David Maisel started out studying architecture, but a chance encounter with a photobook vendor on the streets of New York changed the course of his career forever. His topographical images of landscapes going through violent environmental changes look abstract from a distance, and then once you get a little bit closer, the toll on the landscape is impossible to unsee. When he began taking aerial photographs from helicopters of open pit mining sites and extensive logging in the American West in the 1980s, many people, from the art world to the Environmental Protection Agency, were struggling with taking the rising threats to the environment seriously.
Now, Maisel's work feels more prescient and urgent than ever. On the heels of COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow that has been criticized for failing to produce tangible, effective promises to limit greenhouse gases, these photos are undeniable proof of how much irretrievable damage we have already done to the planet. Maisel's show at the Edwynn Houk Gallery runs through November 20. We spoke with him over email about his travels, COP26, and Mars.
When did you first realize that you wanted to photograph the environment and landscape?
Because of my work in architecture, I was already concerned with how the human-made world fit into and pushed against the natural world. In the summer of 1983, I accompanied Emmet Gowin on a photographic expedition to the volcano Mount St. Helens. Witnessing the aftermath of the so-called natural disaster of the volcano was fascinating, but what I found most compelling was seeing the scale with which the logging industry was clear-cutting the area. The violence of that activity was deeply disturbing, and the idea of making a chronicle of such violence to the earth set the course for much of my future work.
Simultaneously: The preeminent photo historian Peter Bunnell was teaching at Princeton, and through his classes I was able to explore original prints of photographers I found relevant and inspiring, from that of the New Topographics image makers, to that of the exploratory photographers of the 19th century, who showed processes of industrialization in the American West (and notions of Manifest Destiny taking form in the land) and sites of imperialism globally. That work spoke to me both formally and in terms of the politics inherent in these images of human-wrought change to the natural world.
In the decades you've been working on this series, how many countries/states in the US have you traveled to?
I’ve concentrated my work on many of the western states, and throughout the Rocky Mountain region — Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Alaska. I’ve also made work on clear-cutting in northern Maine. I’ve made extensive projects in Spain, Iceland, and most recently, Chile’s Atacama Desert, where vast lithium and copper mines are impacting this highly sensitive eco-region. What I have felt has been surprise, yes, but also: horror, confusion, despair, revulsion.
How has your awareness of the environment changed over the years?
In the mid-1980s, when I first began making aerial photographs of open pit mining sites in the American West, there was not much discourse on issues of the environment, especially within the art world. It was almost seen as a throwback — hey, didn’t we cover all this during the 60s with the Ecology Movement? What’s left to discuss?
Over time, we’ve collectively come to understand that we are in a precarious place with regards to the environment, and that our own collective actions are responsible for climate change, natural resource depletion, and all the effects that ripple outward from those actions. In terms of my own awareness: when I began making this work in the 1980s, I focused entirely on making pictures within the United States. It was natural for me to start by working in my country of birth, but I also felt hesitant to critique countries where I wasn’t from and hadn’t lived. As time has passed, I feel that it makes sense to consider the global impact of human-wrought change; the challenges we are facing are indeed global. And my work is never intended solely as a criticism of a particular nation; these environmental issues transcend national boundaries.
What do you want people to take away from these photographs?
We are all complicit in making these damaged sites. I hope the pictures encourage viewers to become more active in placing a higher priority on issues of the environment. Especially living in San Francisco, the effects of climate change over the last few years seems so intense.
What are your hopes for the future?
Climate change is definitely not an abstract thing “out there.” It is happening at my doorstep. The firestorms in California and throughout the West in the past few years have occurred at an unprecedented scale within recent human history. My hopes for the future are that governments and citizens alike, activists and consumers alike, can embrace the idea of tackling climate change head-on. What does this mean on a personal level? How can we pull back from our usual patterns of consumption? We need to be smarter, we need architects and designers and scientists and artists and philosophers and legislators to build a path forward, and we need new patterns of behavior.
That being said, I write this as COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, is drawing to a close without meeting the necessary goals for substantive change; it’s hard to be hopeful in light of this, but where will we be without hope?
What more do you want to do with your work in the future?
Mars seems ripe for exploration! On a more earthly realm…since the start of the pandemic, I have been making paintings again, and I’m deeply satisfied by this process. It’s somewhat like working in the darkroom — a series of alchemical explorations, both mysterious and controlled.
The paintings are, not surprisingly, abstracted images of landscapes having to do with both memory and environmental degradation — the fires and drought we are experiencing here in the West, especially. In terms of photography…I hope to be able to continue to bear witness and make records of environmental transformation and degradation. I’d like to follow the development of lithium mines around the globe, and to picture the impact that these mines have on their environments. We have embraced lithium as an alternative to fossil fuels and as a way to power our electric cars, our iPhones, etc., but its extraction comes at a terrible cost.