A Bird’s-Eye Perspective Can Find Beauty in the Planet’s Dirtiest Places

David Maisel’s aerial views of environmental degradation are redefining American landscape photography.

July 03, 2018
“The Lake Project 15,” 2002, by David Maisel

Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery

Few people have ever seen photographer David Maisel at work. That’s because he takes his pictures aboard an aircraft at dizzying altitudes above his subjects—America’s weeping landscapes and starkly degraded industrial sites.

“You’re always in motion, and so you have this endless stream of possible images that you could be making,” says the artist, who lives in Sausalito, California. “There's a need to respond to chance and to chaos and disorder to pull out of that something that works pictorially. You’re thinking and feeling simultaneously, at a very rapid clip. It’s bodily—it’s a rush.”

In a career spanning more than three decades, Maisel has employed blink-of-an-eye timing and a vertiginous point of view to deliver jolts of recognition that have redefined American landscape photography. In this new iconography of the West, scenes of open-pit mines, logging clearcuts, and weapons testing grounds replace the mountain lakes, snowy peaks, and wide-open vistas that came before.

Maisel’s aerial landscapes present the injustices inflicted on the planet by industry, agriculture, and urban sprawl as scenes of visual poetry—what British curator Julian Cox has described as “a topography of open wounds.”

In Lake Project 15, a 2002 photograph of California’s Owens Lake, Maisel depicts what remains of the natural reservoir more than a century after Los Angeles began diverting water from it: a kaleidoscope of colorful mineral deposits sewn together by sinuous channels of salty white. The photograph, now on display at the Denver Art Museum, reads more like a lush oil painting than a realistic depiction of an arid mudflat scarred by human exploitation.

“The Lake Project 1,” 2001, by Maisel

Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery

The Lake Project 1 (2001) shows an area of Owens Lake once covered by 50 feet of water; it’s now as blistered and lobster-red as a sunburn. In an adjacent zone, the lake bed is blanketed in yellow and an eerily delicate pale blue. “Approaching them without knowing what they represent, these pictures are just hypnotically beautiful abstractions,” says Eric Paddock, who organized Denver’s “New Territory: Landscape Photography Today” exhibition. “They have waves and swirls and swatches of color that are really intriguing.” At the same time, “they are pictures of evil,” he says. “It’s a fascinating tension.”

“The Fall (Borox 2),” 2014, by Maisel

Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery

Maisel uses the altitude of his aircraft as a compositional device, flying higher to take in broader panoramas and closer to the ground to capture details. He says he sets out to challenge viewers rather than please them. In The Fall (Borox 2), Maisel photographs farm fields in Spain where plots of cultivated land knit together with blank, vacant fields in a human-made composition that reminded him of Cubism. Meanwhile, the saturated blues and greens of The Mining Project (Butte, MT 9) look like watercolor pigments billowing in the tailings pond of a Montana gold and copper mine. Both pictures are currently on view in “Atlas,” an exhibit of Maisel’s photography at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York.

“The Mining Project (Butte, MT 9),” 1989, by Maisel

Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery

“Beauty is an interesting problem. It has historically gotten confused with something that’s glamorous―i.e., shallow―or pretty―i.e., vapid,” says Maisel. “I’m not saying beauty is the wrong word; I’m saying it’s not enough.” Not enough for the terror that’s also depicted in his photography.

Maisel’s works give viewers access to remote landscapes that are, in some cases, intentionally hidden from view. As such, they raise an environmental alarm. But the images don’t suggest answers to the modern scourges they reveal. Indeed, as Maisel points out, photography itself uses natural resources—chemicals, paper, water, and in his case, petrochemicals to fuel airplanes.

“The pictures for me can’t be about pointing a finger at some bad multinational corporation, although that’s a part of this,” says Maisel. “The laws in the United States that govern mining are from the 1870s. That’s obscene. But I need to understand that the medium I’m working in, that my own actions, are a piece of the puzzle. They don’t absolve me. And I don’t want to be absolved. I can’t afford to be that arrogant.”

David Maisel, “Atlas,” is on view at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York through July 6. “New Territory: Landscape Photography Today” is on view at the Denver Art Museum through September 16.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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