This Week In Photography Books – David Maisel

by Jonathan Blaustein

Imagine if hamsters were self-aware. Wouldn’t that be strange? The first hamster to achieve consciousness would be a hero. Then he’d whisper in all the other hamsters’ ears: we’re going to die. (You know he would.)

For a while, all of hamsterdom would be in an uproar. We don’t want to die, they’d say. What can we do to forestall this calamity? How can we lengthen our lives? Certainly, all activity at the hamster wheel would stop. Who wants to run in circles while the fate of the species is at stake?

All around the water bowl, hamster plans would be hatched. What if we eat more? Or less? What if we pray to the human who gives us food each day? Pray more, dammit. I said, pray more!

Alas. Nothing worked. The hamsters began to die, one by one, when their time was up. Eventually, the rest of the hamsters got bored of examining the situation, as it was clearly futile. They couldn’t stop nature, so they went back to running in circles.

The End.

We’re no different. We’re going to die. You know it. I know it. And still we go about our daily business. Toast is buttered. Metrocards are swiped. Babies are born. It’s the way of things.

I believe our acceptance of said reality leads to short-term thinking. Around the world, people will do what they have to do to survive. Without bread and water today, (or a Big Mac,) there will be no tomorrow. So tomorrow will always have to wait, because I’m hungry today. (Those cows won’t eat themselves.)

This is the best explanation I can muster for why we degrade and destroy our planet. Why else would we shit where we eat? Anyone who’s raised a puppy knows they don’t do that. They know better. But we don’t. We constantly dump our pollutants in the water and air, and scrape away sections of the Earth until mountains are plains.

In fairness, the planet will survive. We can’t hack it all away. It will continue to spin, long after we’re gone. All of us, that is. Sure, it would be tough to wipe away all the people at one time, and maybe technology will save us all in the end, but it’s not likely. So much damage cannot be undone.

Personally, I’m an optimist. I’ve got two young children, so I have little choice. I’d like to think we’ll adapt together, us and Earth. We’ll make some concessions, maybe move some houses back off the coasts. Perhaps she’ll agree to terms limiting all future temperature changes? Who’s to say.

But what about the book, you say? Doesn’t he have to review a book in a book review? Right. I guess I do. Rules are rules.

“Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” is a new monograph by David Maisel, published by the always steady Steidl. (Try saying that five times fast, with a German accent: steady Steidl.) As you might have guessed, I just spent some time leafing through its large and luxurious pages. The above riff is evidence that Mr. Maisel has been successful in his multi-decade examination of how humans are changing the skin of the World.

It is an excellent book filled with aerial photographs of various altered places. No criticisms today. (Even of the veiled or back-handed kind. My speciality.) These photographs ought to be seen, and their aesthetic awesomeness ensures that they will. It’s a little uncomfortable to view pollution and environmental degradation, and remark upon the beauty. But view these you will.

It’s clear that the inter-connected projects will at some point be parsed by historians. The images speak to the future, while they record the present. It’s a fairly high compliment, but I’m sure the artist is used to hearing it by now. The pharmaceutical colors, and reliance on modern technology, (airplanes and helicopters) embed the work in time. Can’t you just hear some future critic, elongating certain vowel sounds, ironically laughing at how stupid everyone must have been in the early 21st Century?

Bottom Line: Terrific book, important photographs

To Purchase “Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 10 Comments On This Article.

  1. Glad you’re highlighting David’s work, Jonathan! I had the pleasure of viewing this series at a gallery (at The Painted Bride, in Philadelphia), and the full-size prints are just stunning. Seeing them several feet high made the colors and patterns even more haunting (and beautiful, to me).

  2. Be nice to know if Mr. Maisel provides any info as to the background, creation and future of these toxic, ecological time bombs. Without the proper context, all we’re left with is a heapin helpin of some real perty pictures… Next!

    If we as a species can’t go beyond the surface as to what the evidence above is really showing us (our unabated self poisoning on a massive global scale), there really is no reason whatsoever to be optimistic about the earth- or our continued survival. And so far we are making only token efforts, at best, to address any of it- let alone actually do something to reverse or even halt it in any meaningful manner.

    If I was a parent, I’d be shittin’ in my pants- for their sake.

    • scott Rex Ely

      Even if you are not a parent you should be concerned from at least one other angle. The legal association with natural resources to national security, namely coal, has made it even more difficult to give the public much needed information of mountain top destruction and removal in West Virginia. The feds are now basically directors of little squads of local authorities that are paid in grant and direct subsidies to do corporate security. Trespassing on private property was never so perilous than it is near a coal facility. Protests are squashed cameras, car keys and cell phones are taken and the suspects are threatened by the FBI and made to wait days for the return of their belongings. It’s no wonder why the images David provides are taken from the air miles away from security apparatus.
      Maybe the people who they chose to comment on the images were indifferent for their own benefit.
      To me they’re like one more beautiful picture of a dead child as a casualty of war where we become more and more distracted by the aesthetic and provenance of their delivery than of the cruel reality of their content.
      Great point Stan. Worth some further research.

  3. I was hoping that people would be able to write in, correct me and point to the wealth of environmental info that was, in fact, included in this book. On the way home, I stopped at the local bookstore and behold, there it was! Beautiful plates, beautiful book, and I’m sure the prints (as a previous commenter mentioned) are even more so.

    Hurry, Hurry, Hurry! Come one and all and wonder at the astoundingly beautiful vistas. We promise to get ya home none the wiser, and your heart will be filled with the savage beauty that man has wrought!

    At least six people were engaged to write for this book (and unless I missed it), all were: art critics, artists, curators, editors, photographers… not a one with any chops on the reality and degradation of what we’re actually viewing- which is without a doubt the most shocking part of the entire book.

    Yeah, I know it’s an “art” monograph, but would it have really hurt to throw in a couple of pages with a few facts, figures and explanations? Like I said, it’s hard to be optimistic when we celebrate the beauty of our own extinction.

    BTW- Here’s how to do it right:

    • Hi Stan,

      I admit I didn’t bother to read all the essays, as they were kind of dense. I just skimmed this week. But they did seem to give some background to Mr. Maisel’s process, shooting locales and motivations. So it’s probably unfair to claim the book doesn’t enlighten, beyond the plates.

      “Petrochemical America” is great, of course, and I discussed Mr. Misrach’s project last year when I reported on his lecture at CCP in Tucson.

      I believe Mr. Maisel is oft-criticized for his aesthetic treatment of environmental degradation, which I hinted at in the review. But I believe that it is a time-honored method of audience engagement; a way to draw people into the content. Edward Burtynsky makes beautiful pictures as well. Furthermore, the colors are the colors, right? They say more about what we’re doing to the Earth than they do about Mr. Maisel’s love of color, IMO.

      As always, thanks for reading, and sharing your educated thoughts.


  4. I don’t mind the aesthetics- really, otherwise why else would anyone bother to look. And yes, the essays did talk about his “process, shooting locales and motivations,” but never about what we were actually looking at- causes, consequences, physical make up. I would never expect a complete environmental breakdown- no, that’s not his job, but at least give us a hint, a taste of what all this “beauty” is all about beneath the surface. Yes, ultimately it is up to us to educate ourselves and pick up the cause. But don’t just leave us with pretty pictures.

    I was critical of Burtynsky a while back- and I was wrong. He had to actually go into the belly of the beast to get permission to photograph, had he been openly critical, access would have been promptly cut off. But it seems that Mr. Maisel is simply doing flybys- whose permission does he need? Is he being sued for violating Big Agro air space? Again, we have no info. All we have here, all we’re ultimately left with are a lot of pretty pictures with no substance, content or meaning beyond their aesthetics. Dessert, when it could have been a life sustaining meal.