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David Maisel

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Legislation governing mining activity in the United States dates from over 135 years ago. The 1872 Mining Law was ratified in an era when this country sought to develop the West and exploit natural resources without regard to environmental consequences. As a legacy of this antiquated law, more than a century of mining has left the West deeply scarred. Modern mining techniques carve out entire mountains and utilize tons of toxic chemicals at massive industrial sites. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mining is the country’s largest source of toxic pollution.

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With the mining sites, I found a subject matter that carried forth my fascination with the undoing of the landscape, in terms of both its formal beauty and its environmental politics. The active and abandoned tailings ponds I have photographed, for example, are strangely beautiful - yet they are also chock full of cyanide, which is used in the recovery of microscopic particles of gold from the waste tailings of copper mines… The mining process also exposes sulfide minerals to water and air, forming sulfuric acid. This acid then dissolves other harmful metals -such as arsenic- present in the surrounding rock. Acid mine drainage is particularly destructive as it can occur indefinitely, long after mining activity has ceased. Cyanide and sulfuric acid heap leaching is also employed to extract microscopic particles of precious metals from mined ore, often permitting these deadly solutions to contaminate surrounding groundwater.

… Rather than a condemnation of a specific industry, however, my images are intended as an aesthetic response to such despoiled landscapes. These sites are the contemplative gardens of our time, places that offer the opportunity to reflect on who and what we are collectively, as a society.

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Perhaps one day, out of necessity, we will be adopting gas masks and hazmat suits as part of our daily attire. Will man will be the undoing of nature? If so, will man also be the undoing of man himself?

Text and images sourced from David Maisel. Please visit his website to view more of his work.

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