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Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin's own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin's work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animations.




Flipping open his laptop, Arvin began by showing us a "greatest hits" reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi-truck jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backward into a telephone pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable. As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew that an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moment(s) of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—of lives, it was hard not to imagine, as well as the scattered vehicles.



As we went on to discuss, it is precisely this disjuncture—between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior—that The Reconstructionist takes as its territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. The edited transcript is below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: Walk us though how you would build and animate these car crash reconstructions.

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement a tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles. To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.


A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the "Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present," and that "up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project."

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.

We then fed that motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery.


A screenshot of PC-Crash's "Collision Optimizer."


As the demo promises, "in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired."

Often, you would have a Point A and a Point B, and you would need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one point to the other.

Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, which is called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it. Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.” But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities of which you can then look for evidence on the ground? In the book, for example, your reconstructionists seem to do both, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too. Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily. We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet.

So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation. You have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.

In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on—a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times—we printed out a big map of the accident site. In fact, it was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle had rolled through a barbed wire fence, and that there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor-quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly the driver begins braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. Then, as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color. He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.



But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

Manaugh: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Geoff Manaugh: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, a little kid throws a water balloon into the street and it distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. But, clearly, something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about. In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman…

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on this one case where a guy’s car was hit by the train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet.

He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he’d probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train. So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the grey area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.


Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new "multibody pedestrian" functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, to what extent is that place no longer the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives that define a crash for a legal purpose, yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Manaugh: While I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson, and how, in a sense, its discovery was all a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

Manaugh: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective as opposed to a bad detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to this kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. And then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—and Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot. You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

Manaugh: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from Point A to Point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.


A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

Manaugh: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? And if so, then you can imagine at one end of it, the super-crash—the crash that maybe happens once every generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

Manaugh: Exactly—Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on. So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.



Twilley: Before we wrap up, I want to talk about some of your other work, too. An earlier novel, Articles of War, was chosen for “One Book, One Denver.” I’d love to hear about the experience of having a whole city read your book: did that level of public appropriation reshape the book for you?

Arvin: That’s an interesting question. There were some great programs: they had a professional reader reading portions of it, and there was a guy who put part of it to music, so it was reinterpreted in a variety of ways. That was really, really fun for me. It brought out facets of the book that I hadn’t been fully aware of.

The whole thing gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of people around the city who had read the book. I did a radio interview with high school students who had read the book—this was when we were deeper into the Iraq war and there were a lot of parallels being drawn with that war. And these were kids who were potentially going off to that war, so that was very much on their mind.

You had this concentrated group of people looking at the book and reading it and talking about it, and everybody’s got their own way of receiving it. It helped me see how, once a book is out there, it isn’t mine anymore. Every reader makes it their own.

Manaugh: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does. I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.
Upon first reading about it, Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello–a structure he himself designed and that he filled with strange devices, such as a room-sized clock that partially disappears through the floor, and a collection of paleontological artifacts, including mastodon bones—sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.


Amidst this symmetrical house of complex moving walls and shelves, hidden servants' passages, and meteorological equipment, the early days of a nation destined to become the United States were given a speculative, scientific air, where the European Enlightenment met the giant, extinct species of the New World, and an unmapped landscape creased with unearthly rivers meandering always further outward through endless plains and distant mountains.

Described that way, Monticello sounds not unlike "Solomon’s House," a fabulous scientific research facility featured in Sir Francis Bacon’s 17th-century utopian science fiction tale, The New Atlantis.


The Invisible College or the House of Solomon, Teophilus Schweighardt,1618, via.

Solomon’s House, we read, is a kind of super-observatory, a temple of science inside of which natural philosophers manage vast, artificial landscapes and operate complex machines, in spatial scenarios that rival anything we might read about today in Dubai or China.

Bacon offers a lengthy inventory of the devices available for use there: "We have... great and spacious houses where we imitate and demonstrate meteors... We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation... We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions... We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made..."

Thus, hoping to encounter a kind of Solomon's House of the early Americas, built by a U.S. President, its walls filled with mysterious devices and its rooms lined with old bones and fossils, with maps of unknown frontier lands greeting every visitor in the entrance hall, Venue went out of its way to visit Monticello, on the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia.



Alas, in reality, Jefferson's house is interesting, but by no means the steampunk-like fantasy of para-scientific insights, moving walls, and secret passages that at least one half of Venue was giddily—naively?—anticipating.

As it was, Venue arrived in a foggy downpour after a long drive across the state, arriving just in time for the final tour of the day, on which we were the only people.


The start of Jefferson's 7-Day Clock, in the entrance hall of Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


The clock continues through the floor.


This wind direction indicator is connected to a weathervane on the roof.


A revolving service door. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Of course, Monticello does, indeed, have the famous clock that stretches down from the foyer all the way into the cellar, where the passage of time is marked by painted lines on the structure of the house itself; and there is the garden outside with its mysterious lost roads.

But there is also the mundane reality of a house stocked with old furniture and fancy porcelain, and the understated historical fact that it's, in fact, deeply misleading to refer to anything here as a servant's passage, when it is now so widely known as to be satirized in pop culture that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner and the people walking around through hidden doors and tight corridors from room to room, remaining out of sight whenever possible, weren't employees but human possessions.



The lower jawbone of a mastodon, displayed at Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

In the end, there were the old bones, maps, and artifacts from the expedition of Lewis & Clark; but we did not spend nearly as much time there as we thought we might, and instead continued, while the rain continued to fall, on our way north to Washington D.C.


Inspired by our conversation with Penelope Boston, in which she described to Venue the possibility of extraordinarily ancient lava tubes on Mars (and even the Moon), we decided to visit an earthly example ourselves.



As we looped through Arizona, from the virtual fences of Las Cruces to the lunar training ground of Cinder Lake, we detoured to explore a mile-long lava tube cave in the Coconino National Forest, just outside Flagstaff.

The Lava River Cave, as it's known, was formed roughly 700,000 years ago, when the top and sides of a stream of molten lava cooled while the interior continued to flow, hollowing out the smooth-walled, arched tunnel that still exists today.

The cave is accessible, although not easily: it's on public land and it is well-signposted, but it requires driving on unpaved roads for 15 or 20 minutes through a pine forest, at least part of which appears to be common grazing land, as we drove through a herd of slowly meandering cattle at one point, bovinely eyeing our vehicle as we rolled past, taking photos of them.

Another family were already scrambling out as we began our descent, in a light rain, into the lava tube. We negotiated the basaltic boulders and low, condensation-covered ceiling at the entrance.



Sadly, after just a few minutes spent admiring the extraordinary darkness when we switched off our flashlights, one of us slipped, hit her head, and bruised her tailbone, thus fully living up to Penelope Boston's stereotype of bumbling urban journalists, and handily demonstrating just one of the challenges future Martian explorers might face working and living in subsurface environments.


Photograph of the cave's Y-intersection, where two tubes combine into one, by Flickr user Alan Grosse.

Chastened, we retraced our steps, missing the cave's reportedly spectacular flow ripples (left behind by the last trickles of molten rock), its cooling cracks and unusual Y-shaped split, and we continued on to the roads, motels, farms, mines, landfills, and archives of Venue's onward travels.


On a tip from Nick Blomstrand, one of the students from Unit 11 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, with whom Venue had the pleasure of traveling through Florida for a week while they did research for their various design projects, we stopped by the former hollow-earth cult settlement—and now state historic site—in the purpose-built town of Estero.



Estero was founded in 1894 by Dr. Cyrus Reed Teed, who, following a spiritual awakening, renamed himself Koresh. The National Park Service (PDF) describes Estero as "a 19th-century post-Christian communistic utopian community."

The meandering but precisely designed network of paths laid down to connect buildings on the coastal site were all paved with hundreds of thousands of seashells so that the walkways could reflect moonlight, a geometric garden illuminated by the sky.



One of the central beliefs of the Koreshan community was that human beings live on the convex inner surface of a vast hollow sphere, with the sun and stars all burning inside, at a central point around which the surface of the earth is wrapped.

Image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

To demonstrate the concept, Koresh produced several small models: globes within globes that he then took with him to various fairs and public lectures, seeking to find (or to convert) fellow planetary free-thinkers.

Dr. Cyrus Teed and his hollow-earth globes at the Pan American Expo in Buffalo, New York, 1901; image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

As it happens, hollow earth cults were not, in fact, entirely uncommon for the era—Jules Verne's classic science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, for example, exhibits tinges of hollow earth thinking and even Edgar Allan Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom" was influenced by ideas of a hollow earth with hidden entrances, amidst great and dangerous landscapes, at the earth's poles.

Indeed, as David Standish writes in his book Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, it was Sir Edmund Halley, of Halley's Comet, who "gave us our first scientific theory of the hollow earth—in his formulation, consisting of independently turning concentric spheres down there, one side the other. Halley arrived at this notion, which he presented to the prestigious Royal Society of London, to account for observed variations in the earth's magnetic poles. His true imaginative leap, however, lay in the additional thought that these interior spheres were lit with some sort of glowing luminosity, and they they might well be able to support life. Generations of science fiction writers"—not to mention "communistic" utopians—"have been thankful to him for this ever since."



However, the Koreshan community at Estero sought to make good on the spiritual-scientific promise of these theories by taking them one step further into the realm of empirical testing and experimentation. That is, they attempted to prove, by way of homemade geodetic instrumentation and other landscape survey tools, that the earth is hollow and that, as they describe it, "we live inside."

Image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

Enter the so-called Rectilineator, a massive measuring rod—or, as science writer Frank Swain joked recently at a talk in Amsterdam, "a really big ruler"—that could be easily assembled and disassembled in large modular sections. Thus advancing down the smooth sloping beaches of south Florida, the Rectilineator would gradually do one of two things: either 1) it would depart from the earth's surface, thus proving that the earth, alas, was the way everyone else said it was and that we lived on the outside of a concave sphere, or 2) it would move closer and closer to the earth's surface, thus proving, on the contrary, that the Koreshans were correct and that the earth's surface was convex, slowly curving up into the sky, thus proving that we live inside a hollow earth.

The Rectilineator in action.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that the Koreshan beach survey of 1897 "proved" that the earth was hollow, thus vindicating Dr. Cyrus Teed in the eyes of the people who had followed him to what was, at the time, a subtropical backwater in a thinly populated state.

A module from the Rectilineator; image courtesy of the Koreshan Unity Collection of the Florida Memory Blog.

Things went downhill, so to speak, from there. After an ill-advised step into local politics, and a disastrous miscommunication with the local police force, Dr. Cyrus Teed was beaten to death, his theorized resurrection never came, and the cult slowly disbanded, leaving their settlement behind, intact, a town full of pseudo-scientific surveying tools abandoned to the swamp.



In 1976, what remained of the site was cleaned up and added to the National Register of Historic Places, becoming the Koreshan Unity Settlement Historic District. You can now visit the site—located alarmingly close to a freeway—and walk the shell-paved paths, wandering from cottage to cottage past a number of small historic displays, trying to tune out the sounds of passing cars.



Briefly, the aforementioned science writer Frank Swain, while discussing the Koreshan Unity settlement and the Rectilineator they used to measure the curving earth, provocatively compared their survey tools to NASA's so-called LISA satellite mission, which is, in Swain's words, also "a really big ruler" in space.

The LISA mission, more specifically, will use three laser-connected satellites placed five million kilometers apart in deep space to measure gravitational waves and the warp & weft of spacetime itself—a kind of Rectilineator amidst the stars, proving or disproving whatever theories we care to throw at it.
Perky's Bat Tower stands at the end of an unmarked dirt road on Sugarloaf Key as a striking, albeit unsuccessful, monument to both biological pest control and cross-species design.


Before the Florida Keys meant sun, sea, and Jimmy Buffet, they were famous for mosquitoes—dense, black clouds of them that hummed and bit without pause, spread malaria, dengue, and yellow fever, and drove visitors temporarily insane with irritation.

In the late nineteenth century, the Broward Palm Beach New Times reported swarms "so dense in some areas that it was impossible to breathe without inhaling mouthfuls of mosquitoes." A twentieth-century entomologist caught a terrifying—and record-breaking —"365,696 mosquitoes in one trap in one night" on an island just off the tip of the Florida peninsula, according to Michael Grunwald's book, The Swamp.

And, in the 1920s, hordes of mosquitoes were the major obstacle standing between Richter Clyde Perky, a real estate developer from Denver, and the success of his fishing resort on Lower Sugarloaf Key. The construction manager Perky had hired to oversee the project complained that "in the late afternoon, you would just have to rake the bugs off your arm" and that "they'd form a black print on your hand if you put it against a screen and suck all the blood right out of it."



In his search for a solution, Perky came across a book called Bats, Mosquitoes, and Dollars by Dr. Charles Campbell. A doctor and "city bacteriologist" based in San Antonio, Texas, Campbell had been experimenting with attracting bats to artificial roosts since the turn of the century, in the belief that they were the natural predators of mosquitoes. As an article in BATS magazine explains, Campbell initially thought that the design of bat architecture would be a simple matter:

"Can bats like bees be colonized and made to multiply where we want them?" he wondered. "This would be no feat at all!...Don't they just live in any old ramshackle building? They would be only too glad to have a little home such as we provide for our song birds..."

After a handful of expensive failures, followed by several months spent in the caves of West Texas, observing bats in their natural environment, Campbell came up with his pioneering design for a Malaria-Eradicating Guano Producing Bat Roost, "built according to plans furnished by the greatest and only infallible of all architects, Nature," and equipped with "all the conveniences any little bat heart could possibly desire."

His new tower, claimed as the world's first successful intentional artificial bat roost, was built next to Mitchell's Lake, ten miles south of San Antonio, in spring 1911. Malaria cases in the neighborhood decreased, Campbell cleared hundreds of dollars in guano sales, and the Mitchell's Lake tower was soon followed by more than a dozen more built to the same design, one as far afield as Italy.



Perky obtained the roost plans from Campbell in 1929, and constructed his own tower at a cost of $10,000. More than thirty feet tall, and sturdy enough to have weathered dozens of hurricanes over the past eighty years, the tower still features a louvered bat entrance facing the prevailing wind, a central guano removal chute, and a dense, honeycombed walls of cypress wood bat corrugation that function as roosting shelves.




Sadly, despite a lavish application of pheromone-doused guano as bait, not a single bat ever moved into in the palatial accommodations Perky had provided. (In fact, the first scientifically confirmed colony of bats in the Keys was only found in 1996.)

Today, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District regards Perky's Bat Tower as their founding monument, but relies instead on a full-time team of seventy-one employees armed with handheld foggers, spray trucks, four helicopters, and two fixed-wing aircraft from which to dispense regular doses of larvicide granules and pesticide sprays onto the landscape. They are currently contemplating a not uncontroversial return to biological control with the purchase and release of genetically-modified mosquitoes, whose offspring die upon hatching.



Meanwhile, Perky's tower is finally home to a winged animal. Standing in a pool of stagnant, mosquito-friendly water, the weathered pine pyramid is currently topped with an active osprey nest—architecture by animals atop architecture for animals.

"Oil Spill #2," Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Venue's debut last week at the Nevada Museum of Art coincided with the premiere of a new exhibition there: Edward Burtynsky: Oil.

This thematic show, on display through September 23, features nearly fifty large-format images that, taken together, tell the story of oil, from its origins, extraction, and processing in the tar sands of Alberta or the first offshore platforms in Azerbaijan, through the spaghetti junctions and motorcycle rallies that represent oil's spatial, infrastructural, and cultural footprint, all the way to oil's afterlife in mountains of compacted barrels and broken tankers in the Bay of Bengal.


"Breezewood," Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. A gap of under a mile between freeway sections gave rise to this landscape of franchises and gas stations, now known (at least to roadgeeks) as a "breezewood."

After a tour of the exhibition, followed by a lecture that introduced some of Burtynsky's most recent work—a global portrait of the human relationship with water—Venue set up in the Center for Art + Environment library for a conversation with Edward Burtynsky. We could not have asked for a more interesting subject for our project's inaugural interview.

The following edited transcript of our discussion ranges from drones, film-making, and the future of photography to the response of Vermont quarry owners to Burtynsky's work, by way of truck beauty pageants, pipelines, and the unexpected challenge of photographing Niagara Falls.

• • •

"Talladega Speedway #1," Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Geoff Manaugh: Particularly in your early work, here seems to be a focus on what I might call primary landscapes: looking at where the oil actually comes out of the ground, where the rock is physically cut from the quarry, or where our products are first assembled, and so on. But there’s also a move, particularly in the Oil series, toward representing secondary landscapes—landscapes of consumption, where the oil is burned in the name of a NASCAR race, or where truck drivers enter their big rigs in truck beauty pageants.

I’m curious, though, if you would ever be tempted to pursue your subject to the next step—that is, to a kind of tertiary landscape. For instance, with your current water project, would you be tempted to photograph, say, a family eating tomatoes that were grown in a greenhouse in southern Spain or someone drinking bottled water at the gym? And if not, why not?

Edward Burtynsky: I haven’t really thought of taking it to that tertiary place. I’ve always been interested in systems that are scaled out to the point at which the collective impact is visible, versus the individual act of consumption. In fact, I think it would be very hard to make an image of that act of individual consumption. It just doesn’t fit into what I’ve been doing.

When I’m photographing these systems—systems of extraction, or really just systems of urban expansion, in general—what’s happening is that I have an idea and I’m trying to find the best or most accessible stand-in for that idea. I’ll look at many candidates, and very few will actually get photographed, and even fewer will make it through the editing process.

I’ve certainly gone to places like vegetable packaging plants, but then I’m looking at bagged carrots en masse, rather than a single example of a carrot in somebody’s refrigerator. In fact, I did a whole series on vegetable packing plants back in 1982, and I got into the Heinz Ketchup plant and so on. To me, that’s more interesting.

I think the key to my work is that most things I show are things that we rarely get in front of. We get in front of produce departments in grocery stores quite regularly, so there just isn’t something I feel I can say about that that we don’t usually know already.

Nicola Twilley: And the idea of showing these unfamiliar landscapes is to reconnect us to them?

Burtynsky: Yes, exactly. I’m looking for the disconnected landscapes that provide us with the materials we need to live, build, and do everything we do. Showing the greenhouses in Spain that provide fruits and vegetables for most of Europe is interesting—but to actually show those vegetables on a counter is too far, I think. It’s implied that we eat them at some point.

Twilley: Perhaps you’d actually rather have the viewer make that connection for themselves?

Burtynsky: I think so, yes.


"Oil Fields #19a," Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I’m curious about the challenges of making still images of what are very dynamic systems. For example, earlier this morning in your lecture here at the Nevada Museum of Art, you were describing the Kern oilfield as a very kinetic landscape; you talked about the flow of oil and the machinic soundscape. Are there aspects of these landscapes that you struggle to capture in still photography, and do you ever think of experimenting with film?

Burtynsky: Well, I am starting to work with film. I haven’t filmed independently yet, but I am currently in the process of co-directing a film. It’s following the project I’m doing on water, so, everywhere I go now, I’ve got a film crew with me.

Twilley: Are you working with them to document your photography process, or more as an additional way to document the water systems you’re hoping to portray?

Burtynsky: Both. There are things that I’m taking still photographs of that probably aren’t going to translate very well onto film, and there are things that I can’t make stills of that are better suited to be filmed—and then there are subjects that can handle both. I’m finding that there are elements of all three categories in the film we’re currently working on.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Manufactured Landscapes, but photography is the authoring thread through that film, and I want to do the same thing for water, too. In some ways, it’s the stills that I’m making that are going to determine where the film goes. How we bring them into play in the actual movie is all part of the experience of going into the editing room and figuring out what makes sense where.

But when it gets down to making the film—to the logic of the film—I think all our doors should be open in terms of how to do it. I’m of the belief that you pursue your interests, you pull it all in, and you sort it out later.


"Oil Refineries #23," Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: It’s clear that there’s an environmental consciousness animating much of your work, but it’s also true, I think, that there is a way of looking at your photographs of, for instance, large oilscapes that could read into them a kind of industrial heroism. In some of the works—such as the footprints in the sand with oil bleeding through, or the ship-breaking yards—the human presence seems to add a clear critical dimension. But in your shots of these often strangely beautiful, cathedral-like refineries, or even of the Talladega raceway, I’m curious how you manage to balance a kind of activist environmental agenda with photographs that might otherwise be seen as very formal or simply very aesthetic. Also, how does your use of other media, such as lecturing or film, work to make your critical approach more clear?

Burtynsky: I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.

I actually have a funny story about this. After spending about six years and two shows on the Rock of Ages quarries in Vermont, I wanted to do a trade with them: a print for some granite slabs to make countertops in my country house up North. I met with them and I brought ten of my favorite pictures of their quarries. Most of them were of abandoned sections of the quarries. So I rolled them all out—and they were big, 40-by-50-inch prints—and the whole board was there. And they were totally silent.

After this uncomfortable, pregnant pause, I said, “So… what do you guys think?” Someone—I think it was the director of the quarry—finally said, “Why would anybody want one of these?” [laughter]

I’d never really had it put to me in that way! I said something like, “Well, because they’re interesting pictures and they talk about our taking of a resource from the land. It’s about that accumulated taking—the residual evidence of that taking—and then nature bouncing back into that void. You can see it struggling back into that space.”

And he replied, “These just aren’t very interesting for us.” Well, actually, he said, “These are a sorry sight for us, because these are places where we can’t get any more stone out of the ground, and we have to go somewhere else. They’re the end of the line for us. We wouldn’t want to have to be reminded of that everyday.”

I asked whether that meant the deal was off, and they said, “Oh, no, you can go photograph the latest thing we’ve found with all the machines still working on it.” And I did. It never entered my oeuvre, but I photographed it and I got the countertops.

Twilley: So the quarry has an “off-label” Burtynsky, as it were?

Burtynsky: That’s right. In fact, eighty percent of what the quarry produced went to make gravestones, so I blew up a big picture for them to take to a monument fair.


"Rock of Ages # 26," Abandoned Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: The question of access is one I’m really interested in. Earlier, you said it took you three years to set up a photograph of the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, but I imagine it’s even harder to get into places like oil refineries. Have you heard of any responses from the oil industry to your series?

Burtynsky: No, I haven’t. I must say, for the most part, that the oil industry isn’t very enlightened. In most cases, they said no when I asked to come in and make photographs, because they couldn’t see an upside to letting me in. They couldn’t see why. They could only see a downside.

One place I tried to get into is the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies ten to eleven million barrels a day, and this one oil field—the Ghawar—is the oil field of oil fields. It produces five million barrels a day. I thought it would be great to have that as part of the project narrative. In terms of scale, Ghawar is it. There is no bigger oil field. Even all the tar sand activity in Canada produces between one and a quarter and one and a half million barrels a day, while the Saudis are able to produce five million barrels a day from one oil field. That one field is four times the scale of Canada’s entire oil sands operation.

Twilley: But they said no?

Burtynsky: They said no. I went through a fairly lengthy process all the way to the very top, where I was talking to the minister of petroleum in Saudi Arabia. They basically said that they might have been interested if I had had more of a focus on the human dimension of oil—the people who work there, and so on. They said they thought it was too detached and impersonal.

Manaugh: To go back to something you said at lunch yesterday, you mentioned that you consciously exclude green and blue from your photographs, and that, for the most part, you don’t like to shoot in summer or at certain times of day. You also mentioned the way that the light during “the shoulders of the day”—early morning and late evening—makes space much more volumetric and filled with shadows, and that, conversely, shooting at high noon from 8,000ft helps minimize shadow. I’d love to revisit that conversation in the context of this interview and hear more about the role of color, light, and shadow in your work.

Burtynsky: I love the tones of browns and grays—I love more neutral tones. That’s why I like going to the desert and working in the desert. I find that green trees and things like that have a tendency to lock us into a certain way of seeing. When I look at green trees on a sunny day, I don’t know how to make an interesting picture of that. We’re familiar with that already.

Instead, I like the transparency that comes when leaves are off and you can look deeper into the landscape—you can look through the landscape. When I did try to make those kind of green-tree/sunny-day pictures, I’d find myself not ever putting them up and not ever using them. Eventually, I just said, well, I’m not going to take them anymore, because they never make it past the edit.

There’s a certain point where you learn from your own editing. You just stop taking certain pictures because they never make it through. Your editing starts to inform your thinking, as far as where you want to go and what you want to look for when you’re making a photograph.

That what’s different about me after thirty years of doing this kind of work—there are a lot of pictures I don’t have to take anymore. I think that’s called wisdom—learning what not to waste your time on!

Twilley: Do you have a ratio, or a sense of how many photographs you take vs. how many actually make it into the final show?

Burtynsky: My ratio has changed over time, certainly. I used to shoot 8 x 10 film, and, with that, my ratio was pretty high—something like one out of six or one out of seven images would make it through. With 4 x 5, because it’s faster and a little easier, which means there can be a little more risk-taking, my ratio would have been closer to one in twelve or one in fifteen. With digital, now, where everything is dematerialized and I’m up in the air, I’m shooting probably one to 100.

Twilley: Returning to the idea of avoiding blue skies and green trees, I was thinking back to your earlier comment about wanting to show us things that we don’t usually get in front of, places and things that are unfamiliar. In a way, green leaves and blue skies are too familiar—that’s the nature we already know as nature.


"Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. Note the extremely rare inclusion of green trees!

Burtynsky: You know it already, so how do you say something new about it? It locks us into a cliché, or a genre of understanding. We immediately understand it, so there’s nothing there.

I just came back from a conference on the future of photography, where we had an interesting conversation around this. One of the curators of a museum in Switzerland had invited students from any art school, anywhere in the world to submit work to be included in a survey of photography of the new generation. The one thing that was consistent in 1,200 submissions was that not one of the students was showing anything that had to do with spontaneity. Spontaneity was gone completely.

There were no pictures with light coming through the glass on the table or a Robert Frank kind of street photograph or a decisive moment photograph—nothing like that at all. It was all very staged and all very deliberate—not photography as the act of seeing the world or reacting to seeing the world, but rather a photography of crafting things in the studio. We didn’t find one that varied from that, which I thought was fascinating.

We were wondering, why this is? In school, are they teaching that all the possibilities for taking photographs of reality and interpreting reality and reacting to reality in a spontaneous way have all been done? There seemed to be a feeling that there is no new narrative that can be found by pursuing that avenue of representation, and that they have to move into creating their own world.

Twilley: Perhaps it’s also a response to the fact that everyone now has a camera on them at all times, and so those photos—those spontaneous shots of decisive moments and everyday life—are, in fact, being taken, but they’ve been claimed, in a sense, by iPhones and Instagram, so students need to do something different to be photographers today, rather than just people with a camera.

Burtynsky: That might be the case—it could be a response to the way that we’re all now awash in images. So how do you define yourself? That spontaneous way of making imagery has become an avenue that the next generation doesn’t see as worthy of pursuit because it won’t yield anything that the world hasn’t already put out there.

I think there is an anxiety about the status of the photograph amongst the new practitioners coming in. I have certain anxieties, too, of course, but, I think because I’ve had such an arc of existing work that I continue to build on as an artist, that I don’t feel as much anxiety about using the real world as my palette or as my template, to draw from. I don’t feel compelled to start staging my imagery or moving away from recording “reality” on some level in order to achieve a deeper subjective experience, and I think it’s because I came out of an analogue, more traditional way of approaching photography. Photography was a way to put a window onto the world and to enter into the world. For me, photography is a way to mine ideas that are things.

Manaugh: I’d like to ask another question about the future of photography. As a writer, something that always catches my eye are stories about how they’re working on an artificial intelligence bot that can actually write a sports recap or a movie review on its own. The idea is that things like descriptions of football games are so formulaic that, in the future, a robot will write it, churning out sentences like, “Quarterback X threw for a certain amount of yards for a victory in the last quarter against team Y,” and so on. In and of itself, this is culturally fascinating, of course—but, as a writer, I am particularly fascinated by what it means for the future of my craft.

From the point of view of a photographer, then, it might seem equally interesting that there are now all sorts of new types of photographic systems on the rise—quadcopter-mounted 3D scanners, drones, and even smart ammunition equipped with cameras that can loiter in an area taking aerial photographs. Simply on a technical level, I’m curious about where you see the future of photography going. Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?

Burtynsky: I’m already doing it.

Twilley: You have a drone?

Burtynsky: Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture.

So I am already using that technology. It offers new ways of entering into places that you would never have considered going—or that you couldn’t even go to—before.

The pictures I’ve been taking of irrigation circles now as part of the water project—that’s something I think would not have been possible to do very easily even just five years ago. It would be almost impossible with film to splice those images together so well and not have it look weirdly distorted or problematic. With Photoshop, and with digital files, you’ve got contrast control, the removal of haze, color filtration, and all of that, so I’m able to do things that, again, were not even conceivable five years ago.

"Dam #6," Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: I’m curious about how you know when a series is done, when you’ve said all you wanted to say about a certain them or topic. For instance, I think you said that the water series will be finished in 2013—but how do you know when to put an end to certain things? Is it that there is literally a checklist of sites you want to get to, or is there a more subtle narrative sense of completion that you’re looking for?

Burtynsky: Well, by 2013, I will have been working on water for almost five years. It’s unlike a lot of my other series, in that I’m not doing any other projects right now. During the oil series, I did a whole series in China, and I still kept doing quarries along the way. I did a lot of other things while pursuing the idea of oil systems, and the kinds of landscapes that come from them.

For this water project, I gave myself a five-year time period and that’s all I’m concentrating on. I’ve dropped quarries and I’ve dropped oil, pretty much—except for the Gulf oil spill, which I saw as this historic-scale, crossover event with oil and water, a moment when the two liquids that I have been pursuing for so long were put into such an unhappy marriage. I thought it was worth the chance to go, to see them both in one place; and I think it worked.

But the 2013 date puts a hard stop on the project. It’s not to say that I won’t ever take more images of water—or, for that matter, of oil—but it’s a chance to consolidate the work, to put a book and movie together, and to put something out there for people to react to and see. I don’t think it means that either oil or water will be closed off the way I closed off quarries.

In fact, it’s interesting that once I move away from a series, I can go by those landscapes all day long and I won’t see them anymore. It’s like I’ve just switched it off. I know it’s still there, of course, and, if I went back, I could still find those kinds of things again; but I don’t look for them anymore. To me, the photographic image is an idea that you put into your consciousness, and then you go out in the world in search of manifestations of it. It’s a very idea-driven process—but that also means than, once the idea is expressed, I don’t necessarily go looking for it anymore. I’ve done it.

"Dryland Farming #7," Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I want to end with a question about where the water project is going next, and, in particular, whether there’s any aspect of water that is proving particularly tricky to capture or perhaps more productive than you originally expected?

Burtynsky: Probably the trickiest bit right now is source: where water comes from. It’s so riddled with clichés. That’s actually where I might end up using film, because it might be able to carry the cliché better than still photographs.

I also gave myself another challenge, which is something I grew up next door to: I’ve been trying to figure out, is there any way I can photograph Niagara Falls without making it a cliché? And I haven’t done it yet. Andreas Gursky shot the Maid of the Mist and it was very postcard-y—but I think he meant it to refer to the postcard tradition. I’m working on it, and I’m trying to figure it out, but it’s hard. I keep looking at Niagara Falls, thinking, “Great. Now what?”
 
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