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Mount St. Helens

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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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Mike Bruce

503.384544 square kilometers of Yosemite Valley printed on 6,160 sheets of paper

For a century and a half, photographers have been incorporating a wide range of tools and agendas in their efforts to document the landscape of the American West. Among the lensmen who use more unexpected techniques is U.K.-based Dan Holdsworth, whose latest body of work, Transmission, takes data gleaned from radar scans done by the U.S. Geological Survey to create virtual models of American landscapes. By showing storied locations such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite in a new way, Holdsworth pays tribute to, and advances, the history of the genre.

The rich and ongoing history of landscape photography in the American West had very practically-minded origins. As interest in the region surged throughout the 19th century, enterprising railroad companies and government organizations sent out small armies of scientists, cartographers, illustrators and photographers to sample, survey and record the recently acquired territories. The best of the photographers, like Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan, produced work that transcended the scientific genre. Theirs was a vision of an untouched land of sublime grandeur.

Fast-forward a century. Shopping malls and parking lots stretch from Trenton to Tacoma. A group of photographers including Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and Joe Deal started producing work that would become known as the “New Topographics.” Instead of scrubbing their images of any trace of man, they focused on him. As Baltz once recalled: “I was living in Monterey, a place where the classic photographers — the Westons, Wynn Bullock and Ansel Adams — came for a privileged view of nature. But my daily life very rarely took me to Point Lobos or Yosemite; it took me to shopping centers, and gas stations and all the other unhealthy growth that flourished beside the highway. It was a landscape that no one else had much interest in looking at.” Man had sullied the sublime.

For years, the U.S. Geological Survey has used satellite-borne radar to survey much of the United States, and the amount of data collected is staggering. Gallery shows of Transmission include a stack of over 6,000 sheets of paper containing the XYZ coordinate points necessary to map just over 300 square miles of Yosemite Valley alone. Holdsworth appropriated this data (as well as some from Open Topography), and with the help of a university geologist, created computer models of the land. He used a software program to remove everything but the basic contours of the earth and the occasional trace of a road or building. (In a way other photographers may envy, Holdsworth was even able to alter the direction of the virtual sunlight, thus controlling the time of “day.”) After he created these 3D worlds, he was able to navigate them at will—peering over the edge of a volcano, or down the corridors of canyons.

From the millions of square miles of mapped territory, Holdsworth carefully chose five locations—the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mount St. Helens, Mount Shasta and Salt Lake City, Utah—for his series. The first four were among the places the early photographers of the Romantic Sublime made their awesome, unpeopled images. And it was near the last one, Salt Lake City, Utah, where Lewis Baltz made his seminal New Topographics project on suburban sprawl. Holdsworth thus references the history of the medium but, with his new method, moves the ball forward. As Emma Lewis writes in her essay on the work, “Looking at the world as though from space, Transmission evokes a sense of capturing something that has never been seen before; something especially powerful as these landscapes have been so visually reproduced throughout history as to become embedded in the popular conscience.” But they do not merely look new; in their method, they evoke our current era of potentially terrifying technology such as the Gorgon Stare, the U.S. government drone camera whose eyes are said to be able to devour whole cities at a time. Ultimately, as Lewis writes, Holdsworth is arguing that, “the exaltation of discovery can still exist because the man-made and the sublime are not mutually exclusive.”

Dan Holdsworth is a British photographer based in London.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

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Jim Seida writes

Ships and aircraft have been ordered to stay away from the bubbling waters around La Restinga, and the Port's 600 residents have been evacuated.  Read more here...

Spanish government handout / AFP - Getty Images

This image released Nov. 3, shows green and brown stains at sea off the coast of the Spanish Canary Island of El Hierro. A series of quakes including one measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale shook Hierro island in Spain's Canaries, three weeks after a nearby undersea volcanic eruption. The 4.0-magnitude quake struck at 0755 GMT in the Atlantic about five kilometres (three miles) northwest of the town of Frontera, population 4,000, said a report by the National Geographical Institute.

Spanish Institute of Oceanograph / EPA

This computer-genereated image shows the underwater volcano in the southern area of El Hierro Island, in the Canary Islands, Spain, on Oct. 31.

Canary Regional Goverment handout / EPA

This image made available on Nov. 4 shows volcanic activity on Nov. 3 from underwater volcano at El Hierro island coast, Canary Islands, Spain. The volcano has being erupting and causing the ground to shake several times a day since July 2011.

 Follow the volcano's activity blow-by-blow on Earthquake Report

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