By Rob Marks October 14, 2013

David Maisel’s photographs are one thing, and yet another. Although the name of his current Haines Gallery show, Mining, cues viewers into the context of his images, many of them, even under close inspection, remain abstract. Such confusion is consistent with Maisel’s photographic procedures, which omit the physical and visual features that would betray the location or even the idea of a landscape. Maisel’s intention, however, is not so much to hide context as to not disclose it so that the images occupy an unstable position between documentation and abstraction.

Maisel shoots his photographs from above while he is strapped into a banking plane, resulting in the felicitous effect he describes as “lock[ing] out the sky,” a reference to the Modernist photographer Frederick Sommer, one of his key influences.1 In this position, Maisel says, “shapes and forms don't exist per se. They exist in that moment.” As he shoots, the steep, wide angle of view, the absence of a horizon line, and his shifting position, all rob the space of its identity. Maisel composes the images in a square format, leading to what he calls “compaction,” which, by defying the conventionally horizontal orientation of landscape imagery, heightens the works’ abstract qualities. He does not manipulate color, he says; he manipulates “tonal field.” But the actual colors of mine tailings—lakes of chemicals in water—are otherworldly enough to be confounding.

And this is the crux of it: Maisel’s astoundingly beautiful photographs appear abstract only because we do not understand what we are seeing (perhaps this is the secret of all abstraction). The photographs attest to our physical and psychological distance from our actions. As Maisel reminded his audience during a conversation with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s chief curator, Julian Cox, we rely on metals in every part of our lives, but the better we understand the toll this dependence takes, the less we want to know. The result is both a devastated landscape’s alienation from its former self and our alienation from the consequences of our industrial desires.

There’s something else going on in Maisel’s images. When perceived as abstract, they evoke beauty; when perceived as documentary, they elicit another aesthetic response—a sense of the sublime rooted in the overwhelming incomprehensibility of this landscape. Such responses are controversial, drawing criticisms of the aestheticization of disaster—that is, the seeming removal of such events from their sociopolitical context. In reply to this critique, Maisel references the filmmaker Wim Wenders as saying, "the most political thing you can do is direct people’s eyes." Maisel's paraphrase is not precisely what Wenders said, but it is precisely what Maisel meant, and his photographs prove the maxim.

The beauty of Maisel’s Mining photographs is a testament to the presence of what is, while the sense of the sublime is a testament to the absence of what was; the viewer is the matrix in which these apparently conflicting experiences converse. The aesthetic experience of Maisel’s images—rather than camouflaging through beautification or mollifying through emotional diversion—allows viewers to confront the social, ethical, and political repercussions of the choices they make. When Maisel says, “The toxicity of these colors is the content,” he means that the documentation­-abstraction dichotomy is false, as is the aesthetic-political one. Though his images evoke the abstract, they, in fact, document alienations: the land as alienated from what it was, and we from what it has become. As the photographs in Mining evoke the beautiful and the sublime, they direct your eyes toward the tensions inherent in the way we live our lives.

David Maisel: Mining is on view at Haines Gallery, in San Francisco, through October 27, 2013.


  1. All quotations are David Maisel, in conversation with Julian Cox (chief curator and founding curator of photography, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) at Haines Gallery, September 26, 2013. Mining coincides with the release of a new monograph, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (Steidl, 2013) by David Maisel.

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