Gas drilling in Pennsylvania has become a contentious issue that pits perceived winners against losers. A half-dozen accomplished photographers felt the discussion was more nuanced, and they spread out across the state to record the effects of this rapidly expanding industry upon families and communities.
The "Marcellus Shale Documentary Project" is the result, comprising a significant book and website, and an exceptional exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries, where a free public forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday.
When London-born Pittsburgh-based project photographer Brian Cohen began to consider documenting Marcellus Shale activity, it "very, very quickly became apparent it wasn't something one person could cover adequately," he said. He approached Laura Domencic, director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, with his idea in February 2011, and the organization quickly saw its worth.
"The subject resonates nationally," Ms. Domencic said, "and how it can change the region is so important. The documentary style and artist participation are right up our alley. Besides documentation, the project's about helping to facilitate a meaningful conversation within the community instead of sound bites."
They applied for and received a Sprout Fund Seed Award, and additional funding followed.
Other participating photographers are Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Martha Rial, a stellar cast of regularly exhibited and published veterans. Among them are a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Whitney Museum of American Art exhibitor, a National Academy of Science honoree and an Open Society Institute Documentary Fund awardee. Their imagery has appeared in venues as diverse as National Geographic, The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the BBC and Life's Year in Pictures.
The team determined to cover as much ground as possible, both geographically and aesthetically, Mr. Cohen said. "Collectively, it's the vision of the project," but "everyone has his or her own eye ... own approach ... own point of entry."
Imagery ranges from Ms. Rial's breathtaking aerial view of undulating tree-covered hills interrupted exclusively by rectangular drilling platforms, to Ms. Berman's eyebrow-raising EOG Cabot Oil and Gas Community picnickers walking by a Halliburton barbecue pit. Some are incontestably from the fine art realm, such as Mr. Addis' sensitive oversized portraits of shale region residents, while others follow photojournalistic tradition, like Ms. Johnson's intimate image of a trailer park resident, evicted to make way for a water extraction plant, being comforted by her cats. Mr. Cohen found a positive story in Bob Miller, whose gas drilling lease allowed his family to keep their farm running. In contrast, Mr. Goldsmith's book cover photograph of the Hallowich family, allegedly driven from their home due to air and water contamination caused by the gas companies, creates a 21st-century "American Gothic."
"People are the center of this story even if there are no people in many of the pictures," Mr. Cohen said.
The photographers attempted to represent the complexity of drilling, reflected in their appreciation expressed to a variety of consultants including professors, industry experts, medical professionals and clergy. Still, the intent was not pro forma equal time.
"There are not two sides," Mr. Cohen said. "There are multiple facets to this story."
The photographers show what they experienced, without filler. "It's about being honest and responsible to the story. Not because we feel we have to be balanced," he said.
The six met several times and "really did work as a team. We compared notes and compared experiences, found that certain patterns repeated and certain things were unique. The collaboration was very successful. Photography can be solitary and territorial. That broke down through the project. We could share and support in ways you don't often get to do."
The project began in November of last year and continued through mid-summer, although "those borders are elastic," Mr. Cohen said. Four participants had photographed shale subjects prior to that, and some have expressed interest in continuing to do so. One becomes "very invested in the story. Bonds are made," Mr. Cohen explained.
Photographers worked at all times of the day and all seasons, Mr. Cohen said, giving as example a photograph of well flaring taken in the winter at 3 a.m. Most photographers shot digitally, but Mr. Addis used film, and Ms. Johnson submitted some iPhone photos, which Mr. Cohen characterizes as a "very powerful set of images using a disarming tool."
Ms. Domencic curated the exhibition, which will travel to other parts of Pennsylvania impacted by drilling. Sixty photographs are included in the show, many of which are reproduced in the book, with more archived on the project website (www.the-msdp.us).
The professionalism behind the project ensures its place in the growing testimony that accompanies industry expansion and political decision-making. The website has attracted national media and international viewers. The book, beautifully designed by Brett Yasko, is an invaluable resource, for its field observations, elegant essay by Mr. Cohen on the history of state natural resource exploration and of documentary photography, Michelle Nijhuis' informative hydraulic fracturing primer and, not least, unblinking imagery.
The rest is up to the audience, whose participation is essential to the completion of the project, Mr. Cohen said. As he concludes his book essay, "Over to you."
Thursday's public forum panel comprises Eric Beckman, professor of engineering, University of Pittsburgh; Carrie Hahn, activist; Doug Shields, former Pittsburgh City Councilman; and Terry Collins, CMU Teresa Heinz Professor for Green Chemistry and a senior member of CMU's Institute for Green Science. The moderator will be Steve Sokol, president and CEO of World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. Artist talks will be given at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 (Noah Addis and Scott Goldsmith) and Nov. 14 (Brian Cohen and Martha Rial). All events are free.
"Marcellus" continues through Jan. 6 at 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland. The photographs, printed in editions of five to 10, are for sale at prices ranging from $300 to $3,000. The 220-page, paperbound Marcellus book is $25. Hours are noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday, and when films are screened at Melwood. Admission is free. Information: 412-681-5449 or www.pittsburgharts.org.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925. First Published October 24, 2012 4:00 AM