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.
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Dale k. Rounds says
Makes a fire tower look like a dot on a map! But many had to go,CRANE MOUNTAIN…
ADK Camper says
Are you seriously complaining about a fire tower that was removed 35 years ago?
louis curth says
Thanks to Phil Terrie for an interesting and thought provoking article about the vast human imprint that is a significant part of the history of the Adirondack region that we all care so much about.
While traveling through various parts of the Forest Preserve as a young ranger, I would sometimes come upon the remains of an earlier human presence (old cellar holes, open wells, stone walls, lilac bushes, apple trees, etc.) that had been abandoned long ago and were being reclaimed by nature. It was always a time of reflection for me as I wondered about the human stories behind these artifacts now so out of place on the “forever wild” state land.
Whether it was the early settlers clearing land in a futile attempt to farm the rocky soil, or the extractive miners, the loggers then and now, and the endless stream of entrepreneurs who have made Adirondack tourism thrive in so many creative ways, these Adirondacks will always be a scarred landscape. Nevertheless, it is all we’ve got, and it is up to all of us to work together to preserve the Adirondack wildlands, and to strike the right balance in order to protect nature and minimize people’s adverse impact on this increasingly fragile resource..
For the sake of future generations who, like us, will seek solace here, may we all keep on trying to get this balance right.
i also love when i go off the beaten trails and find of old cellars, foundations, derilick vehicle half buried in the middle of nowhere, to think most of the adirondacks was farm land of sorts in the 1800’s and all regrown, but sometimes you find traces of those farms and such!
REMOVE THE SCARS says
All 8 Billion humans cause a scar upon nature because the human body is the most anatomically and physiologically weak, vulnerable body of all living species. Therefore, humans must destroy a forest and replace it with a crop of cotton to make clothing to stay warm, cut a forest to build a home for shelter, and mine to heat a home. Otherwise, humans will die. So, the only way that humans will not leave scars is if there are less humans-approximately the same number of humans as wolves on Earth. That would solve environmental problems. CONTRACEPTION IS THE STRATEGY THAT WORKS.
Interesting views on humanity…extreme, yet valid (IMHO). We are bound for more imbalance to the planet by virtue of our desire to live without sacrifice, our sense of feeling entitled. At least we [should] feel the need to regress in our wanton desire for every shiny thing we see and need (want).
‘Live simple, so the planet can simply live’
Great points made. I’ve always felt a connection with the Adirondacks from a spiritual and philosophical standpoint.
I get upset with Jet Skies, motorboats and a voyeuristic interest in becoming a 46’r without every spending a night in the woods.
It’s a sign of the times that people want instant gratification, the ability to post a selfie on social media of their outdoor conquest and ignorance toward this unique environment that makes me yearn for a better way to preserve the park,
Wisdom is old men planting trees that they will never see grow, and in man’s interest to isolate a portion of the wilderness for himself he threatens the existence of the entirety!
People need to take time to embrace and not quantify what should be a spiritual experience and not an excuse to party.
I am a wildlife photographer who lives within the Blue Line. I cruise back roads, dirt roads and logging roads throughout the Adirondacks. I am often shocked by how trashed the landscape is. There are endless borrow pits, mine tailing piles, clear cuts with piles of debris so big that only the most garbage tree could get a foothold, an overabundance of messy municipal dumps (brush, asphalt piles, rusting trucks and equipment, gravel, general crap), illegally dumped contractor stuff… you name the ugly junk it’s right out there.
And then you have the unappealing, junky “businesses” who don’t give a second thought to what their properties look like from the main roads and highways. Just look around next time you’re driving. (The southern and central Adks are the worst.)
Most towns would have zoning that requires a certain level of mitigation, cleaning up, or fencing of such properties. Most towns don’t permit their highway departments to dump debris in numerous locations, simply starting a new mess when the old one is too big.
The fact that this occurs within the Blue Line is nothing more than our towns thumbing their noses at the tourist industry. They stew and frett about wanting more tourists, but unless you can hike, and get into the pristine wilderness (shrinking everyday), this is not always a scenic place.