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Terminal Mirage

Aerial photographs of Utah's Great Salt Lake

For more than 20 years David Maisel has been making large-scale aerial photographs of "sites that have undergone some intense cataclysmic transformation." Since 2003 Maisel has been photographing Utah's Great Salt Lake, fascinated by "the claustrophobic, no-exit, existentialist aspect" of a lake with no natural outlet. He calls the project Terminal Mirage.

The Great Salt Lake is rich in sodium, magnesium, potassium, and other substances with important industrial applications. Three sides of the lake are flanked by evaporation ponds (top left), from which six corporations extract nearly two million tons of chemicals each year. The best-known of these is U.S. Magnesium, notorious as one of the nation's worst polluters. The latest federal lawsuit against U.S. Magnesium charges the company with the illegal manufacture and dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in wastewater ponds (top right) and other sites at its lakeside plant.

Nearby is the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility (bottom right), where more than 6,000 tons of the U.S. Army's aging stockpile of mustard gas are stored in igloos, awaiting incineration. Maisel says that his aesthetic response to such horrors is composed of "equal measures of documentation and metaphor, beauty and despair." There's a similar kind of ambiguity in his depiction of the complex natural processes that affect the Great Salt Lake, such as the colorful seasonal blooms of salt-tolerant halobacteria (bottom left), which thrive when water levels drop-as they have, dramatically, during Utah's recent string of drought years.

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Photographs by David Maisel

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council