The volcano Mount Saint Helens erupted in Washington in 1980, unleashing cataclysmic forces more than 400 times the strength of the atomic blast that leveled Hiroshima. More than 540 million tons of volcanic ash rose 80,000 feet into the atmosphere, ultimately spreading over 22,000 square miles. The 200 mile-an-hour blast flattened trees twenty miles away, and sheared 1,300 feet off the peak of the mountain, forming a crater more than a mile wide. The north side of the volcano burst, releasing magma and gas that incinerated the surrounding region. One hundred and fifty square miles of old-growth forests were reduced to a wasteland of scorched timber, buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash.
|Mount Saint Helens|
When I photographed at the volcano in 1983, the landscape remained a potent record of these forces. 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. A doorway opened into another world, a primordial past, a world of pre-history. Geologic forces comprised nearly the entirety of the landscape, punctuated only by evidence of the logging industry that seemed to be attempting a transformation on an equally potent scale.
Looking back from the vantage point of the present, I can see that this encounter with the “apocalyptic sublime” at Mount Saint Helens informed my future work in ways that I could never have predicted. For example, my images became concerned with dust in many different forms—in The Lake Project, with toxic dust storms rising off of Owens Lake as a result of the lake being drained to bring water to Los Angeles; in Library of Dust with the incinerated ashes of psychiatric patients yielding mineralogical blooms on the canisters in which they were housed; in Oblivion with the sense that an entire cityscape could seem comprised of dust and ash.
At Saint Helens, I first witnessed the transfiguring actions of the forestry industry through clear-cutting, which led to my examination of other industrial practices exacting similar tolls on the environment. In addition, 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.
When Emmet Gowin and I hiked together into the still-steaming crater of St Helens (located in the “Red Zone,” and off-limits to exploration), and lost our way there in an unanticipated July snowfall, my understanding that nature simply had its own rules and its own logic was confirmed. Human efforts seemed, in contrast, a mere wisp of a flicker of a shadow. All of human endeavor, when set against such natural forces, seemed to me to be…not useless or meaningless, exactly…but, rather fragile and fleeting, ephemeral.
From Saint Helens I took the themes of dust and ash, transmutation from one primary form to another, a blurring or erasure of boundaries and borders, and a sense of order within chaos. My concerns with the “apocalyptic sublime” were, I realized, not just with the apocalypse itself, but rather with what such inevitable, unconstrained forces might yield: the notion of cataclysm and regeneration as twinned processes.