When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom


When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom

By Larissa Archer March 19, 2014

“We all wanted this oil development. We just didn’t know what we were in for. Even half of what we got would’ve been too much.”—Carole Freed, fourth-generation rancher, Watford City, ND, May 2013

No single photograph in Sarah Christianson's When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom gets one's blood boiling. Her images of her home state—which has, in several booms since the early ’50s, changed from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial one based around oil extraction—elicit a slower-burning experience of rage. Rather than focusing on obvious signs of destruction, Christianson's photographs (paired here with generously informative captions) collectively emphasize the insidiousness of the waste and danger that are often hiding in plain sight.

Christianson occasionally enhances the tone of a scene through dramatic framing. A well on the border of a farmstead is shown through venetian blinds from the interior of the farmhouse, like an intruder spotted by the besieged protagonists of a horror film. In another photograph, several wells perch over a cornfield like so many robotic farmhands, while in the foreground, a tiny sign along the bank of a sludge creek warns of hazardous chemicals in the area. But in most of the other photographs, the land's exploitation and its sinister effects are depicted even more subtly, or are invisible altogether. Christianson doesn’t overlook the abandoned wells, the disturbed earth along the pipelines, or the swirls of black oil collecting at a spill site, but this is not disaster porn. Rather, by not focusing solely on these more ostentatious (and expected) pieces of evidence, Christianson's photographs convey something scarier about the degree to which fracking, mining, and drilling have become an irrevocable part of North Dakota's ecosystem and its inhabitants' way of life.

Sarah Christianson. Corn field, Antler, ND, September 2013, 2013. C-print, 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The “industry” is identifiable by its near-inconspicuousness within the frame. Wells look like giant birds pecking at the ground; uncontainable gas is flared off, beautifully illuminating the red dirt that surrounds the pipes; even spills appear to be contained in neat pits designed for that very purpose. It all appears to be under control. Christianson doesn't try to appeal to emotions with her photographs. They encourage a process by which the viewer mentally forms a bridge between the damning information about the subjects (here, provided by the captions) and the seeming neutrality of the scenes themselves, rendering the personal and ecological tragedies conveyed so much greater than an appeal to sight alone.

In Carole Freed, Fourth Generation Rancher, Watford City, ND, May 2013 (2013), a woman stands staring out through the glass of her front door at a farm and family land that have been encroached upon, littered, and damaged by the local drilling enterprise. A standard-issue “No trespassing” sign and a flyswatter hang on the wall nearby. Viewed by itself, the image might not be notable, but in the context of When the Landscape Is Quiet Again, it is devastating. Despite the industry’s promises that its activities would be controlled, economical, and discreet, oil has upended North Dakotans’ lives and altered the state’s landscape. Signs and flyswatters might as well be the defenses of an outmaneuvered and dependent populace against damage which Christianson’s photographs reveal is already done.

Sarah Christianson. Carole Freed, fourth generation rancher, Watford City, ND, May 2013, 2013. C-print, 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

When the Landscape is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom is on view at SF Camerawork, in

San Francisco

, through April 19, 2014.

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