Aerial photographs document humans’ impact on Adirondacks
By Philip Terrie
When we think of Adirondack history, we don’t ordinarily devote much thought to industry. That’s an urban thing, found in other parts of New York: Buffalo, Brooklyn, Corning—places like that. But if we ponder a little more thoughtfully, we quickly note that signs of the industrialization that transformed our continent over the last two centuries are omnipresent in the Adirondack Park. The relentless harvest of Adirondack trees for lumber and paper, the exploitation of iron and other minerals, acid precipitation, and, looming over all, rising temperatures—these are unavoidable reminders that while much of our park looks pretty good, we are far from being a pristine island of pre-industrial purity. The Adirondacks are linked in countless ways to the metropolitan centers of commerce and manufacturing.
Henry Fair, a New York City-based photographer with a keen eye for the marks of industrialism on the American landscape, has brought his camera to the Adirondacks, and the Adirondack Experience has mounted a compelling exhibit of his work, “Scarred Landscape: The Adirondack Photographs of J. Henry Fair.”
Vestiges of industry have not been Fair’s only concern. His website announces a simple but ambitious goal: “Henry Fair uses pictures to tell stories about people and things that affect people.” But his latest book, “Industrial Scars: The Hidden Costs of Consumption,” reveals a current concern: how has our history of industry and all the profligate waste and hubris that accompany it left their unmistakable print on the natural world?
Fair develops his environmental interests (among other things he is the co-founder of a wolf refuge and research center) with photography of dazzling technical virtuosity. The Adirondack photos were all taken from the air, and they display a paradoxical mix of the inevitable sadness educed by contemplation of what we have done to this once-immaculate land with striking arrangements of light, shadow and color.
Consider a shot of tailings at the old titanium mine at Tahawus. On first glance, this looks like an abstract painting, with startling parallel lines over a gray background and odd tracking marks on the right-hand third. The accompanying caption tells us that the powdery waste left over from titanium extraction is unable to support the return of organic life. So, people have hauled logs, brush, and other organic debris onto the vast expanse of sterile tailings in an effort to give minimal plant life a purchase.
This image tells us so much: it’s on the site of the very first industrial scheme undertaken in the central Adirondacks, an iron mine that struggled and failed here before the Civil War. This mine was abandoned in the 1850s, but its titanium, hitherto not worth mining, emerged as a valuable commodity in World War II. A vast surface mine, something you might expect to see in southern West Virginia, metastasized here for nearly a half century. Its remnants are derelict buildings, a degraded landscape and acres of these pulverized tailings. The attempt to encourage some sort of recovery, by hauling these stripes of brush and logs onto the moon-like surface, represents the human impulse to fix things, the regret, or even guilt, percolating in at least some human breasts after an environmental crime. What I find especially evocative is how the brush has been laid out in precise, parallel lines. The image, captured so lucidly by Fair, is mesmerizing; its seductive geometry nearly erases the lifeless sterility of the tailings.
A photo of a clearcut near Old Forge similarly emphasizes the ironic emergence of a compelling image from a scene of destruction. The tracks left by skidders and trucks on a denuded hillside look like the silhouette of a giant tree.
It’s not just industry that appeals to Fair’s lens. Two images from the Lake Placid region, one of the bobsled run and another of the downhill ski trails on Whiteface, offer sharp contrasts in light and shadow, conveying a story of environmental change wrought in the name of recreation. One could say that the Olympic facilities exemplify the recreation-industrial complex. With these, also, Fair has captured the odd marriage of havoc and aesthetically revealing patterns.
Fair is a skilled artist with a sharp eye. Other images in this show bring us the same paradoxes at the International Paper mill at Ticonderoga, old mills at Newton Falls and McKeever, and the Alcoa plant at Massena. In one corner of the exhibit is a short video presentation wherein naturalist Ed Kanze and Fair discuss the appeal of the Adirondacks and the indelible marks left here by human industry.
While the museum is now closed for 2022, “Scarred Landscape” will be open to the public through the end of the 2023 season. It’s tucked in at the middle of the Woods and Waters exhibit, on the same level as the cafeteria. And it’s well worth an hour of your time.