‘Marcellus Shale Documentary Project: An Expanded View’

by Duane Nichols on May 9, 2016

Photo exhibit in Pittsburgh documents fracking’s effects

From an Article by Kurt Shaw, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 8, 2016

When: Through July 31 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays; noon-4 p.m. Sundays, Admission: $5 suggested donation

Where: Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside

Details: 412-361-0873 or pittsburgharts.org

It’s been a few years since photographer Brian Cohen and Laura Domencic, executive director of Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, first began the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, along with a group of five regional photographers. Now, they are back with an expanded view in an exhibit of the same title, which opened May 5 at the center.

“When we began work on the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project several years ago, unconventional gas exploration — now commonly known as fracking — was neither well known nor understood in the region,” Cohen says. “But time has since passed, and the supposed advantages and disadvantages of drilling for natural gas have been exposed widely for public scrutiny. People today are much more likely to have an opinion, one way or another, about fracking.”

To that end, Cohen, who lives in Squirrel Hill, says he wanted to do a couple of things with this round of the project. First, to return to a community — The Woodlands in Connoquenessing — that had, famously, been suffering with health and water-quality problems in a neighborhood associated with gas drilling. “I felt it was important not simply to walk away from that story, and I wanted to see how, if at all, things had changed,” he says.

Second, Cohen wanted to see what lessons might have been learned from these stories elsewhere, in an area of Ohio where fracking was newly arrived.

Take, for example, an image of a farmhouse in Ohio where a gas company has begun preparing to build a well pad. “Due to the existence of an old shallow well on the property, the owners had little say in whether the company would drill: Negotiations revolved more around where to situate the well pad,” Cohen says. “This image shows the road the company ran through the property. The oak tree was spared after the owner threatened to frustrate the proceedings.”

Scott Goldsmith of Edgewood chose to focus his camera closer to home with an untitled image of frack sand spilled from railroad cars near Downtown Pittsburgh. “These sand particulates are highly carcinogenic to lungs because they are much smaller than playground sand and can lodge in your lungs and stay there,” Goldsmith says. “None of the workers on the train tracks wear protection. The sand is used during the fracking process, and the people working on the drill site do not use respiratory protection.”

Another untitled image shows a woman being arrested during the inauguration of Gov. Tom Wolf. She was part of a group that interrupted Wolf’s inauguration speech by chanting “Ban fracking now.” Goldsmith says six people were arrested during the protest. “Events like this help create awareness of fracking dangers,” he says.

As Goldsmith is quick to point out, “The dangers of fracking are around us everywhere in Western Pennsylvania — from water contamination, air contamination, land contamination and food chain contamination. We need to do more to spread the word of dangers associated with fracking, and I feel this project is a good vehicle to do that.”

For “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project: An Expanded View,” Martha Rial of Edgewood focused on trains moving through Pittsburgh.

“Many of us have a romantic view of trains,” she says. “The sound of a train whistle used to be comforting, but I sense an uneasiness now due to so many trains crisscrossing our region carrying crude oil, liquified petroleum gas or frack sand. I am struck by how ominous the tanker cars look, especially perched on top of aging trestles.”

Her photograph “Rook Railyard at Dusk” was made in 2014. “Rook opened in 1904, and in recent decades only saw a few trains a week until the natural-gas boom transformed the rail yard,” Rial says. “Rook Rail Yard was originally part of the Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway and is now owned by Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway. Traffic has declined at the rail yard in the past year due to low natural gas prices.”

Wanting to take a panoptic view, Joe Seamans, the newcomer to this group of six photographers, says he became interested in this issue before Cohen and Domencic put the project together.

“In 2009, I became obsessed with trying to figure out how to look at fracking from some sort of objective perspective,” says Seamans, a Point Breeze-based documentary filmmaker and photographer. “Not so much pro or con, but from a documentary point of view, trying to find a vantage point to look at it above the fray, as it were. Trying to find a perspective to look at what was happening without drinking anyone’s Kool-Aid, if that makes any sense. I wasn’t interested in provocative images like flaming faucets, which Josh Fox was putting out there, though I was really affected by all that.”

Seamans says there’s a scale problem documenting fracking with a camera. “It’s hard to get close and get the big picture,” he says. “It’s hard to get the big picture and get the impact on people. Literally, it’s hard to see a well site and understand the context that surrounds it. There’s a real visual perspective issue.”

His answer was to try using a gigapan camera head, which takes a matrix of images and stitches them together after the fact. “It allowed me to look at a very large panorama in great detail,” Seamans says. “So a viewer can see the well site and surrounding activity in the context of the local geography.”

At the same time, the high resolution of the image allows the viewer to look at very specific details: the toys in the backyard; the tails on the cows in the pasture, the brand of truck parked in the lot where drillers are working, etc.

“The landscape image in the show, which I made on a hillside in Washington County, is an attempt to bridge the vast scale of fracking,” Seamans says. “I think it evokes the Western Pennsylvania geology, as well as the individual households which are impacted by drilling.” The image is 5 feet tall and 20 feet wide.

“It doesn’t read like much when it’s small,” Seamans says. “But writ large, perhaps there’s an epic quality in the size of the image which matches the epic scale of the drilling. I imagine this image or something like it repeated almost 10,000 times, which is the number of wells drilling in this state since fracking began.”

When Philadelphia based-photographer Noah Addis first started photographing for the project in 2011, he was living in Columbus, Ohio.

“I didn’t know much about fracking or the gas industry,” he says. “So, I really wanted to learn more about what was going on and to produce a series of photographs to begin a conversation about the issue.

“Photography tends to be very ambiguous, and I think that’s one its strengths. Obviously I hope that the project will raise awareness of how the gas industry is affecting people and the environment. But if it raises more questions than it answers, that’s OK, too.”

Addis decided to focus on the landscape. “On a basic level, I was interested in what these operations look like and how they are changing the rural landscape,” he says. “It’s a difficult subject to photograph, since a lot of the activity happens deep underground, and many of the environmental effects aren’t visible. But there’s also a huge network of pipelines, processing plants and other infrastructure that is dramatically changing the rural landscape in the region.”

Addis made a series of portrait photographs of people who have been directly affected by the gas industry.

“It might seem counterintuitive since the story is about the environment, but I decided to remove people from their environment by photographing them in a simple, direct way on a plain white background,” Addis says. “I really wanted to focus attention on the people themselves. They’ve been through a lot, and it shows on their faces.”

Addis’ portrait of Mollie Caryll is one such example. In it, Caryll poses for a portrait at her home in Valley Grove, W.Va.

Caryll, who lives near several well pads and a large compressor station, told Addis her health has been affected by energy industry activities. “She said she was forced to leave her job as a bank manager due to extreme fatigue, headaches, skin rashes and endocrine disorders, all of which began suddenly after the start of drilling activity in the area,” Addis says. “She and her husband, Dan, moved to the house six years ago, hoping for a quiet place to retire. ‘We did everything right,’ she said, ‘then it all changed overnight.’

“There’s so much propaganda out there about fracking, on both sides,” Addis says. “Even if it’s for a good cause, I have no desire to add to that flood of propaganda. Fracking is such a divisive issue, I think if one tries to tell the viewer what to think, it just ends up making people tune out. I try to take a more subtle approach.”

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.

See also: www.FrackCheckWV.net

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: