Earlier this summer, I caught up with David Maisel, a few weeks after reviewing his new book “Black Maps.” He recently began working with Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, and has a solo show up at Haines Gallery in San Francisco through October 26th.
All images © David Maisel courtesy Haines Gallery/SF and Yancey Richardson Gallery/NY
Jonathan Blaustein: Were you raised on Long Island? Is that right?
David Maisel: Yes.
JB: Your bio states that you went to Harvard as well as Princeton. That’s pretty impressive.
DM: True, but technically I would have to call myself a Harvard drop-out. I went there for graduate school in architecture. It was a 3.5 year masters program that I left after a year.
JB: At Princeton, you studied with Emmet Gowin and Edward Ranney?
DM: Exactly. It was quite a remarkable experience. They were photographic educators, but that kind of skims the surface of what their impact was. I had the opportunity to work with Emmet at Mt. St. Helens when I was an undergrad, and they both informed what my view of landscape could be.
And even what a photographic practice could be. To have both of those men as teachers so early on was really amazing.
JB: When I was looking at “Black Maps,” it made me think of the Nazca lines, and I know that Ed is one of the foremost contemporary photographers who’s worked in Peru. It occurred to me that it might be a literal link in the chain of your creative process. Is that the case?
DM: Absolutely. When I was working with Ed, he was engaged in this very intense, deep photographic survey of Mayan and Incan architecture, and the vestiges that those civilizations had left in the land. That sense of working as a visual archaeologist, looking at artifacts from former civilizations.
I’m looking at artifacts from the present. It’s a future-past, in a way. I’m documenting and cataloging that which our current civilization might leave behind. Ed’s work helped me view contemporary artifacts in the landscape through the lens of what remains when a civilization is gone.
JB: I reviewed the book, and wrote that there was an element in which you were making the work for future people to judge us. So it sounds like that is conscious in your process.
DM: I think so. I think there’s also a science fiction aspect to it as well. A JG Ballard, post-apocalyptic sense that these are the elements that might remain. Or we might be unearthing past civilizations. It’s not entirely academic in nature. I think Ed’s work in large measure is. And I think that’s one of its strengths. I’m playing with other elements as well.
JB: How do you view yourself, with respect to the contemporary environmental movement? You’re doing this exclusively as art? Or do you have motivations to try to alter people’s behaviors in the present, in addition to cataloging degradation for the future?
DM: These are really good questions, but I have to say, first and foremost, I’m looking at landscape from a conceptual point of view. Politics and environment enter into it, but I’m primarily a visual artist, and I’m not making these pictures in order to change policy. If I was, I’d need to make very different kinds of pictures, and I’d position them very differently than I do.
My primary interest is in making interesting photographs, and I think there’s a way that photography has a burden put on it that I want to refute. The pictures are not made in order to change policy, let’s put it that way. But they do have environmental concerns, and they’re based on sites that have undergone very intense environmental transformations.
Politics is part of it. But I think the conceptual aspects of landscape drive me more than the notion of being a documentary photographer. I don’t think that I am documentary photographer.
JB: In 80% of the interviews I do, we end up having a discussion about nomenclature, and the distinctions made in the worlds of photography and art in the 21st Century. Over three decades, you’ve made multiple projects looking at the way humans are interacting with the land. To me, that speaks to a very deep
DM: It’s intrinsically political. You can’t spend so many years looking at these sites without having a certain kind of viewpoint. But my viewpoint is perhaps less about environmental demise than it is about the psyche of the culture that makes these sites.
These are distinctions that I think are important. In the past decade or so, there have been many more photographers looking at issues in the environment than there were when I began. I’m not really sure to what degree my work fits in with that movement.
There’s a history of looking at landscape in photography in the 19th Century, moving forward into the New Topographics. I see my work as a response to those prior ways of making images.
JB: You spoke of investigating the psyche of a culture that would do what’s been done. Since we’re talking about such a long investigation, culminating in the book, what have you learned about the psyche of this culture?
DM: We’re very distanced from the notion that the way we live exacts a toll. I’m part of the equation, and photography is part of the equation. We really do use natural resources without regard to where they come from, how they may or may not be able to be replenished, what the methods are of their extraction.
We’re divorced from any sense of how we are a part of nature, and how we fit back into nature, and how we use nature. We live in a house or an apartment building, in a city or a town. We drive to the shopping mall, we go to the beach. But we don’t ever really see the kinds of places that I’m interested in looking at, and sharing.
JB: When you show your work, you introduce these concepts to people through art. And there is currently a show in Scottsdale?
JB: I’ve been many places in my life, and Scottsdale, Arizona was one of the most challenging. With the all the concrete built right on top of the desert, and the obvious lack of water, it felt like a place where people shouldn’t be living, ecosystem wise. And yet it mushroomed into a city.
What’s your take on Arizona?
DM: The whole issue of desertification is something my work has been looking at through “The Lake Project,” and the “Oblivion” series,” but in my home state of California. But I think there are certain parallels.
I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner lately. You’re probably familiar with his writing.
JB: No, I’ve heard his name, but I haven’t read his work.
DM: I hadn’t realized the degree to which his writing in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s really helped construct a new way of looking at the American West.
He has a book titled “The American West as Living Space.” He writes about the West, and you can include Arizona and California both in there, as being defined by inadequate rainfall.
He basically says, “What do you do about that?” If you’re a nation that’s totally used to getting its way, you can do one of two things. You can either deny it, for a while, and then you either try to adapt to it, or engineer it out of existence.”
That’s what’s happening now, around the American West. We live in denial of the fact that the population of these places is not sustainable, given that there’s not enough water.
Or we try to engineer it out of existence with dams, and other kinds of waterworks projects, and systems of aqueducts, etc.
He’s quite a brilliant writer, and I think his influence has been profound on our concepts of the American West, and to a certain degree, legislation that set aside certain areas of the West. It’s pretty incredible, and worth taking a look at his work in depth.
JB: I will do that, and there’s also a chance that some of our readers will as well. So on their behalf, I appreciate the tip.
By putting together all the projects in a mostly linear way for the new book, did that give you new insight into what you’ve been pushing towards all these years?
DM: It was a really fulfilling project for me, because when I started making these kinds of pictures in the mid 1980’s, there was not much of an audience for this kind of work. I didn’t have the capacity to put this work out into the world in a way that would gather an audience to it.
So to have this trajectory of this work, over something like 30 years, and to look back at the origins of the work, that was incredibly meaningful and satisfying. It answered a lot of the questions that I had about my work in my mid-20’s.
To see the resonance the projects have with each other, the way my viewpoints change over time, the kinds of subject matter that I have looked at, I’m not sure it led to new realizations. But it brought me back to the person I was when I started this.
It helped recall the urgency that I felt about making these pictures, and the incredible frustration I had, because there were not many avenues to exhibit or publish, pre-Internet.
JB: You went to graduate school for photography many years after you had finished your schooling. A lot of people today are questioning and balancing the value of these very expensive arts educations. I got one, and loved it, but I’m still paying off the loans. What led to your decision?
DM: I’d moved to the Bay Area in 1993, and a decade later, I felt like I was still working in isolation here. I wanted to expand my community. That was one reason.
I also wanted to challenge myself to be more rigorous in my thinking. It was an unusual time, perhaps, to go back to school, but for me, it was perfect. I trusted myself enough, at that point in my life, to be able to discern what was useful to me, and what wasn’t, in that MFA program.
I could do it for myself in a way I wouldn’t have been able to, had I gone in my mid-20’s. It was a terrific experience. The environment at CCA, California College of the Arts, I liken it to the Bauhaus. There are all of these different disciplines happening under one roof. It’s an incredible hotbed of creativity, and intellectual and artistic growth.
JB: I was out in SF a year ago, and it was clear the place was really booming. Everyone was talking about Twitter moving in, rents going up, and the big Cindy Sherman show was at SFMOMA. There are a lot of younger SF and Bay Area artists who are doing well right now.
Have you seen anything lately, or come across any exhibitions that really spoke to you? What’s your take on what’s going on out there?
DM: It’s interesting. I’m pretty involved with the Headlands Center for the Arts. I’m on a board there. So that’s the filter through which I see a lot of what’s going on. There are some great things happening.
The de Young Museum has this Diebenkorn exhibit up called “The Berkeley Years,” so it’s not work that’s current. But it’s an exceptional show that focuses on work that he made in the mid to late 50’s. There are certain ways I see some parallels between his way of seeing and my way of seeing, which have been very intriguing for me.
JB: It’s a great point. It can be so helpful for photographers to look at painting, sculpture and cinema. Having a broad range of input tends to lead to more sophisticated output. If I were to make such a grand generalization, which is my speciality.
JB: “History’s Shadow” and “Library of Dust” are two projects in which you seem to be interested in categorization and typologies. History has a way of forgetting much more than it remembers, and things march on. As such, I was wondering where you were headed, creatively? What new things are you planning?
DM: I’m working now with some X-rays of paintings. The “History’s Shadow” work to date has been based on X-rays of 3 dimensional art objects, from antiquity through the invention of photography.
JB: And you photograph the X-rays?
DM: I rephotograph them. Exactly. So I’m now starting to work with X-rays of paintings. It’s pretty early on in that process, but it’s funny that we were just talking about Diebenkorn, and now we’re on the subject of painting.
I’m probably as inspired by other visual arts in my work than photography, or as much, certainly. Looking at Robert Smithson’s work, or Walter de Maria’s incredible Earth works art.
I found it very interesting to work with the X-rays of 3 dimensional artworks too, because in a way, photography is all about translating 3 dimensions down to 2. As you shift towards photos of 2 dimensional surfaces, it’s very interesting what happens. I’m still grappling with it, but that’s one of the things that’s coming next.
I’m also hoping to do some aerial work in Spain later this summer, or in the early Fall.
JB: What about architecture? Does that also inspire your photographic practice?
DM: It’s absolutely present in every single way. I thought from a very young age that I would be an architect, as soon as I could name it. I looked at magazines and floor plans from a very early age.
The ways architects analyze space acutely informs how I make pictures. You could extrapolate and say the aerial view is the way architects look at things and plan. The plan occupies the bird’s eye view and shows you things.
And the “History’s Shadow” work is more about cross-section: you’re slicing into something and seeing its structure. But the work is absolutely tied to the same interests and pleasures and puzzles.
JB: I was fortunate to see the “Library of Dust” project, in which you photographed the ashen remains of people who had passed away in a mental institution. I saw the prints a few years ago in New York. Maybe it was at Von Lintel?
JB: The prints were exquisite and also chilling, because you shined a light on a particular place, and people who had been perfectly forgotten. Did that spur anyone to come claim their relatives ashes? Did you hear any stories like that?
DM: Absolutely. One, in particular, was told in a beautiful and eloquent way by a woman and her adult daughter who were researching their family tree. They came upon a woman named Ada, who had vanished. Eventually they learned she had been institutionalized at the Oregon State Hospital.
They found out she had been one of these patients who had been cremated. They tried to work with the hospital to claim the remains, and were unsuccessful. When the “Library of Dust” book was published, that gave them another round of energy to approach the hospital. At that point, they were able to reclaim her.
It’s interesting, this idea of advocacy. Like I said, my work is not made with advocacy as its primary goal, but there is definitely a social aspect that is woven intentionally into the work. Hopefully in a subtle way.
Before the book even came out, the President of the State Senate in Oregon asked if he could use my photographs of these canisters on the Senate floor to advocate for more funding for the hospital. It was an active hospital even when I was making those pictures there, although some of the wards had been empty for a while.
He was successful in arguing for more funding, to the tune of $3.5 Billion. And in fact, the hospital has been rebuilt. This project was in some way a participant in that process. Did I set out to do that? By no means.
JB: Fascinating. Congratulations. You mentioned again that advocacy is not your primary motivation, but of course we also have secondary and tertiary motivations…
JB: Subtlety and nuance come from having multiple ideas sharing the same dance floor, and some times it’s hard to pick them out.
We’ve talked about your different interests and talents, and that multi-tasker model does seem to be hot at present. Do you have any advice you might share with other photographers out there, things you’ve learned that might help them with their careers?
DM: That’s a great question. For me, to study photography alone was not really enough. I do think that what might have felt at the time, as a younger person, like a lack of clarity in terms of making a career path, in the long run all of those things that might have felt like diversions were exactly the things that fed my artistic practice. Studying architecture, landscape architecture, the history of art, counseling and psychology, all these things came together.
JB: So that’s a yes, then.
DM: Follow multiple strands of study, and of inquiry. Follow your curiosity where it may go. Photography, in and of itself, is a vehicle for ideas. What are the ideas that you bring to the table? What are the ideas that you bring to your work? Those are the real, critical questions.
JB: Before we go, is there anything coming up that we ought to know about? Any new shows opening up?
DM: There is a solo show opening in September at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. (ed note, this is still ongoing.) It’s an exhibition of my mining photographs, and we’re going to focus on two bodies of work, one from 1989 and another from 2007. In a way, it brackets the timeframe of my obsession with open pit mines.
JB: And everyone who goes to see the show will get one free gold nugget?
DM: That’s right. And a vial of cyanide.
JB: Can you imagine? You have to pick a hand. You either get $10,000 of gold, or you die.
DM: Actually, cyanide is used in the capture of microscopic amounts of gold in many of those open pit mines. It’s an intrinsic part of the process, and it seems only fair that we’ll be serving little vials of cyanide at the opening.