Black Maps Project / The Black Maps project is comprised of aerial photographs of environmentally impacted landscapes. These images have as their subject matter the undoing of the natural world by the wide-scaled intervention of human actions. Looking down on these damaged wastelands, where human efforts have eradicated the natural order, the views through my camera are both spectacular and horrifying. Although these photographs evidence the devastation before me, they also transcribe an interior psychic landscape that is profoundly disturbing. As otherworldly as the images seem, they depict a shattered reality of our own making.
The most current (and ongoing) chapter in this body of work is The Lake Project, begun in 2001. It is comprised of images from Owens Lake, the site of a formerly 200-square mile lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains. Beginning in 1913, the Owens River was diverted into the Owens Valley Aqueduct, to bring water to the rapidly growing desert city of Los Angeles. By 1926, the lake was essentially depleted, leaving vast exposed salt flats and transforming a fertile valley into an arid stretch of land. The situation has been exacerbated by winds that sweep through the valley and dislodge microscopic particles from the lakebed, creating a pervasive carcinogenic dust cloud.
The concentration of minerals in the remaining water of Owens Lake is so artificially high that blooms of microscopic bacterial organisms result, turning the water a deep, bloody red. Viewed from the air, a red river cuts a path through a bleached valley, like an artery through the human body’s interior, winding toward a lake that is no longer there. If death is mother to beauty, as Wallace Stevens wrote, then The Lake Project images may serve as the lake’s autopsy. It is this contemporary version of the sublime that I find most compelling, in which the vestiges of the lake appear as elements as diverse as a river of blood, a microchip, a bisected vein, or a galaxy’s map.
I photographed extensively at Owens Lake in September 2001 and June 2002. In the intervening months, two essential developments occurred. The first was that Nazraeli Press decided to publish a book of The Lake Project. The second development was that the Owens Lake region began undergoing a plan to control the hazardous material spread by dust storms. After decades of accelerated destruction, the ground is again flooded, this time by the Environmental Protection Agency. With each succeeding layer of intervention the landscape becomes more complex, as previous scars are covered over, and irrigation pools expand into a grid system overlaid on the barren lake. From the air, a new map emerges. As the artist Robert Smithson stated, The sense of the earth as a map undergoing disruption leads the artist to the realization that nothing is certain or formal. Maps, like photographs, are designed to offer an objective overview, a means to comprehend our location; they are both place and concept, figurative and abstract. But a map that is black, as the title of this work suggests, is a kind of negation. Black maps are indeed unknowable and unnamable; they are ciphers. Perhaps these are the only kinds of pictures, with their compelling ambiguities, with which we can mark the demise of these landscapes.
David Maisel, a resident of Sausalito, CA, earned his BFA in photography and Art history from Princeton University and attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He has had recent solo shows at the Von Lintel Gallery in NYC, Paul Kopeikin Gallery in LA, and Society for Contemporary Photography in Kansas City. Additionally his work has been shown at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. His photographs have been featured in Camera Arts Magazine, American Photography, Art News, Art Week, the New York Times Magazine, and a monograph book of his photographs will be published by Nazraeli Press in 2004. David’s work resides in collections at the George Eastman House, the Houston Museum of Fine Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University Museum of Art, and the Paine Weber Collection. Maisel has lectured widely and taught workshops at Santa Fe and ICP. He is the vice president of Photo Alliance, and a recipient of the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Grant and an ICP Infinity Award.