Abstract, otherworldly and, once your brain has processed what you are seeing, both beautiful and terrifying, David Maisel’s photographs show the impact of man and nature on the earth, seen from the air. Over the last twenty-five years he has created an ambitious series of works that show the scars and marks left on the surface of the earth, from volcanic eruptions to strip mining to the seemingly unstoppable sprawl of cities.
Photographing the landscape in Washington in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980, Maisel was amazed at the level of destruction he saw, especially when he and his tutor at the time chartered a light aircraft and flew over the landscape: “The destructive power of this event had altered the landscape on a scale that defied categorization or comprehension. Viewed from the air, these transformations were totemic in scale: whole forests thrown down like matchsticks; riverbeds rerouted through vast debris flows of rock, pyroclastic flow and volcanic mudslides; and countless layers of ash blanketing the flanks of the volcano and surrounding region.” It had a profound effect on him, and influence the direction of his work from then on; alongside the volcanic destruction he also witnessed the brutally transfiguring effect of the forestry industry, clearing up the thousands of felled trees in the region and adding to the carnage. This led him to examine and document other industrial practices, and to realise that destruction on this scale almost had to be shown from the air to convey it: "I first experienced the potency of the aerial view there; I became instantly attracted to its capacity to permit a kind of mapping of the terrain to take place, allowing the creation of images both literal and metaphorical.”
Subsequent projects included The Forest, a more concentrated look at industrial forest-clearance practices; The Lake Project, a huge series on the disastrous Owens Valley reclamation project in California which left thousands of acres of polluted, unliveable arid land. The Mining Project, begun in 1987, shows the deep scars and photogenic-yet-lethal ‘tailing ponds’ left by increasingly aggressive strip mining practices in Nevada, Arizona and Montana. The striking colours of the lakes and gullies captured alongside the spiralling gouges by Maisel are caused by cyanide, sulphur and mercury amongst others, the unfortunate by-products of these mining techniques.
The sheer scale of these events and the massive effect they have on the land are hard to compute on a day-to-day basis, especially when we spend much of our time at ground level. These virtually abstract, contemporary landscapes, from their removed viewpoint, are a powerful record of the constant, long-term, large scale battering the surface of the earth faces.
Clicking on the thumbnails will bring up larger scans with much better levels of detail.