Industrial Scars: The Art of Environmental Pollution

A photographer simultaneously captures the beauty and horror of human pollution, from thick oil spills to dirty coal mining

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If there's a silver lining to be found amongst all the wear and tear humans put on our planet, it could very well be found in the photography of J Henry Fair. His photographs of oil spills, industrial pollution and coal mining are so eye-catching they almost extenuate the industrial scars you are witnessing -- almost. While media coverage of such degradation, like the Gulf oil spill, has been confined to what can best be described as disaster porn, Fair's work -- both artistic and cerebral -- could easily be mistaken for Abstract Expressionism.

The above photograph, for example, seems to actually defy gravity as green and purple tributaries scratch at the cotton-candy-like nebula bearing down on it from above. The whole vascular rainbow appears to be alive, or just the product of a really bad acid trip. As beautiful as the photograph is, what you are looking at, unfortunately, is the effluvia from aluminum production as it spreads across Earth and sea, staining and changing the ecology of everything in its path.

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When bauxite (raw aluminum ore) is processed into aluminum oxide, or alumina, it's first bathed in a solution of sodium hydroxide (lye) at very high temperatures. Aluminum compounds in the bauxite dissolve while other compounds remain behind: iron oxides, sand, clay, some titanium oxides and even radioactive materials, such as uranium or thorium. That resulting red slurry (pictured above) has a lethal pH that can easily destroy plant and animal life, inflict chemical burns and even damage airways if the fumes are inhaled.

Most refineries store this waste in open ponds where the water evaporates over several years where it is then buried or mixed with soil. Alas, those reservoirs can leak and flood, as we saw with the toxic sludge torrent that inundated villages in Hungary late last year. While the soil contains useful elements, there is no economically viable way to extract them. Keep in mind that aluminum oxide requires a second process, electrolysis, to make the aluminum metal used in soda cans and foil.

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While Fair has seen some pop culture success photographing album art for musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, he prefers more eco-centric subjects: herbicide manufacturing waste swirling with limegreen highlights (above); the baby blue brushstrokes of hydro-seeding a mining site (below).

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"I always had a big mouth, and pretty much always tried to use photography to express myself," he says. Fair got his start at the age of 14 when he stole his father's Kodak Retina and began photographing much of the same things he does now: people, machines, icons. A graduate of Fordham University in New York City, Fair headed the school's photo labs until he graduated in 1983. After college, he worked in construction until he could support himself on photography alone.

Presented by

Jerry James Stone is an environmental blogger at TreeHugger and social media consultant. His work has also appeared in MAKE magazine.

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