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Return to: David Maisel

Artist Statement

Black Maps comprises aerial photographs of environmentally impacted landscapes. These images have as their subject matter the undoing of the natural world by the wide-scale intervention of human action. The depiction of these damaged wastelands, where human efforts have eradicated the natural order, are both spectacular and horrifying. Although these photographs evidence the devastation of these sites, they also transcribe interior, psychic landscapes that are profoundly disturbing- for, as otherworldly as the images may seem, they depict a shattered reality of our own making.

The Black Maps project has unfolded in chapters, focusing on such subjects as strip-mines, clear-cuts, leaching fields, tailings ponds, firestorms, the drainage remnants of Owens Lake, and other manipulations of the natural world. The photographs in this series are presented as either 30"-x-30" or 48"-x-48" color C-prints. The prints extend to encompass the viewer's peripheral vision, and in the process their lushness and strange beauty become psychologically demanding as well as visually exhilarating. The forms of environmental disquiet and degradation are here made to function on both a documentary and a metaphorical level, and the aerial perspective enables one to experience the landscape like a vast map of its own undoing.

These images are meant neither to vilify nor to glorify their content, but rather to expand our notions of what constitutes landscape and landscape art. I am not attempting to make literal records of environmental destruction. Rather I seek to reveal the landscape in something other than purely visual terms, the photograph transcribing it as an archetypal space of destruction and ruin that mirrors the darker corners of our consciousness.

A current chapter in this body of work is The Lake Project, begun in 2001. It comprises images from Owens Lake, the site of a formerly 200 square-mile lake in California on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains. Beginning in 1913, the Owens River was diverted into the Owens Valley Aqueduct, to bring water to Los Angeles. By 1926, the lake had been depleted, exposing vast mineral flats and transforming a fertile valley into an arid stretch of land. For decades, fierce winds have dislodged microscopic particles from the lakebed, creating carcinogenic dust storms. Indeed, the lakebed has become the highest source of particulate matter pollution in the United States, emitting some 300,000 tons annually of cadmium, chromium, arsenic and other materials. The concentration of minerals in the remaining water of Owens Lake is so artificially high that blooms of microscopic bacterial organisms result, turning the liquid a deep, bloody red. Viewed from the air, vestiges of the lake appear as a river of blood, a microchip, a bisected vein, or a galaxy's map. It is this contemporary version of the sublime that I find compelling.

In The Lake Project, the lake has become the locus of water's absence. The lake is a negation of itself, a void. To grow the city of Los Angeles is to deplete, starve, or implode the body of water that once comprised Owens Lake, so The Lake Project images serve, in a sense, as the lake's autopsy. In nearly every image from the entirety of Black Maps, water is harnessed for some use, and in the process it is in some manner manipulated or destroyed, its presence denied. This is not to say that it has been stripped of its inherent beauty. But its beauty has been subjugated by its use, and while its physical condition may be thrilling to behold—planes of poison in hues of red, green, amber, and turquoise—it is a beauty born of environmental degradation. There is a sense of both seduction and betrayal with these images, and the viewer is ultimately complicit in their absorption by this toxic liquid.

I have photographed extensively at Owens Lake since September 2001. In the intervening months, two notable developments have occurred with this project. The first was that Nazraeli Press published an oversized, 14" square monograph of The Lake Project, released in Fall 2004. Robert Sobieszek, curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, contributed the introductory essay (This publication was recently selected as one of Vince Aletti's Top 25 Photography Books of 2004). The second development was that the Owens Lake region began undergoing a plan to control the hazardous material spread by dust storms. After decades of destruction, the ground has again been flooded, this time by the Environmental Protection Agency. With each successive layer of intervention, the landscape becomes more complex. Previous scars are covered over, and cycles of negation and erasure expand into a grid system overlaid on the barren lake. From the air, a new map emerges.

The most recent chapter of my work is Terminal Mirage. Inspired by Robert Smithson's apocalyptic writings on the Great Salt Lake, I have embarked upon an aerial survey of this surreal and brutal region. Thus far, at the project's outset, I have photographed at Smithson's Spiral Jetty, both from the air and on the ground. It is above the surface of the lake for the first time in decades, encrusted with salt; the water surrounding the jetty is blood red. I have also made aerial images at the Tooele Army Depot, where 900 munitions storage igloos sprawl across the valley floor, and at the site of evaporation ponds covering some 40,000 acres along the eastern and southern shores of the lake.

Smithson wrote that "the sense of the earth as a map undergoing disruption leads the artist to the realization that nothing is certain or formal." Maps, like photographs, are designed to offer an objective overview, a means to comprehend our location; they are both place and concept, figurative and abstract. But a map that is black, as the title of this work suggests, is a kind of negation. Black maps are indeed unknowable and unnamable; they are ciphers. Perhaps these are the only kinds of pictures, with their compelling ambiguities, with which we can mark the demise of these landscapes.

© 2010