31 August 2017

The Hardness of Steel

Steel is a mystery. Essential to our psyche and civilization, it is perhaps our most useful invention, as well as the third largest industrial cause of climate change. Its myriad properties which enable that usefulness are due to its endless formulations, which have evolved with us.
Molybdenum is one of the minerals which give steel its hardness, but the quantities used are so small that the demand is limited, causing an oscillating demand, which has prompted the mining industry to mine it only periodically.
One such mine in my list of interests, is on Copper Mountain, southwest of Denver.
Also on my list to shoot are two power plants that are among the 100 largest CO2 and mercury emitters in the USA. This group of attractions, in combination with an exhibit in Denver and lecture invitation, suggested a photo flight.

Lighthawk is a group of pilots that fly for the environment, and are frequent partners in my work. Their pilot Stephanie Wells agreed to the mission, and I laid out a flight plan, which Stephanie modified with her local knowledge and experience of high altitude flying, an exacting experience set combing science, local knowledge, skill, aerodynamics, and the knowledge of her aircraft. The steel would have to wait.

We agreed to go west to the power plant at Craig, CO, the 51th largest CO2 emitter in the USA, which is also near several coal mines, one deep below ground, the other on the surface.
Trees affected by bark beetle in Colorado Rockies

Much of the success of  these projects comes from predicting and praying for the right weather, and we had luck on our appointed day. For a coast native that studies those regions, the mountains held a novel fascination- what Stephanie saw as normal was unique and beautiful to me as we crossed the “Front Range” as the mountains closest to Denver are called.

The first environmentally interesting site, a deep coal mine, had not been on my plan, but with an abiding curiosity to see these things and how they work, we circled, before moving on the the power plant at Craig. So as not to seem like a sinister character, cautious pilots limit the number of circles they will make around a power plant. We agreed to pan around it once, circle the nearby mine, and pass by again on the way back to the nearby airfield for fuel, (Stephanie had flown with a minimum for the mountain crossing) and then pass the plant again on our way to the open-pit mine. Power plants are often rather ugly affairs, and this one is no exception, being all stacks, boilers, and turbines enclosed in a utilitarian building.

Coal-fired power plant. 51th largest CO2 emitter in the USA

Open-pit mines use drill rigs to make holes which are “charged” with ammonium nitrate to blast away the dirt (overburden) covering the object of the mine (in this case coal). The overburden is scooped and dumped to the side by a giant walking “dragline”.
After one pass around the mine, Stephanie expressed nervousness about our fuel level, so we went back to tank up from a charismatic old Coloradan gentleman at the tiny air strip (sadly, I left the cameras in the plane). As we took off again, a giant cloud filled the distant sky, and we reasoned it was a blast at the mine, probably executed after everyone left for lunch, due to the danger of flying rock. Still, it was a sight I was disappointed to miss.

Compressor trucks, well-heads and chemical tanks at fracking site

Hydro-fracking has been a controversial gas extraction technique around the world, and Colorado is no exception. Between the close proximity to houses and schools, and the regional scarcity of water, a resource mightily depleted by this process, local people were organizing in opposition to the industry near their homes, and I was asked to get the bird’s eye view. So we came down from the mountains and out to the plains around Boulder to find the sites, and they proved to be a textbook series of illustrative examples of the process. Hydro-fracking is also a rather ugly business, visually as well as its side-effects. A giant drill makes a deep and meandering hole, then leaves to make room for a group of large, powerful compressors which pump that bore full of water and chemicals at excruciating pressure, endeavoring to fracture the gas-bearing layer of rock below.

Factory farm for cattle
I have many topics of abiding interest, and never know when opportunity might arise to further those stories, and I was quite pleased to see large factory farms of beef cattle just on the other side of the fracking sites. Beef is the most climate-change intensive of foods– and, one hamburger requires upwards of 8,000 gallons of water to produce, this in a water-challenged region.

The day really seems a smashing success, even if we did not make it to see the steel, and both pilot and artist were glad to get back on the ground and run to the head.

11 August 2015

The Hidden Costs

Much contemporary art is so esoteric as to leave the incognoscenti out in the cold. Much of what is au courant in the world of “art” photography currently is far less remarkable than the story behind the picture - which is often the story of the artist’s travails.

This narcissist tendency is perhaps natural in a time when real issues are so murky and insoluble, but the classical concept of art being about the world seems suddenly relevant and necessary. Art should move people, not just be a cascade of insider references. The development of the techniques of manipulating emotions comprises most of the history of art, till the time “art” became precisely the rejection of such techniques.

My work is about creating a sense of irony by utilizing these techniques to make compelling images that have layers of meaning based on contemporary issues.

But narratives are what we crave, the balm for awareness, the explanation of the unknown. As a story-teller, one wants to relate those stories, and this current exhibit at the UmweltBundesAmt (The German Environmental Agency) is just that. For the first time, we assemble maps and satellite views, detailed explanations of the pictures in German and English, and a set of graphic icons that represent the various impacts of the processes.

Assembling all of the components, an old desire, has been several years in the making. The exhibit was born at Natur Museum S├╝dtirol in Bolzano, Italy, but the creation of this extensive appendix was beyond time or budget.
Ideally, the appendix would be web-based, so viewers could browse at any time. One even imagines using QR codes with each image to link directly as the viewer is experiencing the picture. But ushering smart devices into an exhibit is a gift from Pandora, and it’s nice to make it physical, and to separate information from image so viewers must first contemplate. Also nice is to credit the many people who make an exhibit happen, especially one so complex, from pilots to curators and translators.

View of "The Hidden Costs" exhibition at Umweltbundesamt

18 June 2015


One has many heroes throughout life which seem to increase in complexity with our edge.

My heroes now are those that risk life and comfort in the service of others. And since the environment is my life mission, my heroes tend to be those that have worked in that realm. The Russian photographer that knowingly sacrificed himself to document Chernobyl, Anatoly Rasskazov, Edward Snowden, who gave up a comfortable life to expose a grave wrong by his country, Bradley Manning who exposed an even greater wrong, and suffered even more.

In my work as an artist, working on the environment I have been lucky enough to photograph many of my personal heroes, and will launch a tribute to them with a series of social media posts.

Most of them have guided me on missions in the flesh or direction, and all of them have clarified my understanding with their knowledge and experience. In the interminable battle to save our life support systems from parties that would profit by disrupting them, these individuals stand very large. #HeroOfTheDay

Larry Gibson, mountain top removal activist
Larry's death a few years back is still being felt throughout the MTR activist community and beyond. He was a leader in the movement to end MTR and a good friend. He is deeply missed.

04 June 2015


Being from a big city, and traveling to others, creates a set of behaviors and cautions that usually come from a few painful experiences. It also creates a self-confidence, which enables the smooth transition from one chaotic city to the next. And we adjust our behavior in relation to the perceived inherent danger level of the locale. A deep phone conversation at the end of a busy day in Amsterdam, a city in which I feel quite at home, paused me on a bench in a lovely park, where I placed my backpack next to me. In the space of seconds, I sensed it simply disappear. Panicked, phone in the pocket, I turned to the three men sitting at the next bench and asked if they had seen someone take my bag.

In spite of the lack of a visible perpetrator, I raced breathlessly down the street they indicated, and asked a waiter on the sidewalk who had not seen someone running away with a blue/orange backpack. I raced back to the scene of the crime, queried the witnesses again, and, becoming suspicious at their vague responses and their rather suspicious demeanor, offered them 500Eur to get my backpack returned; to which one of the men responded that if I gave him the 500, he would call the perp.
All the while, my brain was reviewing the incident, and marveling at the speed and quiet with which it transpired, and settling on the fact that there were no running feet. Suddenly it was clear, my bag was still there and a cursory search of the environs turned it up under a pile of bicycles. My antagonist promptly changed his tune, assuring me that he had been watching my back, and that I should reward him. My declaration that he was lucky I was not looking for the police met with a meager attempt to look and sound menacing. Needless to say, my relief at finding laptop, passport, money, and whatever else therein which loss would be catastrophic, and desire to continue my evening trumped my drive for a justice I knew could never be obtained, and waving him away like so many pests in the city, I continued on my way.

Amsterdam is a place where the social contract somehow, miraculously, seems to work. Somehow many different with their distinct histories and motivations go about their business in relative harmony.
These men that tried to take my bag were black. As someone coming from the USA, where the policemen look like robocops, and to be a man of color means a certainty of harassment in life, this smooth functioning of society seems unusual. When two clean-cut Dutch policemen rode by me some time later, I stopped them, related the incident, and directed them toward the perpetrators. In the USA, I probably would not have, from a combination of my own bad experiences with police, concern for police mistreatment of minorities, and a sense of futility about the efficacy of action.
Conversely, in a place where the “social contract” is working, one feels obliged to participate, even though the possibility of “justice” is equally slim. But at least they know someone is watching.

26 January 2015

A Day in the Life of A Photographer

One of the things I love about my job is that I never have to do the same thing two days in a row. On any given day it can alternate from satisfying and frustrating to terrifying, and the next day will surely be different. This is not to complain, rather to confess that if I don't keep changing it up, I get bored with myself, then self-destructive.
And I have been very lucky to have two branches of my art for which I am so passionate: making portraits of some of the greatest artists and thinkers of our day, and then being feted for my own body of "artistic work" about a subject for which I care so deeply.

It's a real honor to be able to make portraits of these women and men who are the best in the world at what they do. What I want to show is that mixture of intelligence, ability, curiosity, tenacity, and luck that makes them unique.
I make pictures of environmental issues because I care so much and believe I can, with luck, tenacity, curiosity, and ability, bring a unique viewpoint to their urgency and ubiquity.
So I pursue these two branches of my craft with equal passion, which inform and enhance each other. The essence of photography is the capturing of the precise moment in time when subject, composition and lighting come together to make a magic picture, and then I just count myself lucky to be there with a working camera.
The World's Great Composers
as featured on the cover of Gramophone Magazine

15 January 2015

Albany Terminal

How quickly we change from a world in which extracting a barrel of oil from some cold distant place and shipping it via a tenuous supply chain across a continent seemed like a great deal – until the price of oil dropped below $50 a barrel, far below the cost of getting that oil from the frozen North.
So who, in these giddy days of easy oil, wants to hear any grousing about old train cars carrying precarious amounts of oil through fragile regions of the USA?

Railroad tank cars at terminal for off-loading oil onto barges

America's new-found oil prosperity has a number of causes, one of the most productive being the Bakken shale formation in the remotest part of North Dakota, near the border with Canada which has pushed the USA up to the lead of world oil producers. So much oil is being pumped there, in fact, that they don't know what to do with it. There is no infrastructure to get it out of this remote location, to the point that drillers are burning off the natural gas found with the oil just to get to the oil. The only transportation infrastructure in the region is the railroad which had been used to haul grain. Now the grain rots at the terminal because the trains are hauling oil, to the tune of 50 trains a week, and that is just on one of the many train routes out of the Bakken. This oil is unusually volatile, and these trains are fully loaded and heavy. This, and the poor state of America's rail lines combine to produce a series of accidents waiting to happen. In summer 2013, a Canadian town, Lac-Megantic, was literally blown off the map by one of these "Bomb Trains." A ludicrous number of these trains have exploded, spilled, and crashed damaging lives, property, and the environment.

Long train of tank cars on Canadian Pacific train line

There are two main rail freight routes across North America, Canadian Pacific (the old Delaware and Hudson Line) which goes north of the great lakes, through Canada, winding down a precipitous cliff above Lake Champlain as it comes back into the USA, and CSX (the old New York Central line) comes through Chicago, and on the south side of the Great Lakes, both terminating in Albany, where it is off-loaded onto barges and shipped to refineries up and down the east coast.
Between the poor maintenance of the infrastructure, the laughable safety record of the industry, the volume of product being moved, and the fragility of the ecosystems through which the network passes, the only question is when will be the next disaster, not if. But perhaps we should wait until one of these trains filled with oil derails and plunges into Lake Champlain before we protest this nonsense, or another small town gets blown off the map (who cares if a few more Canadians die anyway), or perhaps we wait until one of those barges capsizes and spills its contents into the Hudson?

Children on playground next to railroad tank cars

This discussion is about the safety and reliability of the transportation infrastructure, and leaves aside the larger question of our overall reliance on petroleum. As a society, we are ignoring both questions. As New Yorkers, we should address this question of the reckless movement of a toxic, volatile material through our neighborhoods. The geopolitical anomaly of cheap oil is temporary, and soon those trains will once again be running down the Great Lakes.

13 November 2014


You arrive at New York's Penn Station fifteen minutes ahead of the train's scheduled departure, uncharacteristic of you, but your morning meeting in DC is important, and out of nervousness, you left the apartment a little early. While you stand on the platform, you shake your head thinking of the old days in which you would be biting your fingernails in the taxi crawling through traffic to the airport, and suffer the indignities of the security line for a flight, the door to door time being four hours. You never cease to marvel at the sleek white bullet trains as this one pulls into the station, or at the ease of the 2 hours door to door that your journey will take today.

High speed train in Hamburg Station

Though this may seem like a fantasy, it is the reality today in Europe. Germany, especially, has made tremendous investments in its high-speed rail system, and is reaping the rewards. The world marvels at the German miracle, but it is no miracle, it is the result of smart investment. The Deutsche Bahn connects Europe, creates a very efficient place for people to work and live, and, not coincidentally, binds the continent together. Germany is also making major investments in renewable energy, investments that will pay off many times in the future, as have the investments in high-speed trains.

Evening storm clouds over wind mills in Baltic Sea

In America while our politicians debate the reality of climate change, scientists, unless they are under the pay of climate deniers, unanimously stress the urgency for action to reduce carbon release. Investments are never easy when they are made, but they pay off. As the world changes, the conditions will favor new industries, and the old interests will resist that change. It has always been so: carriage makers undoubtedly fought the dominance of the automobile. The world will change, and carbon energy will be obsolete. Those that have invested in alternatives will come out ahead, those economies that have been dominated and directed by obsolete industries will stumble.

Humans are not good at reacting to threats that they cannot see. When there are opposing information sources, one saying to worry, change will happen, the other saying not to worry, one wants to believe the voice of inertia. But the time has come to act, and get that fast train to DC.