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Scar tissue

Industrial pollution through a different lens

October 11, 2008
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

TAHAWUS - As we approach the defunct mine at Tahawus, we see thousands of acres of Forest Preserve below, the deep blue Boreas Ponds to the southeast and the bare, windswept High Peaks to the north.

From above, the mine at Tahawus looks out of place. A dilapidated building sits on the edge of a green pond that resembles a pool of antifreeze. Nearby mounds of gray trailings give the area a futuristic, desert-like feel.

We fly over the site, then at photographer J. Henry Fair's request, circle it again.

Article Photos

A waste treatment facility at a paper mill in Ticonderoga
(Photo by J. Henry Fair)

"Bank on that," Fair says to Bob Keller, the pilot of the four-seat silver and white Cessna. When the plane approaches an angle that Fair finds to this liking, he grabs his camera and leans toward the window.

"All right, hold that puppy open," Fair says to Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown, who is seated behind him. When Brown opens the window, a rush of cold air comes into the cabin, and the sound of static fills our headsets as the wind hits one of our microphones.

"Damn, it's hard to hold still," Fair says as the small plane bounces like an old pickup on an unpaved Adirondack road.

Industrial Scars

Fair is a New York City-based photographer who is working on an exhibit called "Industrial Scars." On this day, he flew over and photographed industrial sites in and around the Adirondack Park.

While some artists strive to capture the natural beauty of a landscape, Fair instead looks for the scars upon it.

He photographs oil spills, pulp mills, stormwater runoff and mines.

Fair became interested in photographing the Adirondack Park region after flying above it with Keller for another assignment. During that spring flight, he saw stormwater runoff pollution on Lake Champlain that piqued his interest. He hopes to have an exhibit in the Adirondacks in the near future, if he can find a gallery or museum to show his work.

The idea behind "Industrial Scars" is to draw people to the images for aesthetic reasons and then have it make such an impression that it causes the viewer to consider the subject matter on a deeper level.

"If you have to make beautiful images of the oil spill to get people to think about oil spills, then so be it," Fair says.

Fair's work has appeared in National Geographic and Harper's magazines. He's been profiled by the New York Times and CNN.

"Visions of Excess, photos of industrial waste" was the headline for his photo spread in the August 2007 edition of Harper's. It contained images of aeration ponds at a paper mill in Louisiana and waste production for fertilizer productions in Florida.

Although his photographs often contain pollution, and Fair's goal is to bring awareness to it, he often doesn't name the industries that are in the photographs.

"I know who they are. I know what I'm looking at, but we want those guys to get on board and clean up," Fair says.

Fair says that both the consumer and producer are responsible for the state of our environment - that the only way to change the habits of big industries is through spending habits.

"I want people to think about how they spend their dollars and what the consequences are," Fair says. "For instance, if you buy one brand of toilet paper, you're supporting deforestation and pollution. If you buy a different brand of toilet paper, you're supporting recycling. It's that simple."

In the Adirondack Park region, many of the sites that Fair photographed, such as Lyon Mountain and Tahawus, are defunct. For the most part, they have been forgotten by the greater public, but they still captured Fair's imagination.

"They are, in some sense, relics from past days, and they tell us about simple history, but also about our values and methods of the time," Fair says.

There are other industries and sites he would like to take a closer look at, some of which are located just outside the park and some of which are miles away.

"I would like for this project to look further than just at the Adirondacks," Fair said. "I would like to go and shoot coal-fired plants that are dumping acid rain and mercury on the Adirondacks."

The abstract image

As we circle Tahawus, the mine's gray mounds of tailings and open cuts are a sharp contrast to the pristine green treetops that stretch for miles around it.

Originally, the Adirondack Iron Works Company operated a mine from 1827 to 1857 just north of the current site. Then, in 1941, during World War II, National Lead began extracting titanium dioxide south of the original mines. The site has been closed since 1989.

The mines, in more ways than one, have influenced the region. Nearby mountains and bodies of water bear names with connections to it.

Henderson Lake and Henderson Mountain were named for David Henderson, one of the Adirondack Iron Works' original founders. Calamity Brook and Pond were named for the event that took Henderson's life. He was killed by a loaded gun that accidentally went off at Calamity Pond.

The historic mining village of Adirondac, built for the mine workers themselves, remains in a dilapidated state. But more than just stories and place names remain. Mine pits, which local lore says reach depths of more than 1,000 feet, are filled with water. A massive 300-foot-high tailings pile sits between the pits.

In Fair's photographs, he focuses on different elements of the site. In one photograph he gets an overview juxtaposing the elements against each other, giving the viewer a realistic perspective of what they are looking at.

Other photos zoom in on specific areas, allowing them to stand alone as artistic pieces not tied to a geographic area. A green pond, where the water looks anything but what you'd find in the natural environment, is not what you'd expect to find in the middle of thousands of acres of Forest Preserve. Neither are the images of tailings piles, where small vegetation and branches form straight lines. Those are the types of photographs that attract the most attention, the ones that are artistic and aesthetically pleasing.

Unsure of what he's going to get with each photographic shoot, Fair said afterward he was satisfied with his work in the Adirondacks, including the Tahawus shoot. But he won't know if it's a success until after the photographs are viewed by the public. Then he'll know if one of his mains goals - which is seemingly simple and journalistic in nature - is achieved.

"You have to get people to start asking questions and looking for the answers," Fair says.



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