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.
April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
April 17, 2013
Artist Fujiko Nakaya believes in the transformative power of fog.
The first time she realized that her fog sculptures could change a person’s memory was in 1976 during the run of Earth Talk, a fog sculpture made for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia. After seeing her sculpture, an electrician told her how he had taken his family to see the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The mountain was fogged in at first and he couldn’t see it, but the fog cleared and the view of the mountain was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“The instant he saw the fog it changed his experience, and I liked that very much,” explained Nakaya. It was then she understood that her sculptures could feed back to personal experience and improve a person’s feeling about fog. After the electrician’s story, she was determined to reach more people, and not just those in the art world.
For forty years, Nakaya has been creating public fog sculptures all over the world. Currently, she has seven projects going in five countries. Fog Bridge is her first in San Francisco, and is one of three inaugural outdoor artworks created for the new waterfront home of the Exploratorium.
The museum, which mixes science and art in its exhibits, was previously housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, but its new site—three times as big as the last, and at Pier 15—opens its doors to the public today. The 150-foot long Fog Bridge enshrouds pedestrians with fog for ten minutes every half hour; it will be lit at night, and so promises to be a spectacular sight. The bridge is located within the free, 1.5-acre outdoor area that encircles the Exploratorium and features artwork that honors the environment of the bay.
Nine days before the grand opening, Nakaya leaned against a railing to watch test runs of Fog Bridge. The 79-year-old artist was dressed comfortably in layers of black, though the day was warm enough for shorts. Coit Tower rose out of Telegraph Hill against a clear blue sky behind the bridge. Nakaya didn’t have to pull any wizard-like levers to release bursts of fog; the system is pre-programmed and designed to interact with real-time weather data. Each side of the bridge is divided into three sections and controlled by programmed valves in the pump room. For example, an eastern wind will prompt the valves to make fog on the east side of the bridge only.
In this way, an invisible wind is made visible with brush strokes of fog. The process starts with four pumps that force high-pressure water into pipes studded with 800 petite nozzles. At the tip of each nozzle is a hole six thousandths of an inch wide where the pressurized water is forced and meets a pin that explodes the water into droplets 15 to 20 microns wide. Nakaya developed the technology in 1970 with physicist Thomas Mee, and Mee Industries continues to use the patented technology for industrial and agricultural applications.
Nakaya’s fog is, of course, a simulation of the misty blankets that spread over the “cool gray city of love” each summer when cold oceanic surface water interacts with warm moist air offshore. As warm air rises over the inland valleys, the fog is pulled through the Golden Gate, providing needed summer moisture to coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.
“I hope I’m doing homage to San Francisco fog,” said Nakaya adding, “that the bay fog will devour this fog sometimes.”
The Exploratorium sees itself as a place for tourists to learn about the Bay Area’s land and seascapes, and so some of its displays and artwork educate visitors about things like the tide cycle and fog. San Francisco’s fog, however, has declined 33 percent in the last 60 years, according to a study published in 2010 by UC Berkeley biology professor Todd E. Dawson and climate analyst Jim Johnstone, and the trend is expected to continue as climate changes. Dawson says they aren’t sure of the reason behind the decline, but that it may be due to warmer sea surface temperatures. “Fog formation is really about the contrast between temperatures,” he says. “If you warm the water up, the temperature difference goes down and the fog formation goes down with it.”
That said, Nakaya adds that fog always exists as water vapor even when we don’t see it. Only when conditions change is it visual.
In the first week that the museum is open, tens of thousands of people will walk across the bridge and be enveloped by fog. The sensation, I imagine, might feel like walking on clouds. Nakaya, reportedly, is particularly intrigued by the way that fog obscures one’s sight and heightens the other senses as a result. Perhaps this is why the artist believes that fog can improve memories and change thinking. “If you have even one little experience with fog, you start to see things differently,” said Nakaya.
The artist watched the artificial fog pour out of the northeast quadrant of the bridge where it hovered for a windless moment. “Nature is so complex. We can’t understand its complexity,” said Nakaya. “If you just tap one spot it will open up so many things and enlarge imaginations.”
Fog Bridge can be experienced at the Exploratorium through September 16, 2013.
April 5, 2013
For all 94 days of 2013 thus far, Klari Reis has kept to her resolution. The San Francisco-based artist has posted a new petri dish painting—eye candy for any sci-art lover—to her blog, The Daily Dish.
Reis’ circular art pieces are explosions of color. The yellows, pinks, purples, greens, oranges, reds and blues in the paintings take on a smattering of different shapes, including amorphous blobs, radiating fireworks and wavy veins that resemble, quite intentionally on Reis’ part, what a scientist might see when gazing through a microscope. The artist gives her creations playful names, little quips, really, that spring to mind when she looks at the designs. Blueberry Pie. That One Time in the 80′s. Peachy Keen. Jellyfish with a Brooch. Absinthe on the Rocks.
Just yesterday, she introduced Taylor Swift—a flower-like pattern in lemon yellow. (Check it out, above.)
The project, though begun in earnest this year, has been a long time coming. Reis, now in her mid-30s, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease more than a decade ago. Shortly after her diagnosis, she left a stressful job as an architect in San Francisco to pursue a career in fine art. While studying at City and Guilds of London Art School, she was in and out of the hospital, trying to wrap her head around the differences between medications she was being prescribed in the United Kingdom and those she had been given in the United States. “I knew I was allergic to this one medicine in the U.S., but they called it something different in the U.K.,” says Reis. “So, I just felt like it was pretty important for me to understand what these drugs really were and what they did on the inside.”
In 2002, Reis’ doctor at St. Thomas’ Hospital, a teaching hospital connected to King’s College, invited her to his lab. There, under a microscope, he showed her dozens of samples of her blood reacting to different medicines. Intrigued with the cellular reactions she saw, particularly how cells morph and duplicate when different influences enter the body, Reis began painting some of the imagery on canvas and wood and aluminum panels, by memory. “My first 100 paintings were all named after different drugs,” she says. “They weren’t exact replicas of what I saw under the microscope, but were very much inspired by it.”
After three years in London, Reis returned to San Francisco, where she continued to work at the intersection of art and science. Several biotech companies in the Bay area granted her access to their labs and commissioned educational paintings from her, depicting pharmaceuticals in action. But, then about four years ago, in what she describes as a very natural progression, Reis branched away from this work, and away from canvas, wood and aluminum, to create paintings within actual petri dishes.
“What I like about what I do is that it is different,” says Reis. “I use unconventional materials.”
Reis starts with a petri dish, one of three sizes of dishes she purchases from a biotech supply company. The smallest dishes are about three inches in diameter. The medium-sized dishes, standard in high school science labs, measure 4.5 inches, and the largest ones are about six inches across. Then, wearing a mask and a biohazard suit, she heats up epoxy polymer—a shiny plastic medium found not at an art store but at a place like Home Depot because it is often mixed with cement to create flooring (she was first exposed to the product during her days as an architect)—and adds color to it using powders and industrial dyes. Once the plastic is a syrupy consistency, she applies between three and five layers within a petri dish. Reis has become looser and more abstract in her designs, but they still call to mind cultures of bacteria growing in petri dishes.
Just when you think Reis may have exhausted her options, she unveils a delightful new design. Each petri dish is remarkably different. ”I feel like there are endless possibilities,” says Reis.
“What does the next one look like?” I ask, hoping for an inside scoop on the next dish to hit her blog.
“Ah,” Reis says, “You’ll have to wait and see.”