The Enchantment of the Aesthetically Rejected Subject
The Mining Project had its genesis in 1983, when I began photographing open pit mines from the air. After witnessing the clear-cutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest while photographing the volcano Mount St Helens, I began to consider other ways that human activity transforms the land through industrial effort. In addition, I was captivated by Robert Smithson’s proposals for viewing platforms in the base of abandoned mines.
Legislation governing mining activity in the United States dates from over 135 years ago. The 1872 Mining Law was ratified in an era when this country sought to develop the West and exploit natural resources without regard to environmental consequences. As a legacy of this antiquated law, more than a century of mining has left the West deeply scarred. Modern mining techniques carve out entire mountains and utilize tons of toxic chemicals at massive industrial sites. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mining is the country's largest source of toxic pollution.
With the mining sites, I found a subject matter that carried forth my fascination with the undoing of the landscape, in terms of both its formal beauty and its environmental politics. The active and abandoned tailings ponds I have photographed, for example, are strangely beautiful~ yet they are also chock full of cyanide, which is used in the recovery of microscopic particles of gold from the waste tailings of copper mines.
I began the series with Black Maps (1983-1988), which comprises black-and-white images of copper, gold, and silver mines in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Montana. These photographs depict the landscape of the American West as the site of human-induced trauma. The title of Black Maps, which comes from a poem by Mark Strand, refers to the notion that although these images document the facts of these sites, they are essentially unreadable, much as a map that is black would be. As Strand writes, “Nothing will tell you where you are/Each moment is a place you’ve never been.” With Black Maps, I first began to consider my pictures not only as documents of blighted sites, but also as poetic renderings that might somehow reflect back the human psyche that made them. With The Mining Project (1987-1989), I began to work with the lurid, yet seductive colors present at these sites, to create images that were more visceral and raw. I also began to print at increasingly larger scales.
American Mine (2007-present), the current chapter in this series, features open pit mines on the Carlin Trend, the most prolific gold mining district in the Western Hemisphere. Located 60 kilometers northwest of Elko, Nevada, mines from this region are said to be the source of devastating mercury emissions, released into the air when the ore is heated during the gold extraction process. The mining process also exposes sulfide minerals to water and air, forming sulfuric acid. This acid then dissolves other harmful metals -such as arsenic- present in the surrounding rock. Acid mine drainage is particularly destructive as it can occur indefinitely, long after mining activity has ceased. Cyanide and sulfuric acid heap leaching is also employed to extract microscopic particles of precious metals from mined ore, often permitting these deadly solutions to contaminate surrounding groundwater.
Rather than a condemnation of a specific industry, however, my images are intended as an aesthetic response to such despoiled landscapes. These sites are the contemplative gardens of our time, places that offer the opportunity to reflect on who and what we are collectively, as a society. The photographer Walker Evans spoke of the “enchantment of the aesthetically rejected subject.” Similarly, I recognize that strip mines, tailings ponds, cyanide leaching fields, and other such zones form a toxic, yet strangely compelling, terra incognita. I am interested in the cartographic powers of photography, and in making an art of the actual, that renders the uncompromising realities of a flawed, complex world.