“[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
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.”
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.
Images from the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting were seen around the word. The photographs, showing both reaction and grief, were a reminder of the other tragedies from the year, including the Aurora theater shooting. In an image provided by NASA Tuesday Dec. 18, 2012 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft delivered a glorious view of [...]
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I think you come to grasp a place better when you spend a considerable amount of time there; by seeing and listening to everything around you, you develop a constant connection, you react to it, and then, in the end, you distil everything; in my case, with images.
But, first of all, it needs to be a place where everything is found in abundance. It must be a wild territory. A piece of land with a vast history, a land that still bears the mark of past colonizations. A land battered by the tumultuous feet of several generations who lived, fought and died in this place.
When I started (around 2009), I did not view this material in the form of a project. I was traveling in the South of the country where I live, Romania, I had been exploring photography for two years already when I begun to gradually discover this place called Dobruja.
I had read some material, I had seen some documentaries about the Danube Delta, about the hardships which the people inhabiting this area have become accustomed to, or not. I came to know the story of a mining town built in Romania’s Communist era, hidden behind sedimented hills used for copper extractions.
It is difficult to approach the topic surrounding the prosperity of this mining town in the Socialist era, at this point, but one can track down the drastic consequences brought about by the Post-Communist period, consequences mirrored in the people who remained here, on this land ravaged by the effects of industrialization.
After more than a year of exploring this place and starting from a few “trigger” images which illustrate this scenery, I had the impression that I was beginning to discover and approach different subjects. I thought that these images made up a beginning of something that might subsequently crystallize into individual projects. I continued to photograph the day to day life in this scenery. I was conscious of the diversity of the images gathered, but I could not contain them; I felt the need to spread them out.
I, Andrei Becheru, was born in 1984 in Bucharest, Romania.
From early on I chose drawing and painting as means of expression. I completed my studies in the field of design at the National University of Fine Arts of Bucharest in 2007. Absorbed by a past aspiration, which, in the meantime, had become an inner necessity, I started taking photographs three years ago, first on film, and then adopting the digital medium.
One year into digital photography, I nostalgically returned to images on photographic film that had marked my memory.
Presently, I work as an art director for an online fashion store. In parallel with film photography, I began experimenting with moving pictures using an old video camera.
For the last year or so, I've been getting these two page energy assessment reports in the mail from Pacific Gas & Electric, our California utility company, comparing our household's energy use to those of the houses around us.
Here's the relevant excerpts from the latest report; click through for a full-page view of each page.
These poor results are particularly galling because I go far out of my way to Energy Star all the things, I use LED light bulbs just about everywhere, we set our thermostat appropriately, and we're still getting crushed. I have no particular reason to care about this stupid energy assessment report showing our household using 33% more energy than similar homes in our neighborhood. And yet… I must win this contest. I can't let it go.
- Installed a Nest 2.0 learning thermostat.
- I made sure every last bulb in our house that gets any significant use is LED. Fortunately there are some pretty decent $16 LED bulbs on Amazon now offering serviceable 60 watt equivalents at 9 watt, without too many early adopter LED quirks (color, dimming, size, weight, etc).
- I even put appliance LED bulbs in our refrigerator and freezer.
- Switched to a low-flow shower head.
- Upgraded to a high efficiency tankless water heater, the Noritz NCC1991-SV.
- Nearly killed myself trying to source LED candelabra bulbs for the fixture in our dining room which has 18 of the damn things, and is used quite a bit now with the twins in the house. Turns out, 18 times any number … is still kind of a large number. In cash.
(Most of this has not helped much on the report. The jury is still out on the Nest thermostat and the candelabra LED bulbs, as I haven't had them long enough to judge. I'm gonna defeat this thing, man!)
I'm ashamed to admit that it's only recently I realized that this technique – showing a set of metrics alongside your peers – is exactly the same thing we built at Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. Notice any resemblance on the user profile page here?
You've tricked me into becoming obsessed with understanding and reducing my household energy consumption. Something that not only benefits me, but also benefits the greater community and, more broadly, benefits the entire world. You've beaten me at my own game. Well played, Pacific Gas & Electric. Well played.
This peer motivation stuff, call it gamification if you must, really works. That's why we do it. But these systems are like firearms: so powerful they're kind of dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. If you don't think deeply about what you're incentivizing, why you're incentivizing it, and the full ramifications of all emergent behaviors in your system, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.
The key lesson for me is that our members became very thoroughly obsessed with those numbers. Even though points on Consumating were redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even a gold star, our members had an unquenchable desire for them. What we saw as our membership scrabbled over valueless points was that there didn't actually need to be any sort of material reward other than the points themselves. We didn't need to allow them to trade the points in for benefits, virtual or otherwise. It was enough of a reward for most people just to see their points wobble upwards. If only we had been able to channel that obsession towards something with actual value!
Since I left Stack Exchange, I've had a difficult time explaining what exactly it is I do, if anything, to people. I finally settled on this: what I do, what I'm best at, what I love to do more than anything else in the world, is design massively multiplayer games for people who like to type paragraphs to each other. I channel their obsessions – and mine – into something positive, something that they can learn from, something that creates wonderful reusable artifacts for the whole world. And that's what I still hope to do, because I have an endless well of obsession left.
Just ask PG&E.
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Navigating the River of Paradigm Shift: Seth Silverton at TEDxDirigo
Seth Silverton is interested in your future sustainability. As Founder and Director of The Wood Chop School, he has created a way to further the goal of connecting people to a sustainable future. He founded The Wood Chop School as an answer to the most pressing challenge of our age, resource scarcity and the paradigm shift that accompanies it. A product of Brooklyn Friends School and Brooklyn College, Seth spent the bulk of his professional career in New York on Wall Street before moving to Maine and changing everything. Seth's vision of the future embraces the concept of a positive paradigm shift, first within the individual and then within communities. This transformation is driven by individuals whose actions are informed by healthy worldview. Through The Wood Chop School, Seth is setting the conditions necessary for people and communities to approach the coming age of dramatic change as leaders of sustainability. In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
Nonprofits & Activism
World Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Steven Koltai at TEDxDirigo
Steven R. Koltai is an executive with thirty years' experience in business, finance, entrepreneurship, and government. Until September 2011, Steven was Senior Advisor at the US Department of State where he created and ran the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). Through Steven's efforts, the GEP has fostered numerous seed investments, mentoring relationships, and the launch of new venture funds and angel investor networks. Steven is currently Managing Director of Koltai & Company LLC, which provides entrepreneurship ecosystem building services both domestically and around the world. Steven serves on numerous for-profit and not-for-profit Boards, including in Maine, having served on the Board of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development (MCED), as well as the PopTech Board. Prior to his role at the State Department, Koltai was an investment banker (international project finance at Salomon Bros), entrepreneur (Koltai founded Coronet, today known as SES-Astra, Europe's only private television satellite system, and Event411, an online event management company based in California), spent nine years at Warner Bros as SVP of Corporate Strategy and Development and founder of Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment and Warner Bros. Online, was a management consultant in the media practice at McKinsey & Company, and was a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Steven received both his BA and MA from Tufts University and a Fulbright from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles <b>...</b>
Nonprofits & Activism
Hacking Language Learning: Dr. Conor Quinn at TEDxDirigo
Dr. Conor McDonough Quinn is a documentary linguist, endangered language revitalization worker, and avid learner and teacher of languages. Raised in Portland, Maine, he has lived at length in Indonesia, China, and Oman, and has worked extensively with several indigenous communities of the Northeast. Learning his own family's endangered heritage language (hint: look at the name) in his early teens gave him a passion for helping others to do the same, and led him to pursue linguistics—somewhat single-mindedly—throughout his academic career. Alongside a hefty set of technical research questions in linguistics, he is currently most interested in developing tools to help speech communities carry out their own linguistic documentation and revitalization work, and in finding new ways to reduce the barriers to learning new languages. In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
Nonprofits & Activism
We Cannot Afford to Divide Ourselves: Fatuma Hussein at TEDxDirigo
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, Fatuma Hussein came to Atlanta, Georgia, at age 12, after living in a Kenyan refugee camp during the civil war in her home country. Years later, in 2001, seeking a quieter and less populated environment, she and her family relocated to Maine, first to Old Orchard Beach and then to Auburn. Through her own experience, Hussein understood the many challenges of life in a new culture, and she wanted to help her fellow Somali refugees find an easier start in their adopted home. She started by informally providing transportation, translation, and additional assistance to other immigrants from her native land. From these grassroots efforts, United Somali Women of Maine was born, officially opening its doors in 2002, with Hussein as director. In thespirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)
Nonprofits & Activism