Black Maps and the Apocalyptic Sublime

by Connie Shen


Great Salt Lake, Utah.


Owens Valley, California.


Inspiration, Arizona.

Black Maps and the Apocalyptic Sublime

David Maisel's Aerial Photographs Trace the Impact of Human Activity

In 1983, David Maisel and Emmet Gowen hiked into the still-steaming aftermath of Mt. Saint Helens’ volcanic eruption. There, amidst dust and ash, Maisel became fascinated with the sublime—the apocalyptic, Romantic sort we arrive at vis à vis the manipulation and destruction of that which we consider beautiful, wondrous, terrifying. “What really kind of caught me off guard when we were high up on Saint Helens was the scale of the logging industry, which was clear-cutting the area on a scale equivalent to that of the volcanic destruction. That was really what got me started on the ways that we transform landscape on a really large scale.” Maisel’s work is haunting. It explores themes of loss, transmutation, memorialization, and decomposition. He looks at the ways human agency has changed our landscapes, the result of which is both beautiful and horrific.

Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime is Maisel’s most recent collection of images selected from a series that spans nearly his entire career. The book is a survey of Maisel’s major aerial photographic projects including The Mining Project, The Lake Project, and Oblivion, a revealing look at the desert city that is Los Angeles.

Existing between documentary and metaphor, art and politics, the images archive the impact of human consumption and inhabitation. Maisel’s work also examines the ways in which the subject matter takes apart the components of photography. “Photography uses metals—I tried to look at the ways in which we mine metals from the earth. Photography of course uses paper so I ended up looking at the forestry industry and clear-cutting. And photography uses water so I started looking at water reclamation. That’s not really the sort-of obvious content of the work, but it is underlying it.”

All of the photographs are taken aerially because they occupy spaces that we all share—they’re landscapes that are just outside of our apartments, our workplaces—places that we live within but never see. The sites bear the stains and wounds that remain from our existence.

Some of the sites were discovered by accident, some discovered in the wake of another project’s failure to show results. “With The Lake Project, I was setting out with this intention of trying to document this thing at the Salton Sea and that didn’t yield anything. And I think that was also very instructive for me because you can set out with all kinds of intention with your work, but it’s when chance intervenes that something more interesting is yielded.”

The first chapter of the book—The Forest—shows the massive expanse of damage that clear-cutting and whole-tree harvesting has done to our natural world—huge pieces of land wiped clean of their resources. The Mining Project and The American Mine reveal humankind’s deliberate mining of nature’s veins—for metals, for gold, for life.

The images in Terminal Mirage are striking, almost hypnotic in their vibrant colors. They look more like stained glass windows than aerial portraits of The Great Salt Lake. The name of this project, Terminal Mirage, is telling. The myriad of colors—everything from the brightest blues and reds to the lushest aqua-greens—are the signature hues of molybdenum and magnesium, which is basically wastewater from the Magnesium Corporation of America—a company that was sued in the late 1990s for nearly $1 billion because of its environmental infractions. And then there’s Oblivion and The Lake Project, the physical remains of the history of the American West. Owens Lake was drained and redirected to bring water to the growing city of Los Angeles. When seen from above, the spiraling paths that lead into our high-rise buildings and rooftop pools all lead back to Owens lake—dead, emptied, red and pink with the stains of human destruction.

Maisel’s photographs are an autopsy of American landscapes. But they are also snapshots of human intervention, forcing us to look, and look carefully, at how we see our projective selves in the world. If there is beauty in this work, it is in the form of a question: what’s really there. Maisel is suggesting there’s a way to find out. After all, he’s calling these photos “maps”—a translation of the truth, simply a way of redirecting people’s eyes. “It’s all mirror versus window. Are photographs windows to the world or windows to ourselves? I think they can be both and I think when they are both that’s when I find them the most compelling.”

Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime by David Maisel. Photographs courtesy of Steidl.