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Original author: 
Paul Moakley

“[In nature] we may even glimpse the means with which to accept ourselves. Before nature, what I see does not truly belong to anyone; I know that I cannot have it, in fact, I’m not sure what I’m seeing.” —Emmet Gowin

The allure of the American West has captivated photographers since the earliest days of the medium. Photography was used as a tool to decipher the vastness of the new and unknown frontier. One can see a rich photographic form of manifest destiny stemming from pioneering documentarians like Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1800s to preservationists like Ansel Adams in the 1960s. Although the intentions of these photographers have shifted over time, the landscape has provided consistent inspiration for our deepest desires. In more recent history, our concerns about our footprint on the environment have led photographers to investigate deeper than what’s easily accessible.

David Maisel is a photographer of the current wave of contemporary artists concerned with hidden land — remote sites of industrial waste, mining, and military testing that are not yet indexed on Google Maps. His latest book, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (Steidl), observes the land from a god-like perspective of the sky and with an obsession with environmental destruction.

“The original impetus for the work was informed by looking really closely at 19th-century exploratory photography,” explains Maisel, “and then, an arc through the New Topographics work of the 70s.” He cites the work of iconic black-and-white image makers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams — photographers who focused on man-altered landscapes — but felt inspired to “push it further.”

This epic project began almost thirty years ago in a plane over Mount St. Helens. Maisel, a 22-year-old photography student, was accompanying his college professor, Emmet Gowin, with his work. “That experience of being at Mt. St. Helen’s was really formative,” says Maisel. “I don’t even know if I’d be a photographer. It was an essential moment for me.”

Flying in to view the crater of the volcano formed by the extreme force of Mother Nature, he photographed a large swath of deforestation, something the young photographer had never seen growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, N.Y.

“As a kid at that point who had grown up in the suburbs of New York, I just never had seen a landscape put to work in that way by industry. Especially on that scale,” says Maisel. The phenomenal destruction revealed a conflict in modern life that he’s been fixated on since.

Courtesy of David Maisel

Courtesy of David Maisel

In the 1980’s, talking about the environment through art seemed out of step with the dialogue that was happening around Maisel as a young art student. Looking back, his formative work now stands somewhere between classic documentary and abstract expressionism. “Just bringing up Robert Smithson (the pioneering land artist) makes me remember. When I first got interested in him in the early 80′s, that’s not where the art world was at all. And it’s not where this society was at all. This idea of looking at the environment and changes to the environment, was like, ‘oh, that’s ecology, that died in the 60s, we’re done with that.’”

In no way did that attitude derail his fascination in the environment — instead, he began creating an artistic dialogue in nature as the inspiration. But it’s Maisel’s distinct intentions and conceptualization that separates the photographer from your average eco-activist, who’s motivation to shoot may be based in a desire to preserve natural spaces or reveal the evils of industry.

The work in Black Maps, unlike more polemic natural disaster photography, relies on abstraction. He creates full-frame surrealist visions of toxic lakes and captures the maddening designs of man-altered landscapes. In the abstract series The Lake Project (slide 15), viewers are overwhelmed by alien colors, allured by frame after frame of man-made destruction. The repetitive nature of viewing this destruction from a distance creates a sublime beauty in a classical sense. In less abstract work such as Oblivion (slide 7), which looks at the cityscapes of Los Angeles, the images become scorched black and white metaphors for the complete obliteration of a natural state.

Over the years, Maisel published a few of these projects as separate volumes, but in Black Maps, the intention is to see their power as part of a dialogue with each other. “I think the feeling of being kind of overwhelmed is almost part of the aesthetic of the work,” he says.

“There are just certain real conundrums on how we are developing the planet and changing the planet, and I think that’s what I still want to pursue,” says the photographer. But where Maisel could accuse, he instead becomes reflective on these issues,  providing evidence of what he’s seeing and crafting in his printing process.

“I was also really conscious that these sites were American,” says Maisel. I was making a book about the country that I live in and that I know the best.”

He’s also keenly aware of the ethical contradictions of making photographic work in this way — with chemicals, computers and papers. “On that first excursion out West, I came back and I processed all my film and made my contact sheets and then I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing? How can I? — I can’t,’ I was paralyzed. And it took me a while to work through that, to realize that I’m embedded in this. At that moment in my life, I was living on the coast of Maine in this renovated barn that we heated with a wood stove, and it was about as far off the grid that I have ever gotten. I just realized I can’t remove myself from the society I live in and from my own way of wanting to communicate. But yes, I’m as guilty as the next person and I am complicit and I think that we all are complicit. This work isn’t meant to be a diatribe against a specific industry or industries.”

With that understanding of the interconnectedness of man and industry, and the conundrums involved in being a human in this era, Maisel’s work becomes a meditation on ourselves and what we’ve done to the planet. He say’s, “I think that these kind of sites correspond to something within our own psyches.”

“I think that … maybe these are all self-portraits. There’s something — we collectively as a society have made these places, that’s my take on it. And so, they really do reflect us. And so, it’s not ‘them’ making these places, it’s us.”

David Maisel is a photographer living near San Francisco and is represented by Institute.

Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime is published this month by Steidl. The work is on view at the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, February 1 – May 11, 2013, and will travel to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona, June 1 – September 1, 2013.

Paul Moakley is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulmoakley.

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Flipping through the pocket programming guide for South By Southwest 2013 feels a little bit like reading through an entire year of one of those Joke-A-Day or Far Side calendars you had on your desk when you were a kid in one sitting: you are really not supposed to take all of this in in just one day.

Getting Started With Angel Investing
#catvidfest: Is This The End Of Art?
What Can We Learn From The Unabomber?
Extreme GPS: Limits of Security & Precision
Latinos y Mobile: A Silver Bullet?
The Comfy Chair! Are We Sitting Too Much?

Some sound like they are for babies, others sound like they are for EMBA students, most sound like they are for bloggers. And then there was

Female Orgasm: The Regenerative Human Technology

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The Mississippi is, according to song, a river of black water and mud. But, over a 100-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, something else flows. The nearly 150 petrochemical plants along those banks mean that the region has one of the highest concentrations of industry in the United States. That cluster of facilities, and the resulting pollution and increased cancer rates, have earned the area the nickname “Cancer Alley.”

Richard Misrach first traveled to Cancer Alley in 1998, producing a series of images that were exhibited as part of a “Picturing the South” series at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. “I’d never heard of this area,” Misrach recalls. “And when I finally saw the landscape, I was shocked. It was really extreme—the amount of industry along the river and the poor communities living there—I couldn’t believe it actually existed.”

In February, May and November of 2010, Misrach returned to the region, only to discover that little had changed. “It was impossible to tell if it’d gotten worse or better,” the photographer says. “It looks the same. It feels the same. The roads are still below par, and the schools are as well.” Misrach’s photographs from his latest trip—along with some of his 1998 originals—are again on display at the High Museum of Art, in an exhibition aptly titled “Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley.” The photographs show a bleak, desolate region, and one in which factories and plants are almost always present in the background.

But Misrach says some of the most poignant aspects of the region couldn’t be captured by camera. “What’s not shown is the constant stirring sound; I’m amazed people can work,” he says. “And the smells, from the gasoline stench to the chemicals in the air. That’s what you can’t see.”

The exhibit Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley is on view at the High Museum from June 2 through Oct. 7, 2012.

You can see Richard Misrach’s project on the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley fire here.

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A childhood encounter with sunlight searing outlines of rakes and hoses onto his California lawn led Binh Danh to develop a new process. Baking images onto leaves, he has harnessed nature to re-envision the Vietnam War, a conflict he does not remember, but which altered his family's life.

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