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Distance lends enchantment

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Andrew Mead is left with feelings of fascination and guilt by David Maisel’s photographs of American landscapes that have been given extreme makeovers by man

Faced with David Maisel’s photographs of huge gold or copper mines in the American West, it might seem perverse to think of 18th-century Shropshire, but that’s where their story begins. Not just because that county is usually seen as ‘the cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, but because pictures of its key sites were quickly in demand. For artists like Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, the ironworks at Coalbrookdale were a profitable source of imagery – a typical painting of his in London’s Science Museum shows them silhouetted at night against a backdrop of flames. It was clear that Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) didn’t just apply to natural phenomena – there was also an industrial or technological sublime.

As the scale of the industrialised landscape has increased quite astonishingly since de Loutherbourg’s day, so too the mode of perceiving and depicting it has changed, with the invention of both photography and flight. Maisel takes oblique aerial photographs, not just of mines, but of other sites where man has given nature an extreme makeover, such as Owens Lake in California – dry for decades through its exploitation to nourish an expanding Los Angeles.

Aerial photographs have revealed pleasing patterns in the natural world (sand dunes, fissures in a glacier, a meandering river) and the sometimes graceful results of human intervention – for instance, those settlements whose plan and materials seem perfectly in tune with the landscape. Maisel exploits the paradox that rapacious exploitation of nature can look just as good, at least from a plane, for many of the photos in this book are gorgeous.

The adage that ‘distance lends enchantment to the view’ has never been more apt

Of course the adage that ‘distance lends enchantment to the view’ has never been more apt. On the ground, you would quickly register the razor wire, carcinogens and guard dogs. A strong sense of trespass, toxicity and danger would curb any impulse to aestheticise. With these photographs, there are no such distractions.

But it’s often difficult to decide what they depict. Sometimes there are clues: a road twisting round the edge of a manmade crater, a diminutive cluster of buildings or a row of storage tanks. Gazing at a gold mine that burrows ever deeper in a series of loosely concentric terraces, you can start to gauge distance and scale. In other cases, the images look like colourful but cryptic abstractions – especially those of the desiccated Owens Lake stained a deep red by bacteria, and of the terrain around Utah’s Great Salt Lake in Maisel’s Terminal Mirage series.

Maisel's aerial photography of mining areas

Maisel’s aerial photography of mining areas

At times the colours are so lurid and unnatural that you sense something malign has been happening (gold mines use lots of cyanide), but other images are so seductive that you could easily forget their source. Some bring to mind the blue-green glazes of Egyptian faience or evoke the 1960s Colour Field paintings of artists like Jules Olitski, while several of the Owens Lake photos, where reds and whites bleed into each other, could be close-ups of melting ice cream.

At times the colours are so lurid and unnatural that you sense something malign

Given their glamour and allusiveness, these images need to be grounded by texts or captions that keep the ravaged environments in mind. There must be a constant interplay of alluring photo and disturbing fact, and in Black Maps this comes in the essays that introduce the seven sections, whose contributors including Geoff Manaugh, writer of perhaps the best current architecture blog (bldgblog.blogspot.com). A dominant theme is the inherent ambiguity of these photos (what one essayist calls ‘the duality of attraction and abhorrence’), while Manaugh stresses our connivance as consumers in the harrowing of these landscapes, ‘out of which so many things we encounter everyday have been extracted’.

Though photographers such as Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach have also highlighted the trashing of the American West in recent years, Maisel’s images especially recall those of his teacher Emmet Gowin, whose Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth (Yale University Press, 2002) remains one of the best books of this genre. Like Gowin, Maisel seeks a cartographer’s viewpoint, eliminating the horizon line to emphasise the surface of the land and all its scars. Like Gowin too, Maisel discounts any explicit political agenda behind his work, opting to leave it open to interpretation: ‘I want my pictures to ask questions, not answer them. I want the aesthetic experience to be an essential component. That being said, I cannot have spent the last several decades making these kinds of images without a sense of time running out, of the approach to a kind of tipping point, of a looming sense of disaster…’

So Maisel’s photographs are both dystopian and beguiling. Only a really blinkered aesthete could miss their implications, but only the dourest environmentalist could miss their beauty. What they finally provoke are a mix of pleasure, fascination and guilt, which connoisseurs of pictures of Coalbrookdale perhaps experienced too.

  • Andrew Mead is a London-based writer on architecture and landscape

  Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, David Maisel, Steidl 2013, 228 pages, £45

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