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“Montana Legacy: Photographs by Mark Abrahamson”

At the National Academy of Sciences

to Jan. 4, 2002

Early last year, the National Academy of Sciences—which regularly hosts exhibitions of scientifically inspired art—mounted a show called “Ancient Landscapes From Space: Satellite Images of Southern Arabia,” which consisted of works made by Ronald Blom, a geologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Though the satellites Blom controlled were staring at mostly empty expanses of sand on the Arabian peninsula, they were able to detect and exaggerate aspects of the landscape invisible to the human eye. The images they produced were surprisingly diverse: exquisitely colorful, almost fractal patterns that seemed—for lack of a better term—otherworldly.

I thought back to the Blom exhibition when I returned to the NAS’s brightly lit, smoothly contoured upstairs gallery to visit a new show, “Montana Legacy: Photographs by Mark Abrahamson.” Abrahamson, an environmentalist who works in the Pacific Northwest, has photographed Montana extensively from the air. Abrahamson’s penchant for locating colorful abstractions in the landscape makes his images similar to Blom’s. But Abrahamson has added another layer of complexity, seeking out areas of severe environmental damage—locations that are ordinarily hidden from view, even from local residents.

As an investigative reporter, Abrahamson deserves a commendation for meritorious service, having produced a record of environmental degradation that speaks much more powerfully than any number of newspaper exposés can. Yet, in a sense, Abrahamson’s quest to lay bare the sad aftermath of mining and other extractive activities undercuts his message. His images—particularly those of vile pools of toxic chemicals—are jaw-droppingly beautiful. To say that “Montana Legacy” sends mixed signals is a severe understatement.

Though many photographers have sought to inform the public about environmental damage, Abrahamson’s abstract, color-suffused approach is atypical. When W. Eugene Smith went to Minamata, a Japanese fishing village poisoned by industrial mercury, in the ’70s, he turned his camera more often on the scarred and deformed villagers than on the landscape and printed in moody black and white. Even photographers who have used color to explore similar themes haven’t used the medium quite as brazenly as Abrahamson. Richard Misrach’s mid-’80s series Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West, which records the damage inflicted on military bombing ranges, takes on the airy, sun-parched palette of the land it chronicles, making eye-catching colors exceedingly hard to find.

Perhaps only Adriel Heisey, whose “Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey” was exhibited at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery earlier this year, has done something akin to Abrahamson’s work. Even so, Heisey—who takes his photographs from an ultralight aircraft—makes the bulk of his color-saturated images in beautiful natural locations. It’s only on occasion—almost, it seems, by accident—that Heisey finds a scene that is ugly and beautiful at the same time.

Abrahamson, by contrast, seems to find such tableaux everywhere he looks. His best images are decontextualized abstractions of color and form, without recognizable objects such as houses or trees. Often, the colors he captures are breathtakingly vivid—midnight blues, lichen greens, cinnabar reds—even if the stories behind the images are dismaying.

Bitches’ Brew, for instance, is shot directly downward toward a pool of liquid notable for its lovely hues of violet. Abrahamson’s caption—listed in a five-page-long guide available for browsing at the gallery—tells the rest of the story: “A large flock of migrating Canada geese mistakenly landed in these deadly acids at the Berkeley Pit [near Butte, Mont.] some years ago. It was a lethal mistake and their migration ended prematurely.”

Another image, Butte 5.30.2000, features a pool that is an amazingly rich shade of brownish red. Yet here, too, the photograph’s undeniable beauty is twinned with Abrahamson’s explication: “Nearby Silver Bow Creek today is sterile and probably always will be,” he writes. “A tuna fish can placed in its brilliant maple syrup colored water would dissolve within a week.”

Many of Abrahamson’s photographs often have an uncanny knack for resembling something else. Musselshell County looks like a close-up image of stones in a creek. Smirfit-Stone #1 could pass for the surface of a polished agate, and Smirfit-Stone #2 could easily be a weathered or chiseled piece of flint. Luminous Slag has the appearance of a primitive cave drawing. Yet all were taken from hundreds of feet above the ground.

Usually, Abrahamson doesn’t make an explicit connection between the physical sites he photographs and the metaphorical meanings that imaginative viewers might ascribe to them. One exception is Bleeder—an image of a waste pool ringed by a red liquid that does indeed look like a bleeding sore. “Toxic red extrusions,” Abrahamson writes, “appear as flesh wounds atop an immense slag pile near Anaconda.”

More often, Abrahamson takes a deadpan approach to guiding visitors through his unseen Montana. Writing about a photograph of a dam near Missoula, Abrahamson notes that the structure—built originally to provide electricity for a local timber operation—unintentionally saved the Clark Fork River from mining-waste pollution by blocking the chemicals’ downstream flow. Elsewhere, he notes that the toothpicklike fallen trees in Roundup date from a 1983 forest fire—far older than most casual observers would have expected when looking at Abrahamson’s image, made almost two decades later.

It would have been nice, however, if Abrahamson had also included some information about his technique. (For instance, did he, like Heisey, fly an ultralight?) It would also have been nice to know more about his mind-set. Though most of his captions resonate with well-grounded outrage, Abrahamson does drop one tantalizing hint that he understands the dilemma his work creates for the viewer: a photograph of an enormous slag pile near Anaconda that the artist has titled Diebenkorn #14.

As soon as I read the title on the wall, I chuckled. The image, of a deep-blue-and-beige landscape, does indeed suggest the work of Richard Diebenkorn, the celebrated abstractionist who took inspiration from the landscape near his home in Northern California. Though Diebenkorn #14’s color scheme is a little too dark to actually be from one of his paintings, its mix of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal color fields is otherwise a dead ringer for the painter’s work—a case, one might say, of art imitating art imitating life.

In his caption, Abrahamson doesn’t just tip his hat to this connection—he positively revels in it. “Richard Diebenkorn’s perspective on the landscape is similar to my own,” he writes, “and I’m very flattered when my name is sometimes mentioned with his.” But the beauty of Abrahamson’s work fatally undermines his message: Seeing his gorgeous images of slag heaps, viewers are more likely to find themselves transfixed than moved to action. CP