Fracking — the process of pumping a fluid and a material such as sand down a well under high pressure to create fractures in gas-bearing rock — is an unlikely subject of a photography exhibit, especially because it is pretty hard to photograph air and water.
But six artists have found ways to illustrate the stories of the people and land affected by fracking, and the Marcellus Shale gas industry, in the “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project,” an exhibit at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries that opened Oct. 11.
Organized by Pittsburgher Brian Cohen, an active member of Congregation Beth Shalom, the exhibit illustrates the effects of drilling across rural Pennsylvania through 50 images that are at times striking, haunting and even beautiful. The exhibit is curated by Laura Domencic, director of Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and showcases the work of photographers Cohen, Noah Addis, Scott Goldsmith, Martha Rial, Nina Berman and Lynn Johnson.
When Cohen decided to tackle the subject of Marcellus Shale, he knew he could not do it alone. Instead, he assembled a team of photographers to create a variety of images that would serve not only as a historical record of the impact of the drilling, but also as a catalyst for discussion.
“Marcellus Shale is a huge, huge subject,” Cohen said. “I immediately understood this was something one person was really not able to tackle, with all the nuances and complexities.”
The team has been working on the project for over a year, Cohen said, with each photographer telling different parts of the story, stamping each piece with his or her own particular aesthetic.
While one photo depicts a dark country landscape eerily illuminated by a light from a gas well, another shows a kayak instructor standing in the Susquehanna River amidst bubbling methane. There is a photo of horses drinking bottled water because of polluted streams, and another in vivid orange tones showing a flare from a natural gas well illuminating the sky behind a farmhouse that has been leased to a natural gas company.
The photographers traveled across the state, listening to the stories of farmers, homeowners, medical practitioners, engineers, legal professionals and activists. The photos chronicle those who have benefited, as well as those who have been victimized by the drilling, Cohen said.
“There are real stories behind the photos,” he said. “Some people are suffering, and some are getting a benefit. And we need to understand that this is not just about energy and profit, but about how you treat people.”
Many of the photos illustrate the paradoxical juxtaposition of nature and industry.
Looking at a photograph of a well under construction in the Laurel Highlands, he explained he was “intrigued by the placement of a heavy industrial process in the midst of a rural landscape.”
Still, he said, the intent of the exhibit was not to demonize drilling.
“I didn’t want to put horns on the industry,” he said, “but to say, ‘this is what it looks like. It might take you by surprise, but this is what we need to be talking about.’”
While some photos show people working on rigs, or a farming family that is profiting from leasing its land, the majority of photos do show those who are struggling with the affects of the drilling, said Domencic. There are fewer photographs of those benefiting from the drilling because the efforts of the photographers to get in touch with people in the industry “unfortunately did not pan out,” she said.
Still, a couple people from Consol Energy did come to the opening of the exhibit, Domencic noted.
“We want to open up the conversation more than anything,” she said.
The show will run in Pittsburgh until Jan. 6, 2013, then will move to Philadelphia.
Want to go?
“Marcellus Shale Documentary Project,” at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries, 477 Melwood Ave., through Jan. 6, 2013. Visit the project website at the-msdp.us for more information.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)