Awfully Beautiful

David Maisel

1,000 Words

aerial photo of diseased lake
The Lake Project (click for a larger view)

The lurid colors are the first hint that something is amiss. Even at its most blousy, nature rarely sports such flash. The reds are too red, the greens too green, the blue an otherworldly shade of cerulean. A geode might, perhaps, look that way, or the inner heart of a gem, or … a cyanide pond laced with sulfuric acid.

Throughout his 30-year career, photographer David Maisel has been preoccupied with places of destruction: the mines, clear-cut forests, failed industrial projects, and far-flung urban sprawl that define much of the American landscape. His interest in such spaces began as an undergraduate, when, flying over the wreckage of Mount St. Helens, he noticed that the nearby logging lots were in worse shape than the areas hit by the volcano. The bird’s eye view has been his métier ever since. In taking to the air and photographing from high altitudes he is able to capture the scale and scope of the damage we have done to the world – probably the only perspective capable of depicting the magnitude of our wreckage.

The results are stunning. From above, the desiccated remains of California’s Owens Lake – an environmental disaster brought about during a botched water diversion project – have the eeriness of an inkblot mixed with blood. Photographing the American Mine in Carlin, Nevada, Maisel turns the tailing ponds and leaching pits into pools of pure color. The dioxin-laden industrial salt ponds of Nevada’s Great Salt Lake are a wondrous mix of gauzy tones and sharp geometric lines. Maisel’s images have the same emotional force as an abstract expressionist canvas – only in this case tinged with regret. He calls this “apocalyptic sublime.”

Taken out of their contexts, the photographs are nothing less than beautiful. It’s when we remember what exactly they depict that a note of dismay creeps in. By mixing the documentary spirit of the photojournalist with the appreciative sensibility of the artist, Maisel is engaged in a delicate balancing act. He is trying to navigate the tricky terrain between aesthetics and ethics, forcing the viewer to question whether something immoral (mining, say, with its horrific record of toxic pollution) can ever be considered lovely.

In the end, Maisel avoids any judgments. His task is simply that of the explorer charting the topography of environmental exploitation. He shows us how we have remade the world into a place that can appear alien, revealing to us landscapes so degraded that they have become, in their own way, exquisite.

David Maisel’s Lake Project was on exhibit at the David Brower Center in early 2010. His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the LA County Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. You can view more of his work at

aerial photo of a lake, discolored and set in a landscape of zero vegetation
The American Mine, Carlin Nevada, from The Mining Project (click for a larger view)

aerial photo of what looks like a plastic-lined lake
The American Mine, Carlin Nevada, from The Mining Project (click for a larger view)

photo of discolored water in a diked landscape aerial photo of diked wetlands aerial photo of diked wetlands
The Great Salt Lake, from Terminal Mirage series (click for a larger view)

aerial photo of a clearcut forest
Chesuncook Lake, Maine, from The Forest series (click for a larger view)

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