Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar: Aerial Photographer David Maisel Views the Age of Humans

Webinar: Seen from Above: Aerial Photographer David Maisel Views the Age of Humans

September 29, 2021

Amanda Sciandra:
All right, let's get going. I'm Amanda Sciandra from the National Museum of Natural History. I'm a brown-haired woman, wearing a blue shirt, sitting in front of a full bookshelf and a window with a plant. On screen here is an image of an open-pit mine on the Carlin Trend, a photograph taken by tonight's guest, David Maisel, and the date and time of the title of tonight's event, Seen From Above: Aerial Photographer David Maisel's View on the Age of Humans. Thank you for joining us.

As people continue to trickle in, I'll go through our standard housekeeping notes for those who are new to our programs. First, closed captions are available by clicking the arrow next to the CC button on the Zoom toolbar. And we'll open up for audience Q&A after the conversation, but feel free to submit your questions at any time in the Q&A box on the Zoom toolbar. The Q&A goes by so quickly, so please help us answer as many questions as possible by submitting your questions as you have them. And if your question is for someone specific, please let us know when you submit it. All right, let's rock this. This discussion is the first of a series of talks this fall and winter that feature artists from one of our current exhibitions, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. You can find out more about the series by following the link in the Q&A.

Tonight's featured artist is David Maisel. David will be in conversation with Joanna Marsh, co-curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition. Joanna is Deputy Education Chair and Head of Interpretation and Audience Research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she develops audience-centered interpretive content and experiences for the museum's collections and exhibitions. From 2007 to 2015, Joanna was the curator of contemporary art at the American Art Museum. Many of her curatorial projects include the Unsettled Nature exhibition, Focus on the Intersection of Contemporary Art and Environmental Issues. Joanna will be moderating some of our other upcoming events in the series as well. Thank you to Joanna and David, and to all of you for joining us. Joanna, I turn it over to you.

Joanna Marsh:
Thanks so much, Amanda. It's a pleasure to be with everyone this evening, and to be in conversation with David Maisel, one of seven artists included in the Unsettled Nature exhibition. And before I introduce our featured guest this evening, I want to take a few moments to provide an overview of the exhibition that will be on view through March of next year. It's the result of a unique curatorial collaboration between myself and Dr. Scott Wing, a paleoclimatologist here at the Natural History Museum.

Our curatorial aim for this project was to create an exhibition that approaches the subject of environmental change with affect and beauty in order to encourage greater understanding of the role that humans play in shaping Earth's past, present and future. The title refers to the ways that we have literally unsettled or disrupted the natural world through our presence on the planet. It also references the unsettled emotions that audiences may experience when encountering artworks that are both alluring and sobering. Each of the artists in the exhibition aims to set us back on our heels, to surprise, unsettle and awaken us to humankind's cumulative impact on the planet in the hope of inspiring reflection and action.

The works illuminate the inextricable connection between humans and the natural world. For instance, in Ellie Irons' work that you see here, she shows us thorough plant species that thrive amidst the grittiest of urban environments. While Jenny Kendler translates data on dwindling African elephant populations into a musical score that mourns the continued poaching of this endangered species. The artists in the exhibition work in a range of media that includes photography, sculpture, sound, fiber, and even live plants. Their installations give visual form to the immense spatial and temporal scale of human-induced climate change, and comment on the complexity of living and creating art in the age of humans.

At once beautiful and terrifying, tangible and abstract, plaintive, yet hopeful, this exhibition and the artwork it comprises is characterized by contradictions. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the work of David Maisel, whose aerial photographs explore humankind's conflicted relationship with nature, in particular the tension between growth and degradation. In abstract images like the one shown here, Maisel invites viewers to gaze upon a landscape that few of us have probably ever seen or heard of before, and that is now forever transformed by human industry. Maisel's photographs reveal radically altered environments such as open-pit mines, clear-cut forests, water reclamation zones and militarized landscapes of the American West. He has been pursuing this aerial photographic project for nearly 30 years. His work has been exhibited internationally and is held in more than 50 public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, DC.

Maisel received his BA from Princeton University and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area today. In addition to the Smithsonian exhibition, Maisel's photographs are currently part of the exhibition: The Expanded Landscape at the Getty Museum. And next month, his work will be on view in a solo show at Houk Gallery in New York. And it is now my great pleasure to introduce our speaker, David Maisel, who will share more about his work. David.

David Maisel:
Thank you so much for that introduction, Joanna. I feel like we're living in this exceptional time in terms of the environment, particularly with regard to how we're experiencing around the globe from Siberia to Greece to here in California and the American West these incredible wildfires. And it makes for an apt backdrop to talk about my work, which focuses on ways we humans are changing the environment and affecting the earth as well as ourselves. So today, I'll touch on some early projects, but I also want to focus on recent work I've been making in the Atacama Desert in Chile as well.

So a brief prelude. 38 years ago as a 22-year-old undergrad student, I traveled to Mount St. Helens with my teacher, the photographer, Emmet Gowin to whom I'm indebted. Witnessing the radical transformation of the land on such an epic scale affected me deeply. And although much of our photographic work was made on the ground with a view camera on a tripod, which is a very slow, methodical method involving going underneath the dark cloth, composing the inverted image on the ground glass, St. Helens was also where I first experienced photographing from the air with a medium format camera. So, making photographs in the air, it interests me not as a method per se, but as a way to see the otherwise invisible and unimaginable, and as a way that time and space get strung together. The camera never occupies a static position, and thus no image can be repeated.

What astonished and troubled me most at St. Helens was not the aftermath of the volcano, but rather the clear cutting by the logging industry of the landscape on an equally potent scale. They were just transforming the surface of the earth. And that experience, set the course for much of my future work of looking at what I call synthetic landscapes, that is landscapes transformed by human intervention.

So at this point for nearly four decades, I've been pursuing these interlinked themes of development and destruction of the environment, particularly in the American West. I spend a lot of time looking at mining sites, as they seem emblematic of a kind of rupture. We utilize the valuable material that these sites offer us. They support our technology, our infrastructure, our transportation systems, even this Zoom talk, but we don't acknowledge or comprehend the environmental damage and disasters that can result. This image depicts an open pit copper mine, copper and gold mine on the Carlin Trend in my neighboring state of Nevada. The Carlin Trend is the most prolific gold mining site in the Northern Hemisphere.

This is the edge of a tailings pond at a gold mine on the Carlin Trend. Tailings ponds are the wastewater ponds of the mine, and they're typically poisoned with heavy metals. But these pictures aren't meant as pure cartographic documents. I don't really trust that idea. But I do hope that they serve to bear witness to the environmental catastrophes that we humans enact on the earth. So there's a kind of intrinsic or embedded activism in this work. Here we're seeing a tailings pond on the periphery of an open pit mine in Butte, Montana. It's a Superfund cleanup site, and it's estimated that it would take more financially to rectify this site than the value of all of the ore that's been extracted from the mine over a century. So this image is included in the Unsettled Nature exhibition. It's not a thermal pool from a National Park, which it's been mistaken for, but rather a massive tailings pond on the Carlin Trend that's filled with a solution of cyanide that's used in processing the ore.

So here we're looking at work from The Lake Project, depicting the remnants of Owens Lake, which was essentially obliterated in order to provide water to the desert city of Los Angeles, becoming an epic environmental disaster in the process, a landscape of mistakes. Owens Lake is the site of a formerly 150 square mile lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains in California. It was a water-filled Lake for some 78 million years prior to it being dismantled in 1913 when the Owens River was diverted into a newly built aqueduct to bring water to LA, some 230 miles away. So by 1913, the lake was essentially deconstructed, leaving vast exposed mineral deposits and salt flats.

Now, that water has gone from the lake, high winds that sweep through the valley dislodge microscopic particles from the playa and create these carcinogenic dust storms. By the time I began making images here, the lake bed had become the highest source of particulate matter pollution in the United States, emitting some 300,000 metric tons of dust annually. The dust contains heavy metals like arsenic, nickel, selenium, and cadmium that were exposed after the lake was drained. The dust which is as fine and white as flour is designated as PM10. PM stands for particulate matter. And 10 signifies that individual particles are smaller than 10 micrograms, which allow this dust to infiltrate lung tissue. You breathe it in, but you don't really breathe it out.

So, I should mention that although I'm working from an aerial vantage point, I don't really identify as an aerial photographer per se. It's just a method that allows me to make these horizonless, often scaleless and abstracted images of environmental degradation and catastrophe. The aerial view permits a gathering of photographic imagery and a kind of graphic intensity that attracts me. I could, I suppose, work with drones at this point or perhaps download hi-res files from Google Earth, but I find it essential to, for me, to occupy these sights bodily. To put myself in their midst and to witness. I collaborate with pilots shooting from a Cessna or at times a helicopter, essentially choreographing our flights.

I don't mount the camera in the belly of the aircraft which would result in a more objective view, rather, I'm hand holding a medium format, film-based Hasselblad camera. And I'm making images as I'm having the pilot bank the aircraft steeply. And this image I should mention is included in the unsettled nature exhibit as well. My sense of urgency about environmental collapse, this kind of cascade effect of our collective impact, and our lack of capacity to shape the future of our planet and our lives is increasing with each passing year, each new project. This feeling that both time and space are running out, and that we're increasingly in the grip of forces that are triggered by human actions, but exceeding human control, as the author Robert McFarlane has written.

So, now we're shifting to a more global perspective, having first considered projects from the American West, especially in my home state of California. And with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018, I began Desolation Desert, in which I'm bringing my focus to the vast territory of Chile's Atacama Desert. The Atacama is the highest and driest desert on the planet. It's really quite expansive. It's 41,000 square miles. Makes it about a quarter of the size of California. And parts of it, including this image that we're seeing here are remote in the extreme.

Here we're looking at isolated standing rocks that are the result of volcanic activity from millions of years ago. So ,shades of St. Helens. But I show them really to give context for the crux of the Desolation Desert work in which I'm examining from an aerial perspective the massive mining operations that are transforming this remote and highly sensitive eco region into an industrialized space. The change is occurring at an unparalleled pace and scale in order to extract two specific metals which are critical to contemporary life, lithium, the mining of which we've been seeing in this image and the prior one is the first one.

Lithium's unique properties, it's the lightest of all metals, it's heat resistant, and it can store substantial amount of energy in batteries for computers and electric cars or cell phones, have fueled this kind of global rush to extract it from hard rock minerals and brines. And in the past decade, this surge in lithium mining has really imperiled the environment of the Atacama. As a result of this rising demand, lithium prices have tripled in three years. And such demand will only increase as electric cars become more common. And for perspective, one version of the Tesla X runs on a battery with 140 pounds of lithium compounds. And that's the equivalent of what's found in about 10,000 iPhones.

So the energy supplied by lithium is promoted now as this kind of environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels and the industries that extract and refine them, but the mining operations in the Atacama reflect this process of desert urbanization that's really sort of shifting the burden of energy production onto sacrificial landscapes in the southern hemisphere. Mining operations in the Atacama also take the form of these enormous open pits that are devoted to the exploitation of copper reserves. Indeed, Chile remains the world's primary producer of copper. And here we're seeing a detonation blast at one of the massive open-pit copper mines, Minera Centinela. These sequence of images somehow crystallizes the entire project. I had no idea this blast would be occurring. And as we approach the mine, fortunately, my film was loaded and we were able to position ourselves and document this detonation as it happened. It was really rather terrifying.

This image is also included in the Unsettled Nature exhibit, and it in several that follow depict a series of massive interlinked tailings ponds from the same mine. And tailings ponds have been this recurring subject in my work for more than 30 years. There's something about them I find terribly compelling. They're both seductive somehow and poisonous. And this tailings pond and the next two were acquired by the Getty Museum this year, and they're currently on view in the exhibit: The Expanded Landscape that runs through October 10th that Joanna mentioned.

What makes this picture work for me is a sense of some darkness blooming, mysterious and unknown, both beautiful and threatening. And in this image, you can see the layering of human intervention at this site. It shows the vastness of the creeping coverage of the tailings pond in the foreground and middle ground over the more kind of pure desert floor visible in the background in the upper right. This is a tailings pond from another copper mine in the Atacama, for me rather like being inside an organ of the human body. And indeed, there's a sense of the earth as a body in a lot of my pictures.

This is the last image I'll share with you right now. It's the final site I photographed in the Atacama. It's the most remote location that I visited at the highest altitude. It's the Chuquicamata mine. It's one of the world's largest and most profitable copper mines. And it's a primary source of the Guggenheim family's fortune, from whom I received funding to make this work with the Guggenheim Fellowship. And I mention that not to disparage the Guggenheim, but rather to really underscore the ways that though I'm critiquing these processes, I'm as implicated as anyone. I'm not outside of it, I'm complicit. And I think by extension, we all are in fact, collectively responsible for these sites. These metals and minerals mined from the earth permit our infrastructure and our technology as I've said, and even or maybe perhaps especially the medium of photography itself. And with that, I think I'm going to turn it back over to Joanna so we can have our conversation.

Joanna Marsh:
Thank you, David. That was an extraordinary presentation. I know how hard it is to encapsulate 30 years of work into 12 minutes. You did a marvelous job.

David Maisel:
Oh, thank you for that.

Joanna Marsh:
We'll unpack more of it in our conversation now. I just want to remind our audience to feel free to ask questions in the Q&A box that's at the bottom of your screen anytime. We're keeping track of those questions, and we'll get to as many of them after the conversation as we can.

So, hi, David, I want to start with something where you kind of just left us off in your presentation. You concluded with a really powerful message about your own complicity and our collective responsibility in in these sites and the environmental impact that these industries are having, and yet your work never feels like an admonishment. It never feels as though it's scolding us. And quite on the contrary, it feels to me often like an invitation or the beginning of a conversation. So I'm curious to hear from you what you want viewers to take away from the experience of seeing your photographs?

David Maisel:
Well, I'm very glad to hear that you find the work an invitation rather than an admonishment. I'm really wary of photography that's overly didactic, that tells you what you are seeing or what you should think or feel or where blame should be assigned. I think I'm much more interested in a kind of open-ended view and an open-ended response. So, that's good.

So, I think if these pictures are an invitation, I think I'm inviting you to do a few different things that expand out in different directions. And the first is to get lost in them, right? To let them exist as sensory images that are an aesthetic experience, visual splendor. It's one of the most profound states to be in and I don't think we get enough of it. So, that's where it starts. And I think another primary invitation would be to become curious about what you're seeing. What side is derived from? What its causes might be. How we are perhaps implicated in those causes. And to let that affect you as deeply as possible, and I hope it's a long, slow detonation, literally. Not a quick read.

So, I think that's... Actually, there's one more I have to mention because it's important to me. One response that I'd welcome is that of grief, of mourning, and of experiencing these pictures as a kind of elegy for all that we've lost or that we're in the process of losing. Last week firefighters were wrapping the base of ancient redwood trees here in California with these reflective heat resistant blankets. There were pictures of them in the media. And it's heartbreaking, right? It's absolutely heartbreaking, but here we are. So I think to grieve or to mourn or to rhapsodize about it isn't really enough, right? So there's part of these images that also I hope activates in the sense that they're hoping to activate viewers. So I could go on, but I think that's a pretty good start.

Joanna Marsh:
Yeah, that's a great start. And I was really drawn in your presentation to your mention of the embedded activism in the work. So I think it's helpful to hear you sort of reinforce that you hope viewers too will take away some kind of activist impulse from seeing the imagery. Something else you just said made me think of another question that I've been thinking a lot about in looking at your work over many years in fact, not just for this exhibition. You said that you hope viewers will get lost in the work. And I think that brings up really nicely this idea of disorientation of that it's often very unclear, at least initially, what we're looking at in your photographs. They are otherworldly, they are absolutely disorienting as you said in your presentation, often mistaken. In fact, this image in particular you mentioned has been mistaken for a thermal pond. So, how does that visual disorientation help audiences see the enormity and pervasiveness of human impact on the planet?

David Maisel:
Yeah. Well, they are scaleless often, and they are horizonless usually. So they're difficult to kind of unpack and pin down. And so they're slippery in a way, and they're meant to be these kinds of almost imaginative spaces as much as they are real. And so, I think in that way they don't really align with how we often think of photographs as facts, as a kind of mirror held up to reality that kind of shines back with this ultimate clarity as something pure. I'm interested in the poetics and the politics of these images. And I talk about them as images, actually, I'm just realizing this. I don't use the word photograph very often.

So, photography is considered this medium of representation, but I'm also really interested in abstraction in my work and in art in general. So I think photography, as I'm very carefully using it is it's a translation of reality. But that act of translation involves thousands of decisions about how to make a picture and how to construct it. And I think my intention is hopefully to make something that lingers in the mind's eye. And I'm very careful about how I title pictures. I try not to give too much information because I want the visual to be the primary thing that we're letting affect us in these pictures.

Joanna Marsh:
Yeah. Yeah. David, you just said something about the many decisions that go into creating these photographs. Not just deciding on a title, but presumably choosing a location to begin with. And I'm really curious to hear more about the process that you go through to select the sites that you photograph, what sort of preliminary research is involved? And how much of your thinking or selection of a site is driven by the unique visual features of that location? Or is it more about the industrial process that's taking place in those locations, for instance, in the Atacama with the lithium and copper extraction? So, what's sort of driving these decisions?

David Maisel:
I think it's evolved over time and there's not really any one specific... It's not any one thing only, it's multiple things. But I would say like when I was first starting out, I was really inspired by Robert Smithson's work and the work of land artists in general, as well as 19th century sort of exploratory photographers of the American West like Timothy O'Sullivan. So that's why I started working at mining sites in the Rocky Mountain region, and I would go to this place called a public library, and I'd consult these printed things called books back in the day, and actually they were annual reports that were published by I believe the US Department of the Interior on mining in the United States. I think there was one book for every state perhaps, but it could be hundreds of pages thick. But they were all text and charts and diagrams. There were no photographs.

So I would read them closely, and I would put together an itinerary, but I really never knew what a particular site would look like until I was above it in an airplane. Over time, I began to work with Google Earth, to research sites using satellite imaging. I held off on that for a while, but it was essential for the work in Chile, for example. My interest in working in the Atacama with lithium mines began after Volkswagen was accused of cheating with their diesel vehicles, one of which I owned because I wanted to be green. And so I was curious about what the issues with lithium might be.

And then one more example, I think, with the Lake Project. I was actually driving back home to the Bay Area after what I considered a kind of failed photographic expedition to the Salton Sea in Southern California. And I was driving north on Route 395, which is on the eastern flanks of Sierras, and I encountered this glittering pink lake bed of Owens Lake, and it was a sight I knew nothing about. And I actually knew nothing of its central position in terms of water rights and water mismanagement here in California. So it was an accident. It was an accidental encounter that triggered my curiosity. But I think having the instinct to act on moments of curiosity is actually one of the most powerful and incisive tools that we have as artists. So, those are kind of three different ways, angles of approach.

Joanna Marsh:
Yeah, thank you for sharing that. I love the image of you sitting in the Public Library flipping through these reports with no images and being inspired to make images yourself. You mentioned a minute ago the work in the Atacama and needing to do some preparatory research before getting there. I wonder if you can expand a little bit more on what it was like to take photographs in Chile from above the highest and driest desert in the world?

David Maisel:
Yeah, I mean, I think I'll preface my answer with just a little background. So, this whole Black Maps, multichaptered endeavor, it really began as a chronicle of American empire. And I felt the need to stay in my own country or at least to start here, because I felt like I had the right to look closely with a critical eye here. So the title of this Steidl book that I did was Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime. And I really wanted to underscore that these were American pictures. And for a long time, I felt less certain about doing that on an international scale, but I think the problems we're facing are really global and they do go beyond a nation's borders.

So in the Atacama, because of the very high altitude of the desert, and the great distances that we needed to cover, we required a larger plane with a more powerful engine, and it necessitated both a pilot and a co-pilot, and I was working with an assistant as well. There was actually a language barrier between myself and the pilot. It was complicated. The plane that we were using was normally utilized for medical evacuations, which meant it could be potentially called away to deal with an emergency at any moment. On several occasions, we had to scramble our planned itinerary because the airspace we were traveling through was controlled by the Chilean military and they were doing various sorties that we couldn't interfere with. But-

Joanna Marsh:
I think we have an image maybe of the plane. Shall we bring it up?

David Maisel:
Yeah, let's do that.

Joanna Marsh:
I think it's the next image. There we go.

David Maisel:
There we go. Right. So much, much larger. I would say, a considerably larger plane than I'm used to working with. Yeah, and you can see in the back that sort of stairwell that opens out. So I was actually seated back there. And that could kind of open out and I could be fairly exposed. So, yeah.

Joanna Marsh:
So, I'm curious. I want to dig deeper. And we do have a couple of images of you here in the plane. And just to the degree you're comfortable, share with us more about this process. You alluded to what it was like to be in these planes, kind of working with the pilot, banking the aircraft, holding the camera in your own hands and taking the photographs while in flight. Can you walk us through it even a little bit more?

David Maisel:
Yeah. So okay, that's a really nice picture of me looking like the heroic photographer or something. It's not really how it happens, right? But this is we're getting ready to take off after refueling. And so the elevations we were working at were ranging from I think about 8,000 feet to more than 10,000 feet. And we worked at progressively higher elevations and altitudes as the shoot went on every day, so that we could acclimatize to the lack of oxygen as much as possible, and hopefully, avoid altitude sickness. But I think as this next image shows, here I am getting some oxygen at about 10,000 feet. And it really did become necessary at these extreme altitudes. And without it, we'd start to feel disoriented and physically ill, and also actually unable to have fine motor coordination. So changing film gets to be tricky. And the pilots were using the oxygen too, so I figured it was a pretty good idea to do it.

But I did want to include these pictures just to remind myself of it is a struggle to work under these conditions, and to make these pictures, and have control of that process. I don't have any pictures that show me meaning out of the half open doors as the pilot banks the plane, but there's that aspect of things too. So this whole exercise is kind of about control and lack of control. And it's like these two poles.

Joanna Marsh:
Yeah, I mean, speaking of that, you and I talked as we were preparing for this program, and you shared with me that someone had once asked, "Why do you make it so difficult for yourself?" The process that you've just shared with us. And in fact, in your presentation you said, you could use a drone or you could fix the camera to the bottom of the aircraft. So help us understand a little bit more, sort of the motivation. You shared already this desire to have a kind of bodily connection to making the work. Is there more you can tell us about that?

David Maisel:
I think it wasn't that somebody else asked me that question. As I mull this over, I realize it was probably me asking myself that question, "Why make it so difficult?" But I mean, there's something. I guess, I just really like challenges. I do want to make it tough on myself in some ways. I always saw photography as this way of kind of flinging myself out into the world at large. I had come to photography after many years of thinking I would be an architect. And so I wanted to get away from my desk as far as possible out into the universe somehow.

Joanna Marsh:
You succeeded.

David Maisel:
Yeah, I succeeded. And there's I think something else, which I've really only acknowledged to myself recently, which is that these places are really kind of awful sometimes to look at, and maybe there's this kind of cumulative sense of horror that I'm left with, and it does leave a trace in me, but in some ways it's kind of difficult not to lose hope. But I really don't want to do that. And I did talk a bit about this critical aspect of the act of witnessing, and I think that's why I do it. I think it's this desire to witness. And I could never get that from working with a drone, I don't think or from downloading images from the internet. And I think it's this bodily thing. From above, at the moment that I'm making a picture, it's this kind of triangulation between the landscape below me, the changing position that my body occupies in space at a given moment in flight, and the camera. And I think it's that sort of thing that kind of activates that desire to go into this sort of difficult place.

Joanna Marsh:
You're making me want to be up there with you.

David Maisel:
Come on over.

Joanna Marsh:
It sounds incredible. No, too terrifying for me. I'll stay on the ground. And speaking of staying on the ground, this idea of witnessing and being present in or proximate to the environments and the landscapes that you photograph. We're coming hopefully out of an 18 month period, almost two years now where many of us haven't left our homes, the cities where we live, have been very grounded, and I'm curious what kind of work you've been making when presumably you haven't been doing the kind of travel, international travel that we've seen is necessary for works like Desolation Desert? So, what have you been up to?

David Maisel:
It's been a really wildly creative time for me. And since the pandemic struck, I've been painting again for the first time in years. I've long been looking to the work of painters to be inspired visually. A lot of mid-century painters like Diebenkorn and Frankenthaler, Jean-Michel. I could go on, but I think taking form with my photographs often approximate painting. So yeah, here I am. In that first painting, actually, that's titled after Paradise, and it refers to the campfire of 2018, which was California's deadliest wildfire. 85 people died and 19,000 buildings were destroyed. The town of Paradise itself was incinerated.

So clearly, I'm working with this very limited palette here of blacks and grays. And like the aerial photographs, I'm actually working from above, circling the canvas which is on the floor. And so there's no specific orientation to up or down or right or left as I'm making the picture. Yeah, we could go on to this next one, sure. This is a painting called Caldor. And I feel like I'm getting to this sort of pictorial space here, which is completely immersive. And that makes sense I think, I'm referencing the Caldor Fire, which has been burning for a month here in Northern California. It's burned more than 340 square miles, and I think it's the 15th largest wildfire in the state of California history.

So yeah, and then let's maybe go on to the last one. And these are pretty large, I should probably say. This is 90 by 72 I think. This last painting is called Deluge: The Are River. And I guess if it's not flames, it's flood. This painting refers to the recent flooding in Western Germany in July, when this weather system, this slow moving weather system released two months worth of rain in two days. And Angela Merkel stated that the German language hardly knows any words for the devastation that's been caused here. So, oh, when she said in terms of climate change, she said, "We have to hurry. We have to get faster in the fight against climate change." So those are some examples of what I've been up to.

Joanna Marsh:
Those are beautiful, David. Thank you for sharing them with us. I'm curious what medium are you working with? I know you got-

David Maisel:
So yeah, I'm working with linen and it's flash, which is a vinyl paint. And it's this kind of process, it's actually really reminds me a lot of being in the darkroom, which I miss. But that's kind of how I started as a photographer. It's this kind of alchemical process. And much like you might burn or dodge as you're making a photographic print, here I'm adding paint and then pulling a lot of it away, adding paint, pulling a lot of it away. And so it's just kind of slow accretion. And each painting is made in a single setting that can be up to eight hours, six to eight hours, usually. Yeah, so there's all these ways that for me it feels like it's bringing me back to the kind of origins that I had in photography, but now in a very different medium.

Joanna Marsh:
Well, thank you for sharing those with us. Are they going to be featured in your exhibition in New York coming up?

David Maisel:
New York will be a photographic exhibition. Excuse me. And it will feature work from the Desolation Desert series and a number of the other aerial projects.

Joanna Marsh:
Okay. All right, well, I think we're going to transition now to take some audience questions. So, if you'll bear with me for a minute, I will try and bring some of those up. Lots and lots of audience questions here. Give me a moment. Okay, well, we'll start with this idea of this tension between beauty and distraction, which kind of we started out talking about. This question is to David from Gary. "David, can you address the tension between the devastation or destruction of the subjects and then the abstract beauty of the images?"

David Maisel:
Yeah. I mean, this is a really good question. It's one I'm frequently asked. And I don't think this is exactly what you're asking, but I think it's sometimes difficult for us to look at something that's beautiful when the content is kind of horrific, right? So, I'm using beauty as a tool, and I think maybe it's actually a kind of subterfuge. I've been thinking about this lately. It's like a secret weapon to get us to pay attention, to look more closely, to slow down, to take an image and actually let it fill us and stay with us, I hope.

And then I do think that there's this process of seduction and betrayal that happens with that. You're seduced and the viewer might be seduced in and then just they're like, "Wait, what? This is terrible." And so there's, that's a kind of I think twinning process to I think how we kind of are seduced by all of the goods of capitalism. We want our shiny new phones. We want this stuff. We want it, we want it, we want it, and it's addictive. So there's that kind of aspect of it. And I've thought a lot about this. If something is beautiful, does that mean that it's pure? No, not at all. Can beautiful pictures actually kind of show something that's amoral? Without a doubt. I mean, I'm glancing down because I actually made some notes on this earlier. So this is a perfect question. But there are all these ambiguities and contradictions with these pictures. And I want that, I want it to be thick and thorny, and something for people to unravel. So yeah.

Joanna Marsh:
There's sort of a related question from Simon who's asking about over the last three decades of making work like this that does incorporate this tension between beauty and destruction, and sort of forcing people into these uncomfortable, unsettled positions. Sort of my question and my maybe paraphrasing of Simon's is, have your audience's ever been really put off by that? Or have you seen a gradual kind of receptivity to that, that kind of productive discomfort, if you will?

David Maisel:
Yeah, that's interesting. I do think that the audience for photography has changed over time. And Joanna, I think, I mean, tell me what you think as well, but I think that people are much more sophisticated now about how they look at photographs. Also, though, when I was starting out, I did title things very differently. And I kind of alluded to that, and there was an exhibit that curator Robert Tobieza, who really meant a lot to me, who was terrific. He's passed away. But he had curated a group show that came to New York, and when I was living in New York I went there one day just to watch people walk the exhibit.

And I saw a couple stand in front of my pictures and read the caption which said, "Cyanide Leaching Fields, Ray, Arizona." And they turned to each other and started to have this conversation about evil, multinational corporations. And then without really spending much time at all in front of the picture, because hey, they had read that caption that told them what to think, right? So they moved on to the next picture. And I thought, "This is terrible. What do I have to do differently to avoid that?" And so I have maybe over time made... Well, I have made the titles less descriptive until weirdly coming full circle back to the Atacama work where I'm titling them more clearly, again, because maybe I just feel like this issue is so pressing. I can't afford to be too elusive here. But so it's a range. It's a range.

Joanna Marsh:
Yeah. Yeah. No, it absolutely makes sense. I mean, I think the specificity of the titles in terms of the locations is incredibly helpful. And just having that without the sort of more judgmental or as you say, kind of referential language, you're not leading the viewer to a meaning, you are letting them come to it on their own.

David Maisel:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Joanna Marsh:
I'm going to shift gears to two questions from Pearl, who's asking about the wildlife at some of these sites and the ecosystems. So she's curious, is there wildlife, birds, insects that occupy any of these locations? Let's take the Atacama as an example there.

David Maisel:
Yeah. The Atacama is a really beautiful, beautiful environment. It's amazing. It is the highest and driest desert on the planet, but there is wildlife there. There are flowers that bloom there without having any rain for years at a time. It's not lush, but there's certainly a desert flora and fauna.

One of the critical issues that's happening now in the Atacama is mining takes a tremendous amount of water. And so when they're pumping this brine from underneath the ground, they're destroying any underground... Like the water table underground. And even with open pit mining for copper, there's a tremendous amount of water used in refining the ore down. Also, one of the really sort of horrific aspects of mining, whether in the Atacama or here in the United States is the use of cyanide. So, you don't dig big chunks of copper or gold out of the ground so much. So it has to get refined down and refined down, and cyanide solutions are spread over, well, I won't get too complicated, but over the tailings, the waste products of the mine in order to elicit this chemical reaction to get to sort of find microscopic particles of gold say.

So that cyanide is so toxic, and there actually was an incident, I'm sure there's more than one incident of like thousands and thousands of migratory birds being being poisoned at that mine in Butte, Montana. So, it's tragic. And of course, all of this stuff seeps into the water table. And as remote as some of these mines are, there are still populations that rely on that water. So it's really problematic.

Joanna Marsh:
Well, that's what you've just been describing about these tailing ponds actually relates to Pearl's second question, which is what happens to them? Do they dry up when they're just left to sit?

David Maisel:
Yes, they do. And what I've seen, actually, one of the very earliest minds I photographed back in 1985 or 86, there was an abandoned tailings pond that from above looked like a kind of tumor. It was just devastating. And what I realized is, these mines sometimes get mothballed. And that's what I was seeing. The prices of copper at that point were so low in the United States that it didn't make sense for the mine to be active. So they just stopped mining it and this tailings pond dried out which meant that all of the toxic liquid basically seeped into the ground.

The tailings ponds are lined, but they can fail. There have been incidents I think in Bolivia recently where these dams that hold back... Basically, the tailings ponds are made by damming areas. The dam fails if the dike fails. So this toxic sludge pours out downstream, actually buried villages and people were killed by being buried in this toxic sludge. So it's, I mean mining is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be the most toxic industry in the United States, point blank. Yeah.

Joanna Marsh:
[crosstalk 00:53:00].

David Maisel:
Okay, I got to say one more thing. I got to say one more thing about this.

Joanna Marsh:
Yes. Yeah. Do.

David Maisel:
Okay, so here in the United States mining practices are governed by the 1872 mining law, which was written and enacted in exactly that year. So here we are, what is it? 150 almost years later and there was no knowledge that we would have the technologies now, back then. So there are a lot of lobbyists in Washington, that fight on the behalf of mining companies in order to keep these laws on the books and not allow them to become modernized.

Joanna Marsh:
David, I feel like I feel like you're teeing us up for the next question from the audience, or series of questions which kind of relate to next steps, actions, actions that sort we as individuals can take or that you have taken. So I have a question here about if and how you've made personal changes to your lifestyle, you sort of mentioned your vehicle choice, for instance, based on what you've seen through making your art?

David Maisel:
Well, I'll tell you what we're doing now that we're in a drought cycle here in California. And this is really, I have to give my wife full credit for this for initiating this in our house. We take our showers in our bathtub, and we don't let the water drain, and we have buckets that we use to scoop that water up and water the garden or fill the tank in the back of our toilet. It seems ridiculous, but it's actually empowering. Like you do this really absurd thing, and you do it day after day after day. And it's actually a habit now, and it's why not? And so is everybody else doing it? No.

Joanna Marsh:
Should they? Yes.

David Maisel:
But you do feel it's empowering. It's really this little thing. It's empowering. And are the buckets that we're using plastic? Sure. There's no pure system here. And it doesn't make us... It doesn't solve the problem. But I would say anything, anything that people do, it's helpful and it's empowering. And I always feel like I should be doing a lot more than I am. I've allowed my images to be used by lobbyists in Washington that are fighting to change mining laws, things like that. And that always feels great, when you feel like you might be contributing. I'm not an attorney. I'm not an environmental lawyer. I'm not a hydrologist or a geologist. There's so much about these places that I really don't understand. Much more about these places that I don't understand than I do. So I have amazing respect for people who are kind of going at it from those angles as well.

Joanna Marsh:
Well, the last question that I was going to take is from Maureen, and she asked whether you had a recommendation for those of us who are viewing your work, who are watching the program tonight, if they want to take some kind of action to preserve the environment? And I think maybe you've answered that question already. Grab a bucket and-

David Maisel:
Grab a bucket.

Joanna Marsh:
Bring it into your bathtub.

David Maisel:
Yeah, absolutely.

Joanna Marsh:
No, but in all seriousness, anything you'd like to add before we close out?

David Maisel:
There are some people who are probably better prepared to speak on this than I. I would recommend the author Robert McFarland. I'd recommend the author Rebecca Solnit. There are others that I'm not... Bill McKibben is brilliant. I would say follow those people and read them as much as you can, please, because they're going to have specific... They will lead you in a myriad places that I don't really feel like I have the wherewithal to do in this moment. But yes, every little bit we do does count. I think it's fairly complicated. Like I said, here we are in Zoom. We wouldn't be here without lithium. We wouldn't be here without the mines.

So, I'll keep it brief, but when I started making these aerial pictures when I finished college and at that first mining photographic expedition that I mentioned where I photographed that abandoned tailings pond, I was actually living with my then girlfriend, now wife, on the coast of Maine, and we were heating with a wood stove. We didn't own a television. We were really, really hyper-minimalist. And I finished that project of photographing mines in the Rocky Mountain region, and I came back to Maine and I processed my negatives in my darkroom, and I made my contact sheets. And I kind of ground to a halt because I thought, "Here I am using paper, using water, using metals, minerals mined out of the earth to make these pictures." And I felt like I had sort of backed myself into a corner. So, we can't afford to tie our hands behind our back and not live either. So it's got to be a balancing act, I think. Somehow.

Joanna Marsh:
Thank you, David. I think we're going to close out on that note, which is a perfect place, that idea of balance which you strike so well in your photographs. So, just a few closing remarks. I want to thank David and I hope all of you who were listening and watching will join me in thanking David Maisel for being here tonight. I also want to give really special thanks to everyone who made tonight's program possible: the donors, volunteers and viewers like yourselves, and all of the partners who help the museum reach, educate and empower millions of people around the world. Thank you.

The next event in this program series will feature interdisciplinary artist, Ellie Irons, whose work I showed during the introduction. You can find a link to register for that program in the Q&A box, as well as where to find more information about the entire series and the exhibition that David's work is featured in. We hope that you'll join us for the rest of the series. I'll be back too in January to moderate one of the discussions. And there's a link in the Q&A to a survey. So if you can take a moment to respond so that my colleagues here at the Natural History Museum can get a sense of what's working. Thank you so much. Thank you, David. This has been so much fun tonight.

David Maisel:
Thank you.

Joanna Marsh:
And-

David Maisel:
Thank you, Joanna. Appreciate it.

Joanna Marsh:
I look forward to seeing everyone again soon.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with photographer and visual artist David Maisel aired September 29, 2021, as part of a series of conversations with artists featured in the exhibit, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

In this video, American photographer and visual artist David Maisel, whose large-format aerial photographs highlight industrial scars on natural landscapes, discusses the politics and aesthetics of radically human-altered environments with co-curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition, Joanna Marsh

Maisel has spent decades making aerial images of environmentally damaged sites, throughout the United States and most recently in Chile’s ecologically sensitive Atacama Desert. He and Marsh consider how we can expand our notions of landscape by including damaged sites like open-pit mines, areas of clearcut deforestation, and massive water reclamation zones.

Host: Amanda Sciandra, a public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Natural History.

Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series

What is "natural" in a world where the human imprint is everywhere? In the new exhibition Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans at the National Museum of Natural History, contemporary artists challenge viewers to think about the changes we make to our planet. Join us for a series of conversations with them on the power of art to illuminate our relationship with the natural world. September 2021 – March 2022

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Topics
Earth Science, Social Studies
Exhibit
Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans