As part of the enticing and varied program at Photo London 2016, over 20 world-class photographers presented their work in a series of conversations and presentations. Among others, the eminent American photographer David Maisel presented his work in a dialogue with curator William A. Ewing. In advance of their talk, LensCulture Managing Editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Maisel via telephone to learn more about his background. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

LC: You originally studied architecture and then photography, and continued to engage with both for quite some time. You once said, “I think one medium informs the other quite profoundly; they come from the same place.” Can you say a bit more?

DM: From when I was young, I was already thinking about space. Even at 4 years old, when I didn’t yet have the word “architecture,” I was thinking about questions like “How do we see things, how do we render them?”

Before an architect makes a building, they make drawings and models and diagrams and think about how to represent space. That is analogous to how I work in photography. I visualize my work like an architect does. And the aerial views I make are like looking at site plans. The x-ray photographs, like cross-sections. Library of Dust elevated individual objects to the scale of buildings…

For me, then, photography is an act of mapping: making something that represents something else. Another way to think of it is design. Not design like a new line of baubles—I mean design as inherent in structure and in nature. Photography is a way of seeing that responds to that structure.

As an undergraduate, I went to study architecture specifically. But then I took a few photography classes, especially with Emmett Gowin, Ed Ranney, and with the photo historian Peter Bunnell. These three teachers profoundly influenced my interests.

For example, we don’t look at Atget’s work and call him a “tripod photographer.” Instead, we look at his pictures and ask, “What do they offer us? What do they tell us about the world?” Those are much more important questions than how they were made.

After taking a break from my studies to work at an architecture firm, I returned to college and worked with Emmet (Gowin) at Mount St. Helens. Most of the project was shot on the ground, with view cameras, but some of it was in the air. Emmet was incredibly generous and lent me a medium-format camera to make my first aerial work. This was also my first time working with landscapes that had undergone massive environmental change—both from the volcanic eruption but also the clear-cutting of the area.

Mount St. Helens 12, 1983 © David Maisel

Witnessing these changes affected me profoundly. To see human activity eradicating the natural order was a breakthrough moment for me. When you see clear-cutting from the air, it looks like a battlefield…

LC: Your aerial photographs of “environmentally-impacted sites” have been at the core of your artistic practice for over three decades. How has your fascination with the subject deepened and grown so that it has kept your attention for such a long time?

DM: It’s not that simple a question. Or, actually, it is that simple: just go deeper and follow what interests you. When I’m not interested in making these kinds of pictures anymore, I’ll stop making them.

But I don’t think of myself only as an aerial photographer; I make other kinds of work and aerial photography is one tool, among others, that allows me to make the kinds of pictures I’m interested in making.

For example, we don’t look at Atget’s work and call him a “tripod photographer.” Instead, we look at his pictures and ask, “What do they offer us? What do they tell us about the world?” Those are much more important questions than how they were made.

But there is something special about aerial photography specifically, that suits my way of seeing the world. That is, the process of abstraction that can happen through the camera. Photography, for me, is a way to see the unseeable and to capture the unimaginable. With a camera, you are able to see things in ways that you’re not ordinarily allowed to see. And aerial photography heightens those possibilities.

LC: Photography and the American West are intrinsically tied: Carleton Eugene Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan through to Ansel Adams & Robert Adams…How do you relate to this long lineage of American Western photographers?

LC: O’Sullivan, in particular, and the graphic quality of his work was very ahead of its time. And Lewis Baltz, Frederick Sommer and Robert Smithson—who we don’t always think of as a photographer but who was a great photographer—these are among the 20th century artists working on themes relating to the American West who really affected me.

But it’s not just photography and the West—it’s a broader range of art that considers the American West. Look at Walter De Maria’s Lightning Fields or Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. These artists responded to the unique scale of that landscape: its vastness as opposed to the markings of human occupation.

Lightning Fields by Walter De Maria. Photograph © John Cliett

Another influence was Robert Adams, whose work I first saw as an undergraduate. It’s interesting to look back now, because some of his pictures I understood quite readily, like the isolated Denver suburbs. But some, such as those made in L.A., didn’t make any sense when I was younger. Then, when I saw one of them again at Paris Photo recently, it made me want to cry. Years later, I could feel that it was one of the most desolate representations of the human condition you could ever find.

It’s the work that gets under my skin, that somehow threatens me—that is the work that actually matters and has a lasting influence.

For example, seeing Jenny Holzer’s work in the mid to late 80s, which was made as a response to the AIDS crisis. She made benches, in granite, and inscribed them with words—some of which were poetic and others filled with rage. It took me a long time to grapple with these pieces and it was important for me to realize that work can be beautiful and…Beautiful and filled with rage. Beautiful and highly critical. Beautiful and…Understanding this was like tapping into a vein.

LC: You had a beautiful quote where you said, “My sense is that the places I photograph are an outer manifestation of our own psyches. These are not simply the work of some corporate enemy, but rather a reflection of who and what we are collectively, as a society.” And yet, your pictures are undeniably beautiful. Do you feel any discomfort about this seeming paradox: the degradation of our environment hanging on the wall as a work of art?

DM: Yes, there is a paradox involved. It’s kind of like seduction and betrayal. I’ve thought about this a lot. When I started making work about mines in 1985, I was 24 years old. I came back from shooting, I made contact sheets and then I completely ground to a halt. I thought, “What am I trying to do with this work?”

It’s the work that gets under my skin, that somehow threatens me—that is the work that actually matters and has a lasting influence.

At the time, I was living as close to off-the-grid as possible: I was in a cabin in Maine, heated by a wood stove. There, I spent countless hours grappling with these issues. What I came out of it thinking was, “Art has its own place.” Today, I feel that photography has an unrealistic burden placed on it to solve things; to be true. But I think art can function on other levels besides that.

The notion of my work as being beautiful, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Remember, beauty is not glamor; beauty is not shallow. Beauty can be transformative. We’re afraid of that word but you could call my work other things too—poisonous, magnetic, terrifying, seductive.

As for the gallery space—that’s certainly one way I like to work. I am a print-maker, and I think my pictures have a certain effect at a certain scale. But the book form is critical as well. In the book, there are more opportunities for text to augment the pictures. For example, in Black Maps, I was fortunate to work with seven different essayists who each brought their own view. This was essential, since I don’t want my work to be didactic.

On the same note, that’s why I don’t usually title my pictures and caption them. Early in my career, I was titling pictures and then in an exhibit, I saw viewers go from picture to picture, just reading the titles. I could tell they thought the words told them what the pictures were about. But I’m an image-maker—the apprehension should happen through the photograph itself.

The work is, at least in part, about our own complicity in making these places. It’s very easy to say, “Corporate America is bad.” But that’s too simplistic. It’s more complicated to see how we’re all involved in the existence of these sites, every day. They are manifestations and consequence of how we live and consume. They wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live the way we do. These are self-portraits of our whole society.

—David Maisel, interviewed by Alexander Strecker