The global award in photography and sustainability

David Maisel

The Lake Project and Terminal Mirage are two chapters in my extensive photographic series called Black Maps, which consists of my aerial photographs of environmentally impacted landscapes. These images depict the undoing of the natural world by wide-scaled human activity. The pictures of these damaged wastelands, where our collective efforts have eradicated the natural order, are both spectacular and horrifying. The forms of environmental disquiet and degradation function on both a documentary and a metaphorical level, and the aerial perspective enables the viewer to experience the landscape like a vast map of its own undoing.

The Lake Project consists of my aerial photographs from the site of Owens Lake, a formerly 250-square mile lake in California 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 fledgling desert city of Los Angeles, some two hundred miles to the south. By 1926, the lake was essentially depleted, exposing vast mineral flats and transforming a fertile valley into an arid playa. In the ensuing decades, fierce winds have scoured microscopic particles from the lakebed, creating extensive carcinogenic dust storms. Indeed, the lakebed has become the highest source of particulate matter pollution in the United States, emitting some 300,000 tons annually of cadmium, chromium, arsenic and other materials. The concentration of minerals in the little water remaining in Owens Lake is so artificially high that blooms of microscopic bacterial organisms result, turning the liquid a deep, bloody red.

In Terminal Mirage, my aerial images of the Great Salt Lake in Utah become a means to explore “the disturbingly engaging duality between beauty and repulsion”, as the curator Anne Tucker has written about this series. The Great Salt Lake is, indeed a ‘terminal’ lake – it has no natural outlets – and this physical property results in the lake’s exceptional richness in sodium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, sulphate, and other elements. Commercially operated evaporation ponds ring the lake’s perimeter, in order to extract these minerals from the lake for industrial use. The nearby Tooele Army Depot (depicted in my penultimate photograph submitted from this series) is, however, the site of many of the nation’s aging chemical weapons, housed in thousands of storage ‘igloos’. These weapons are periodically incinerated on site, sending contaminated ash over the waters of the Great Salt Lake, which is then – disturbingly, inexplicably – mined for its mineral content.

David Maisel