration of an environmental snapshot, Manheim says. When shooting on film, photographers can’t know right away whether they’ve taken “the shot.” Digital allows them to examine the first few shots of a scene, and then find better ways to convey its details.
“You don’t stand around, waiting for something to happen. You exert mental and physical energy,” Manheim says. For anyone wanting to participate in the State of the Environment project, the photographer has some advice: “Set the scene in your coverage, and then you go for the ‘good stuff.’ You get close, closer, closest. You move in to explore and find the epitomizing image, close and meaningful, that symbolizes the situation.”
In the 1970s, Manheim got to know the people who lived in the colorful triple-decker row houses lining Neptune Road in East Boston. Planes soared overhead nearly every three minutes, prompting the nearby residents to cover their ears from the deafening roar of the engines. He captured one of these low-flying planes in a photograph, shown above. In 2012, Manheim returned to the site to document it yet again. The “then” and “now” pairing tells a story that has played out over decades. Eventually, the adjacent airport built runways flush to the streets’ backyards and driveways, and today, only one home remains.
March 1, 2013
In 2000, Nathalie Miebach was studying both astronomy and basket weaving at the Harvard Extension School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was constantly lugging her shears and clamps with her into the room where she’d study projections of stars and nebulas on the wall.
Understanding the science of space could be tricky, she found. “What was so frustrating to me, as a very kinesthetic learner, is that astronomy is so incredibly fascinating, but there’s nothing really tactile about it,” says Miebach. “You can’t go out and touch a star.”
Soon, something in the budding artist clicked. Her solution? Turn space data into visual art, so that she and other learners like her could grasp it.
Miebach’s final project for her basket weaving class was a sculpture based on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a well-known astronomy scatter plot measuring stars’ luminosities against their surface temperatures. Temperature readings travel downward from left to right, and the wider the diameter of the star, the higher the luminosity. The graph is used to track stars as they evolve, showing how they move along the diagram as shifts in their structure cause changes in temperature, size and luminosity.
Miebach translated the relationship between star luminosity and temperature into a thick, funnel-shaped sculpture (shown above) with tightly interwoven reeds. She uses the temperature and luminosity values of specific stars on the diagram to inform the manner in which she weaves the reeds.
Basket weaving involves a three-dimensional grid with vertical spokes that create structure and horizontal weavers that fill in the sides of the work. The sculpture achieves its shape through the interaction of the materials—usually, straw, grass or reeds—and the amount of pressure exerted on the grid by the artist’s hand.
Miebach’s next project involved transforming scientific data of solar and lunar cycles into sculpture. In the piece pictured above, the artist transferred three months of moon, twilight and sun data from Antarctica into layers of woven reeds. She assigned the vertical and horizontal reeds of the basket grid specific variables, such as temperature, wind and barometric pressure. Changes in these variables naturally altered the tension exerted on the reeds, and the varying tensions created bulges within the piece. The changing values of these variables distorted the tension between the reeds, driving the warped shapes that emerged in the piece.
Reeds are not unbreakable; if too much pressure is exerted, they snap. If Miebach used wire, she’d be completely in charge of the process, and no tension would exist to guide the piece into its final shape.
“Because these cycles change every day, you are working this grid in different ways,” she says.
The thick, ribbon-like blue lines circumventing each bulge are segmented into hours of the day. The naturally colored reeds representmoon data, the yellow reeds sun data and the green reeds twilight.
The yellow spheres on the exterior of the shape signify sunrise and the smaller navy balls represent moon phases. The orange spokes protruding from each bulge of the sculpture represent solar azimuth, or the spherical angle of the sun, and solar hours, which measure the passage of time based on the sun’s position in the sky. Red spokes designate the ocean’s high tide and yellow spokes, the low tide. The basket grid becomes a pattern representing the changes of these variables.
This weaving process remained the same when Miebach’s subject changed from sky to sea during an artist residence on Cape Cod several years ago. Armed with basic measuring tools like thermometers purchased at the hardware store, Miebach studied the Gulf of Maine every day for 18 months, checking and recording temperature, wind speeds, barometric pressure and other climate indicators. She gleaned additional data from weather stations, satellites and anchored buoys bobbing up and down in open water.
The result was multiple woven sculptures examining different aspects of the Gulf of Maine. A 33-foot-wide wall installation called “Changing Waters” (pictured above) depicts the geography of the gulf. The blue material represents its currents, streams and basins, delineated by changes in the water that Miebach recorded and assigned to each tiny segment.
“To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper” (pictured below) examines the effects of currents, temperature and tidal patterns on krill living in the Georges Bank of the Gulf of Maine. The roller coaster represents the Labrador Current, which flows from the Arctic Ocean and along Nova Scotia’s eastern coast. The merry-go-round inside shows how krill activity changes as temperature, salinity and wave height vary, and the Ferris wheel tracks the diurnal cycle of the tiny crustaceans. A swinging ship-style ride follows the tidal patterns of the Bay of Fundy on the northeast end of the gulf and nearby whale sightings.
“Everything is some sort of data point,” Miebach says. “There’s nothing there just for whimsy or aesthetic purpose only.”
The artist has taken this same approach with her latest project: translating scientific data into musical scores. When Miebach relocated from the coast of Maine to Omaha and then Boston in 2006, she realized the cityscape influenced weather dramatically, and not in the same way that the shoreline did.
“In an urban environment, you have infrastructure, you have heat bubbles that hover over cities, you have the lack of vegetation, and all these create very localized fluctuations in weather data that the weather instruments are very sensitive in picking up,” she says.
Miebach found that she could not accurately express in her basket weaving the subtle fluctuations in weather that cities foster. Instead, she began experimenting with musical notation as a medium, which she says provided the flexibility she needed in artistically representing weather data at the street level.
In the score pictured above, the royal blue squiggly lines represent cloud cover. The notes signify weather variables: orange is humidity, red is temperature and green is barometric pressure. The sky blue lines zigzagging across the sheet indicate wind direction, and the pink shading represents tempo for musicians to interpret.
Interpreting scientific data in this way allowed Miebach to translate the nuance of weather she felt was present in a city environment without altering the information in any way. “One thing that has been very dear to my heart from the very beginning is that I don’t change information for any aesthetic purpose,” she says. “I want the information to stay true, so that when you look at the sculpture, you’re still seeing the weather.”
In her musical score for Hurricane Noel, which swept along the Atlantic Ocean in 2007, Miebach correlated each change in a given weather variable she had measured with a note on the piano keyboard. The piano scale is drawn as black-and-white column on the left-hand side of the sheet music (pictured above). Shaded regions represent shifting cloud cover during the storm.
Miebach says she transposed wind speed into the upper two octaves because howling winds are a dominant aspect of any storm. Each note on the scale receives a range, from zero to two miles per hour, two to four miles per hour and so on. The same goes for temperature and barometric pressure readings.
The Nineteen Thirteen, a group of cellists and percussionists, performed Hurricane Noel at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2011 (listen to the ominous-sounding song here). Another cellist group offered up a different interpretation.
But transforming the musical scores into live performances isn’t the end. Once she feels that she has captured the nuances of weather data from urban settings, Miebach then uses her melodious blueprints to create woven sculptures such as the one pictured below.
The amusement-park themed “To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper” that Miebach made in collaboration with Jon Fincke, an oceanography graduate student at MIT, is on display in “Ocean Stories: A Synergy of Art and Science,” an exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Science through June 2. Her latest piece, “The Last Ride,” translates weather and ocean data from Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the Jersey Shore’s Star Jet roller coaster. It will be featured in the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s annual art auction on April 13.
December 28, 2012
This New Year’s Eve, in addition to the typical resolutions to exercise more or spend more time with family, consider resolving to take better advantage of the cultural offerings of America’s cities and towns. Whether you seek to attend concerts, listen to lectures by authors and visiting scholars or become regulars at area museums, a few exhibitions slated for 2013 on the intersection of art and science will be must-sees in the New Year.
The skyline of New York City will be transformed next summer when 300 water tanks in the five boroughs become public works of art, calling attention to water conservation. Artists, including Jeff Koons, Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Lawrence Weiner, and even Jay-Z, have agreed to participate in the project. Their original designs will be printed on vinyl, which will be wrapped around the mostly wood tanks, which typically measure 12 feet high and 13 feet in diameter, perched on top of buildings. The art will be a welcome addition to the city’s rooftops, while also providing more awareness of the global water crisis.
Teaching the Body: Artistic Anatomy in the American Academy, From Copley, Eakins, and Rimmer to Contemporary Artists
Naomi Slipp, a PhD candidate in art history at Boston University, is organizing an ambitious exhibition of more than 80 sketches, models, prints, books, paintings and other works that tell a full story of artistic renderings of human anatomy in America. On display at the Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, from January 31 to March 31, the exhibition spans two and half centuries, from the very first anatomy text by painter John Singleton Copley, dating to 1756, to works by contemporary artists, such as Lisa Nilsson, who creates paper sculptures depicting cross sections of the human body. ”This exhibition examines both what that study of artistic anatomy meant for these artists and for the way we, today, think about our own bodies and how they work,” said Slipp, in her successful bid to raise funds for the project on Kickstarter. ”In looking at artworks created by artists and doctors, I hope to unite this diverse audience, bringing together people who are interested in art and those who are interested in medicine for a rich, shared conversation about what it means to occupy, treat and picture our own bodies.”
“I believe my most important role remains as artistic interpreter of all that I see. I need to understand the science, but I want to capture the poetry,” writes Brian Skerry, in his book, Ocean Soul. A National Geographic wildlife photographer with decades of experience, Skerry has captured enchanting portraits of harp seals, Atlantic bluefin tuna, hammerhead sharks, beluga whales, manatees and other creatures of the deep. His line of work requires loads of equipment—underwater housings for his cameras, strobes, lenses, wetsuits, drysuits, fins—to get the perfect shot. “While no single image can capture everything, in my own work I am most pleased when I make pictures that reveal something special about a specific animal or ecosystem, pictures that give viewers a sense of the mysterious or in effect bring them into the sea with me,” says Skerry, in a dispatch on Ocean Portal. Earlier this fall, Ocean Portal asked the public to vote for a favorite among 11 of Skerry’s photographs. The viewers’ choice and other images by the underwater photographer will be on display at D.C.’s National Museum of Natural History beginning April 5.
On May 18, 1980, stirred by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, Mount St. Helens in Washington state’s Cascade Range erupted, forever changing the landscape surrounding it. Separate from one another, American photographers Emmet Gowin and Frank Gohlke documented the devastation (and in Gohlke’s case, the gradual rebirth) of the area. The Cleveland Museum of Art is bringing the photographers’ series together, side by side, in an exhibit, on display from January 13 to May 12.
Interestingly, the museum will also play host to “The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection,” looking at art by masters ranging from the 18th and 19th century artists Piranesi and Ingres to more modern contributions from Duchamp, Rothko and Warhol, all inspired by the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The exhibit will be on display from February 24 to May 19.
Gogo Ferguson and her daughter, Hannah Sayre-Thomas, live on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia. Morning, noon and night, the pair walks the beach, collecting interesting skeletons, seaweed and seashells brought in by the tide. “Nature has perfected her designs over millions of years,” writes Ferguson, on her Web site. And so, the artist incorporates these organic designs into jewelry, sculptures and housewares. Her first museum exhibition, at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from January 19 to July 7, features more than 60 works, including a six-foot by eight-foot wall sculpture modeled after seaweed from New England and an ottoman fashioned after a sea urchin.
Photographer Michael Benson takes raw images collected on NASA and European Space Agency missions and enhances them digitally. The results are brilliant, colorful views of dust storms on Mars and Saturn’s rings, among other sights. The American Association for the Advancement of Science Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. will be exhibiting images from Planetfall, Benson’s latest book, as well as his other titles, including Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle (2009) and Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (2003), from mid-February through the end of April.
If you missed it at New York’s American Museum of Natural History this past year, there is still time to see “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence” at its next stop, Chicago’s Field Museum, from March 7 to September 8. The exhibition highlights the diversity of animals, from fireflies and glowworms to jellyfish and fluorescent corals found upwards of a half-mile deep in the ocean, that use bioluminescence, and the variety of different reasons for which they do. A firefly, for instance, glows to catch the attention of a mate. An anglerfish, meanwhile, attracts prey with a bioluminescent lure dangling in front of its mouth; a vampire squid releases a cloud of bioluminescence to befuddle its predators. The show also explains the chemical reaction that causes the animals to glow. “The one real weakness,” wrote the New York Times, at the opening of the exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, “is that with only a few exceptions—like the tanks of blinking ‘splitfin flashlight fish’ found in deep reefs of the South Pacific—this is not an exhibition of specimens but of simulations.”
September 4, 2012
All too often, art and science are considered opposites. This idea has only been reinforced, at least in my lifetime, by an over-simplified (and completely debunked) theory of psychology that suggests that there are “left brains” and then there are “right brains” in this world. The left-brained are logical, analytical, number crunchers, and the right-brained are intuitive, emotionally expressive, creative types. Somehow we got it in our heads that these two camps can never quite relate to each other.
But, when it comes down to it, artists and scientists have the same basic aim—to better understand the world. They experiment. They’re imaginative. And, when artists and scientists venture to cross disciplines and collaborate, magic happens. We all can learn from their example.
I became interested in the intersection of art and science a few years ago, when writing about photographers David Maisel and J. Henry Fair for Smithsonian. Both artists’ aerial landscape photographs border on abstract art. Full of bright colors and complex patterns, the images are beautiful. They lure you in, only to reveal toxic truths. You’re looking at strip mines, evaporation ponds, oil spills and other environmental degradation.
More recently, I was enthralled with X-rays of fish from the largest collection of jarred specimens in the world, at the National Museum of Natural History. The X-rays are both invaluable records to scientists, who use them to differentiate one species from another and study the evolution of fish, and dazzling works of art.
Collage of Arts and Sciences will be a place to explore this fertile ground where art and science meet. The blog will feature artists who are conveying scientific ideas and scientists who see the artistry in their work.
If you are working on a project that bridges art and science, let me know! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the Author
Megan Gambino is a reporter covering science, art, history and travel for Smithsonian.com. She frequently interviews big thinkers and, in a series she founded on the Web site called “Document Deep Dive,” annotates historical documents based on conversations with experts. Prior to Smithsonian, she worked for Outside magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She holds a degree in English from Middlebury College.
Follow Megan on Twitter: @megan_gambino