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 29, 2013
Last week in Collage, I interviewed Caleb Cain Marcus, a New York City-based photographer who spent the last two years documenting glaciers around the world. When he composed his photographs of glaciers in Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Alaska, Marcus obscured the actual horizon. It was an experiment, he explained, to see how it affected his viewers’ sense of scale.
The idea was born out of the Colorado native’s own experience with city living. “Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd,” said Marcus. “I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it.”
In a similar vein, French photographer Thierry Cohen worries about city dwellers not being able to see the starry sky. With light and air pollution plaguing urban areas, it is not as if residents can look up from their streets and roof decks to spot constellations and shooting stars. So, what effect does this have? Cohen fears, as he recently told the New York Times, that the hazy view has spawned a breed of urbanite, sheltered by his and her manmade environs, that “forgets and no longer understands nature.”
Three years ago, Cohen embarked on a grand plan to help remedy this situation. He’d give city dwellers a taste of what they were missing. The photographer crisscrossed the globe photographing cityscapes from Shanghai to Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, by day—when cars’ head and taillights and lights shining from the windows of buildings were not a distraction. At each location, Cohen diligently recorded the time, angle, latitude and longitude of the shot. Then, he journeyed to remote deserts and plains at corresponding latitudes, where he pointed his lens to the night sky. For New York, that meant the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. For Hong Kong, the Western Sahara in Africa. For Rio and São Paulo, the Atacama Desert in Chile, and for Cohen’s native Paris, the prairies of northern Montana. Through his own digital photography wizardry, Cohen created seamless composites of his city and skyscapes.
“By traveling to places free from light pollution but situated on precisely the same latitude as his cities (and by pointing his camera at the same angle in each case), he obtains skies which, as the world rotates about its axis, are the very ones visible above the cities a few hours earlier or later,” writes photography critic Francis Hodgson, in an essay featured on Cohen’s Web site. “He shows, in other words, not a fantasy sky as it might be dreamt, but a real one as it should be seen.”
Cohen’s meticulousness pays off. While he could present a clear night sky taken at any latitude, he instead captures the very night sky that, in megacities, is hidden from sight. The photographer keeps some details of his process a secret, it seems. So, I can only suspect that Cohen takes his picture of a city, determines what the night sky looks like in that city on that day and then quickly travels to a remote area to find the same night sky viewed from a different location. This precision makes all the difference. “Photography has always had a very tight relationship to reality,” Hodgson goes on to say. “A good sky is not the right sky. And the right sky in each case has a huge emotional effect.”
It is an emotional effect, after all, that Cohen desires. The photographer wants his “Darkened Cities” series, now on display at Danziger Gallery in New York City, to raise awareness about light pollution. Spoken like a true artist, Cohen told the New York Times, that he wants to show the detached urbanite the stars “to help him dream again.”
“There is an urban mythology which is already old, in which the city teems with energy and illumines everything around it. All roads lead to Rome, we are told. Cohen is telling us the opposite,” writes Hodgson. “It is impossible not to read these pictures the way the artist wants them read: cold, cold cities below, cut off from the seemingly infinite energies above. It’s a powerful reversal, and one very much in tune with a wave of environmental thinking of the moment.”
“Darkened Cities” is on display at Danziger Gallery through May 4, 2013.
November 16, 2012
Helle Jorgensen walks the beaches near her home in Sydney, collecting trash that the tide brings ashore. Her bycatch is varied: ropes, cigarette lighters, even toothbrushes. And, plastic bags—the real catch she is after—are bountiful.
According to the artist, white, gray, blue and green bags are abundant in Australian waters. She also supplements her supply with imports. “I get lots of bags from all over the world,” says Jorgensen, in an audio slideshow produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). When she is traveling in the United Kingdom, for instance, Jorgensen snags fantastic orange bags from the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and can count on the retail giant Marks and Spencer doling out beautiful chartreuse bags. “I have a bit of an eye for collecting really colorful bags,” she says. In the meantime, she also has friends sending her red, purple and pink ones from around the world.
Jorgensen puts the bags, that might otherwise end up tangled in a tree or floating in the ocean, to good use. She flattens each bag and folds it lengthwise several times to from a strip about an inch wide. Using scissors, she lops off the bag’s handles and bottom seam and repeatedly cuts across the strip’s width to form small bands. These bands are actually loops, when unfolded. (If it helps, the process is shown here, in pictures.) The artist then knots these loops together to construct a skein of double-stranded plastic yarn.
“It’s very time consuming, but strangely cathartic,” writes Jorgensen, on her personal Web site.
This homespun plastic yarn is Jorgensen’s artistic medium. Improvising as she goes, Jorgensen crochets fabulous sculptures of colorful brain, tube and pillar corals. Her tightly stitched coral colonies, some of which are currently on exhibition at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., incorporate many of the shapes—wrinkles, pipes and tentacles—seen in living coral reefs.
Jorgensen, who lived in Denmark until her teenage years, learned how to crochet as a child; her paternal grandmother, Agnes Jorgensen, taught her. Having picked up different tricks and techniques along the way, she is now able to stray from patterns and essentially free-form crochet sculptures to her liking. In her art making, Jorgensen draws on her professional experience in the sciences. With a degree in biology, she was a research geneticist for some time, before training to be a horticulturist. She stills spends a few days a week operating a small horticulture business. “All my skills and interests have merged to create these and I finally feel as if I have found my niche,” Jorgensen has said, about her crocheted corals.
Margaret and Christine Wertheim, fellow Australians and (surprisingly) fellow crocheters of coral, recruited Jorgensen to help with the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a massive participatory science and art project that kicked off in 2005. Communities around the world joined forces to crochet (using a special mathematics-inspired technique called “hyperbolic crochet“) an expansive reef, which then traveled with much fanfare to numerous art and science museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“Disposable Culture,” an exhibition at the AAAS Art Gallery through November 30, features a selection of Jorgensen’s coral sculptures, as well as works by other artists who depict and incorporate cast-off materials in their art.
On a recent visit to the gallery, I admired Jorgensen’s delicate corals. With such tiny stitches, the sculptures are so refined. I was particularly awed by a piece called “The Retail Reef,” which weaves together bright oranges, greens and yellows with some sprouting purples and creeping reds. As evidenced by the sculpture’s name, Jorgensen’s mind is never far from her source material–plastic bags and other trash that continues to collect in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a rubbish pile nearly twice the size of Texas floating in the North Pacific Ocean.
“I guess I would really like to get the message across that I am concerned about the amount of pollution in the ocean, plastic pollution in particular,” says Jorgensen, in the audio slideshow. “These pieces are a reflection of creating something evocative, hopefully, and beautiful to look at, from discarded plastic.”
“Disposable Culture” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery through November 30, 2012. The gallery is open to the public Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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 email@example.com.
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