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David Maisel

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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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Jerry Podany, antiquities conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, says the X-rays are powerful diagnostic tools that can reveal technologies, dates, past repairs and hidden treasures. Mr. Podany provided a key to the mysterious images in David Maisel’s new book “History’s Shadow,” by describing some of the forensic details exposed by the X-rays—these are in the captions that follow the images below. The Getty is one of the institutions that allowed Mr. Maisel to work with its X-rays, along with the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Photographer David Maisel writes:

“During a residency at the Getty Research Institute in 2007, I began to explore the idea of images that were created in the processes of art preservation, where the realms of art and scientific research overlap each other. While photographing the Getty Museum’s conservation departments, I became captivated by X-rays of art objects from the museum’s permanent collections. The X-rays I photographed — both at the Getty museum and then at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco — were elements of previously existing archives made for the purpose of art conservation. Each was laid on a light box in a darkened room; the emanations of light were transmitted by long exposures onto color film, which was subsequently scanned to digital files that I work on using software to adjust the tonal range and to make certain that as much detail as possible is legible.”

“History’s Shadow” is published by Nazraeli Press. All images courtesy Courtesy David Maisel/Haines Gallery.

The squarish black dots on the head here are “chaplet holes”. Chaplet rods stabilize the the core within the mold. After the sculpture is cast, the rods must be pulled or cut out. Chaplet holes come in different sizes and shapes and can be diagnostic–square holes tend to be ancient.

In this seated Buddha figure, the light square patch on the head might show a hidden compartment, possibly with secret offerings. Using X-rays and CAT scans, curators have also discovered hidden offerings inside the bodies of mummies.

Lighter lines indicate joints where the pieces are joined together, and may show where adhesive was used.

Inside the torso of this female figure the X-rays show the remains of a support for a wax or clay model or core.

Crack in the handle shows restoration or repair, and may indicate that the upper part of the handle is made of a different material which in turn suggests a restoration in that area.

Dark spots show casting flaws in the male figures, perhaps voids from bubbles during the casting.

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maisel-hs_1.jpg© David Maisel, from History's Shadow

Photographer David Maisel collaborated with major art museums to create a series of stunning photos of x-rays of antique statues, sculptures and fragile vessels. The title of the series is History's Shadow, and the results are immediately compelling as they draw you in through multiple milky layers of translucent materials that could never be seen with the naked eye.

Thanks to the miracle of x-rays, we're able to see all of the surface features (front, back and sides, all at once), as well as the inner areas that display some pentimento-like traces of the artists' hands plus the pins, nails, staples and struts that support these beautiful old works of art.

Maisel's photos are beautifully eerie, ghost-like, and almost alive. It is as if we can visually see someone's thought process, suspended and preserved, from hundreds of years ago.

maisel-hs_6.jpg© David Maisel, from History's Shadow

Be sure to view the work in our high-resolution slide show, and read David's insightful text about this project.

maisel-hs_14.jpg© David Maisel, from History's Shadow

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Features and Essays – Pascal Maitre: The Pierced Heart of Madagascar (NGM: September 2010)

Pascal Maitre interview from 08..

Features and Essays - Philippe Brault: Welcome to Prison Valley (TIME: August 2010) Fremont County,CO has made incarceration into a local specialty industry

Features and Essays – Mustafah Abdulaziz: Ramadan in New York City (WSJ: August 2010)

Last year all the Afghanistan stories seemed to come from the Korengal Valley (Kunar Province). This year it seems to be from Marjah (Helmand Province)…Go figure…

Features and Essays – Mauricio Lima: Soldiers’ Tattoos in Marjah, Afghanistan (TIME: August 2010)

Features and Essays – Matthew Niederhauser: China’s New Tomorrowland (FP: August 2010)

Frank Evers’ INSTITUTE just keeps growing and growing…Introducing David Maisel…

AgenciesDavid Maisel joins INSTITUTE for Artist Management (INSTITUTE: August 2010)

Maisel’s work in BJP…

Articles - BJP: The dust man settles (BJP: August 2010)

Maisel’s website

CollectivesMJR Weekly Collection 73

I’m putting together portfolios for Perpignan and been wondering how to show my work as my big 12x16in portfolio box is back in Swansea where I’m not returning to before heading to Visa Pour l’Image end of next week via London.

Was in touch with Daniel Cuthbert who’s putting his own portfolios together and he pointed out this Lightstalkers thread he started…LS can be so useful. Shame about all the bickering that goes on there often…

Tutorials - Lightstalkers: Digital portfolios and editors (LS thread: 2010)

Daniel’s info btw… PhotographersDaniel Cuthbert | Twitter

TwitterBrent Foster

InterviewsJ H Engstrom (Viceland: August 2010)

More of these great interviews done by Gerard Holubowicz on the present and future of photojournalism…

InterviewsPaul Melcher (gholubowicz.com: 2010)

Interviews - Jean Pierre Pappis : Polaris Images (gholubowicz.com: 2010)

More on the topic…

Articles - Jeremy Nicholl: And Now For Something Completely Different: Is Photojournalism Dead Yet? (Photographer’s blog: August 2010)

Blogs - Peters Marshall: Flattry, Thieving and Photojournalism (Photographer’s blog: August 2010)

And now REALLY for something completely diffrent…As a Finn I feel I must give a shoutout to Newsweek for their World’s Best Countries piece…And the winner is…

I’m living in number 14 though…

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