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 man’s actions. Looking down on these damaged wastelands, where man’s 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 Black Maps project has unfolded in chapters, focusing on such subjects as strip-mines, clear-cuts, cyanide leaching fields, tailings ponds, firestorms, the drainage remnants of Owens Lake, and other manipulations of the natural world.The most recent chapter of my work is Terminal Mirage. Inspired by Robert Smithson’s apocalyptic writings on the Great Salt Lake, I have embarked upon an aerial survey of this surreal and brutal region, including site of evaporation ponds covering some 40,000 acres along the eastern and southern shores of the lake, and the blood red color of the lake itself.

The photographs in this series are presented as either 30”-x-30” or 48”-x-48” color C-prints. The large-scaled prints begin to encompass the viewer’s peripheral vision, and their lushness and strange beauty are psychologically demanding as well as visually exhilarating. They convey something of the sublime, seemingly limitless aspect of the sites from which they are made.

In these photographs, the forms of environmental disquiet and degradation function on both a documentary and metaphorical level, and the aerial perspective enables one to experience the landscape like a vast map of its undoing.

These images are meant neither to vilify nor glorify their content, but rather to expand our notions of what constitutes landscape and landscape art. Engaged as I may be in the immediate political issues, I am not attempting to make literal records of environmental destruction. Rather, I seek to reveal the landscape in something other than purely visual terms, the photograph transcribing it as an archetypal space of destruction and ruin that mirrors the darker corners of our consciousness.

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


In a thought-provoking 25-minute audio interview for Lens Culture, David Maisel talks about his work. Settle in with a cup of coffee and enjoy.