Landscape After Industry The ASARCO Smelter and El Paso - Restoring Common Ground
Aerial view into 828' stack, with major structures (now demolished), March 2011
The ASARCO copper smelter complex, a few yards across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, and literally in El Paso, is wedged tight between the two cites and their three million people. The industrial cluster rises like a citadel from the river’s edge, its main smokestack announcing itself for miles in any direction (it was once the world’s tallest). Atop an artificial mesa of rock and slag, in the long shadow of the stack, sprawl magnificent artifacts of the smelting industry: power plants, acid works, ore conveyers, rail trestles, furnaces, maintenance shops. Fenced off at the western edge of the vast property, tombstones dot a few dusty acres at Smeltertown Cemetery looming above the ghost of its namesake town, razed in the 1970s. This is a rich landscape worth knowing
I am drawn to the complex beauty of ordinary things. In this case, the thing is monumental, and central to the history and lives of thousands of people over two centuries. When the ASARCO complex is gone, tales of its physical size, economic might and political brawn will seem implausible. Accounts of its impact on the air, the soil and groundwater, five generations of workers and their families on both sides of the border, will be diluted by revision and retelling. But through photographs, the core of the gritty story will resonate.
As the site cleared, another narrative emerges. The sterile mesa, long eyed by developers – and scrutinized by environmental scientists – will become a laboratory. Politics, science and economics, social policy and civic consensus will determine what happens here next.
This site, at the Rio Grande crossing of the Camino Real, bears the imprint of four centuries of heavy human use. Hunters, traders, priests – followed by the railroads, miners, smelters and river- and highway engineers have carved and reshaped it to suit grand schemes.
After ASARCO is scraped away, a “new landscape” will appear. This is a rare event in the history of any place. In Iceland when a new steaming basalt island rises off the coast, the marvel is regarded across the world as a rare gift – a chance to observe new life rising from nothing. The same unlikely story unfolds now on the borderlands of the Rio Grande. These pictures will record that transformation, inevitable but unpredictable – and wondrous as it surely is.
Found In Little Firehole Canyon, Wyoming, 2003, from the series Debris Field
When I discovered in art school that painting is very hard work, I moved - cleverly, I thought - to photography. By the time I knew that I'd been duped, the magic of the medium had trumped its confounding difficulty, and I was in it for good.
Early I understood that the camera is better than a passport. I noticed that with it, doors flew open; anywhere that was off limits drew me in. If I was curious about a place, I wore my camera over my natural shyness and plowed forward. The camera and tripod have been my back stage pass to the grittiest best places. From the Panama Canal to the bottoms of nuclear missile silos, the legitimate business of being deeply curious seems to be universally understood – and respectable.
This good luck has continued for thirty years. My documentation for engineers and historians merges with my personal projects, so that I am never really sure that I am “at work”.
The pictures in DEBRIS FIELD are a natural extension of the Red Desert book project with writer Annie Proulx (Texas, 2008). And they both grow naturally from my abiding interest in human-altered landscape, and the immutable power of the artifact as the voice of the culture that creates it.
Mostly I photograph the monumental: buildings, dams, launch pads, mines. But the things pictured here were lifted from the ground in front of my boots. And these little vignettes, amazingly, carry a narrative as rich as any landscape panorama.
If Einstein, our parents and the nuns were right, our actions have consequences. Nearly everything we do, say, build or spoil ends up in someone else’s deep past. People thinking of us back through centuries will either appreciate us, or not. Remembering this can help us decide how to behave in tiny as well as in grand affairs.
One version (one history) of the present has the world split into “developed” and “developing”. The lucky ones are in the first group; most people make up the second. The now common shorthand “third world” was coined in 1952 by French economist Alfred Sauvy to distinguish the poor, hungry, dark majority from the rest of us - those who thrive by leveraging might and theology to control territory - and anything valuable under it or on it, including peoples and their ideas.
Humanity’s most important inventions, though invisible, are language and science. But the most compelling artifacts are things – physical evidence of how people live. Pyramids, cave paintings, luxury liners on the sea floor help to fill in the blanks as we try to decipher the long story of us. In collecting clues, nothing trumps the tangible. The best essay about arrowheads pales compared to holding a perfect Clovis point. Looking up nine stories from the bottom of an abandoned nuclear missile silo is more chilling than reading about doing it.
Machines and buildings, tools and landscapes are the characters of a glyph that narrates our collective autobiography. These remnants of the first world are the evidence we leave as we plow ahead. For the most part, they are wondrous but plain, in the same way that a collection of common carpenter’s tools might be. With a hundred moving parts or none at all, the best of our designs is an attempt at mimicking the impossibility of the bumblebee or the stunning elegance of a robin’s egg.
Many of the things in these pictures are now gone; some of them are new and will stand for centuries. But they all occupy the same ephemeral moment (using the calendar favored by geologists). Eventually they, and we, will share a single leaf of history, a few-millimeter-thick stratum of dust pressed between shiny basalt and peaty bog. But for now, hubris and optimism allow us pride in our accomplishments. The world we build is perfectly natural, or at least as natural as our natures can conjure. And naturally, everything around us changes; and we oblige by adapting - shedding superstition for reason, Hummers for Hyundais, telegrams for tweets. What we leave behind is a debris field, an archeologist’s dream.
These photographs, like the millions made every day, examine moments and places as though they were special, worth remembering. They are like postcards to the future. And scrawled in pencil on the back of any of them might be: “I wish you could have been here to see this! - Your friend, M.”.
Below Galisteo Dam, Santa Fe County, New Mexico 2008 / The Galisteo Basin Photo Project
The Galisteo Basin Photography Project is a collaborative effort by 28 New Mexico photographers to document the Rio Galisteo drainage, a stunning desert basin near Santa Fe, in northern New Mexico. This wild landscape faces many threats to its ecosystem. Residential sprawl spilling south from Santa Fe, and north from metro Albuquerque, stresses wildlife habitat and exhausts the aquifer. The prospect of wholesale oil and gas exploitation is an equally serious threat - one that prompted this project.
Photo-eye Gallery in Santa Fe hosted an exhibitionof sixty photographs from the project's artists in January 2009.
RED DESERT is the product of a decade of curiosity, and six years of focused interest, dusty travel - and research – first by a few friends, joined later by others expert in the subtleties of Wyoming's Great Divide Basin. RED DESERT is a brief biography of the long life of an obscure vanishing landscape.
Annie Proulx, Dudley Gardner and Charles Ferguson joined up with photographer Stupich in 2002 to study the Desert for “a little exhibition and maybe a catalogue essay”. The four friends all lived on the fringes of the high windy steppe, and had been individually drawn into it over the years. Early in the collaboration the breadth of the subject matter became evident – just as it grew clear that almost nothing accurate or useful had yet been published on the Red Desert. So the small research exercise expanded as the landscape unfurled.
The project gained momentum while politics and economics combined to add urgency to the field work – an urgency prompted by this fact: the Red Desert sits atop one of the world’s largest untapped sources of natural gas. Since 2001, iffy access to foreign energy, a war in Iraq and spiraling fossil fuel consumption matched by record prices conspire to turn the Red Desert into an inconvenient obstacle: an unpopulated sagebush wasteland separating free enterprise from vast treasure. In the tug between preserving wilderness and extracting energy, history suggests that the landscape will emerge somewhat altered. So the collaborators decided to compile a “biography of a place” – intent on documenting, in words and pictures, the sublime complexity of a landscape few have heard of; one that may be impossible to conjure in a few decades - after the flora are scraped clean away, the fauna have scattered or otherwise vanished and the gas is gone.
In this new reality, the short “essay” now ached to be a whole book, and the “little exhibition” morphed into a full-blown portfolio project. In 2004 Proulx invited additional scientists and scholars to contribute their skills. So the Red Desert Project now includes investigations of local anthropology, climatology, entomology, geology, ornithology, sociology, hydrology, sage brush science, the histories of humans spanning seven millennia, and photographs of the place in the early twenty-first century. This book is the result of that work.