Black Maps

Black Maps

A couple of weeks ago I went with some friends to the Annenberg Space For Photography. It’s a gallery and lecture space next to the CAA building, the talent agency affectionately know as the “Death Star” for it’s warm and cuddly atmosphere.

We were there to see photographer David Maisel give a lecture about his work entitled “Black Maps.”

When the lecture started, I was confused. Why was he showing pictures of oil paintings? I expected to see some of his work. It took me a while to realize that those WERE photographs.

In the simplest terms, David does high altitude aerial photography of the interaction between man and the environment. Scenes of mines, clear cuts, drained lakes, and expansive urban environments were the primary focus of his lecture that evening.

The confusion on the origin of the first images is actually something to be expected with his work. One of the reasons that he uses aerial photography is so that “nothing will tell you where you are.” By eliminating perspective and context, he forces the viewer to examine the image for the sake of the image.

This unearthly perspective also adds tension, chaos and a sense of “the lack of control” to the images. The best art marries theory and practice by having the themes of the work represented in medium. And these photos exemplify that, because in many cases they feature massive environmental calamities. The pieces from his “Lake Project” details the destruction caused by the draining of Owens Lake. The lake was drained to provide water to Los Angeles. In providing life to the city, the water department created an environment that produced toxic dust storms in the Owens Valley.

Is the environmental impact apparent from the photos or do we need to learn more about the circumstances that created what we are seeing? This is an element of the duality of Maisel’s work. On one hand there is a aesthetic beauty to the images, there is no denying the brilliant colors and stunning compositions. On the other hand they represent a wanton pillaging of the Earth and, in many cases, highly toxic and dangerous spaces.

But this is not immediately apparent as the forced perspective renders the photos abstract. Are we to judge the image alone, or the image in context? Do we see the beauty or the horror? David would argue that there is no need to separate the elements, they can exist together at the same time.

While his photographs seem to be an indictment against the practices of logging firms and mining companies, David strongly avoids this. He points out that many of the chemicals he uses in photography come from these mines. He is complicit in what is happening. And by viewing the photographs and by buying his book of photography, we too, as the audience become complicit. It’s a challenging concept and a bold statement that doesn’t limit itself to his photography.

“The audience completes the work” he stated. It seems like a given, but if photography is a form of perception, what makes it different from actually seeing something is the ability to share that perception with someone. And it raises the question without an audience would there even be art at all?


All images © David Maisel. More can be found at his site,

1 Comment
  • Allison Smith
    Posted at 18:16h, 13 June Reply

    Those are amazing! I wish I could have been at the lecture. It looks like photos of the beginning of the world.

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