Photographer Interviews

David Maisel’s Spanish Landscapes

March 17, 2016

By Rebecca Robertson

David Maisel’s subjects have ranged from mine tailings to Los Angeles sprawl, from the cremated remains of asylum residents to vintage x-rays of museum artifacts. Maisel uses a variety of approaches to reveal patterns and structures that might otherwise be invisible, uncovering the beautiful or terrifying essence of places or things. For his new series “The Fall,” on view at Haines Gallery in San Francisco through March 12, Maisel investigated the Spanish countryside between Madrid and Toledo from the air, finding shapes and textures in the land that were formed by centuries of agriculture and human use.

The work grew out of a 2013 commission to participate in an exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, Toledo’s adopted resident who lived in the city for the latter part of his life in the 16th and 17th centuries. For the exhibition, which was sponsored by Ivorypress and Fundacion El Greco 2014 in Madrid, and which also included work by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Abelardo Morell, Vik Muniz, and Shirin Neshat (among others), Maisel photographed Toledo from above, drawn to the old city’s organic piling up of forms and density. “Without ever having seen it from the air, I had a sense of what the history of that place was like,” says Maisel, who trained as an architect before turning to photography. His dizzying aerial photos of the compact city were shown at the church of San Marcos in Toledo as part of the exhibition, “ToledoContemporánea.”

Following the commission, Maisel set out to make the images in “The Fall,” still feeling El Greco’s influence. Although he had done some research before the trip, Maisel first saw the landscape he photographed in person during flights between Toledo and Madrid, where he rented the helicopter for his commission. The journey got him thinking about the cities as two divergent poles, ancient and modern. “Madrid is the current cultural capital of Spain, and Toledo is definitely the former [cultural] capital of Spain. I started thinking about what happened in between them.”

What happened in between is a lot of empty space—the plain in Spain—which has been used for agriculture. Maisel focused on three regions: Vicalvaro, on the outskirts of Madrid, and Fuensalida and Borox, both agricultural regions in La Mancha. The most striking of these is Borox, where the ground is chock full of the mineral borax, which “gives the soil this silvery, kind of graphite quality,” says Maisel. “It has almost a shimmering quality. Really surreal and seductive and strange. Otherworldly, actually.”

The silvery soil against the golden dried grass of the region gives many of the images a peculiar color palette, with nods to the region’s most famous painter. “There was a kind of resonance with El Greco’s palette and I guess it makes sense: He lived in the area,” says Maisel. “It was pretty thrilling. I had no idea if the work I was making would fit into the notion of ‘This is the anniversary of El Greco’s death.’” El Greco famously painted views of the city in an expressionistic style that was far ahead of his time; in his soft grey tones there are connections to Maisel’s images of the countryside. But Maisel also sees influences from other sources in his work, including the California abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn, whose shapes and palettes are also drawn from the grid of an agricultural landscape. Other painters haunt the pictures as well. “Some of them feel Cubist,” says Maisel. “Juan Gris. Or even Cezanne’s crosshatching images.”

To make the images, Maisel worked from the air, shooting film with a Hasselblad and Zeiss lenses. “I’m really composing when I’m in the air,” says Maisel. “These shapes are constantly shifting and torquing and stretching.” To find the right arrangement, Maisel relies on all of his senses and feelings. “Your body, your eye, your mind, your perception, in time and in space, is the conduit.” In order to maneuver into the right spot in space, Maisel is in constant conversation with the pilot. “I’m discussing elevation and angle and how fast, how slow; whether to stay in the area or come back around,” he says. “It’s loud, the door’s open, it’s a little bit threatening, you’re talking in a headset. It’s challenging.”

Back at home in San Francisco, Maisel scanned the film and made prints on a large-format pigment inkjet printer. The challenge was transforming what the film recorded into an interpretation that felt true to his memory. “How do you render that silvery graphite?” he asks. “What does it take to do that? The film is a starting point. But I’m most interested in making a print that is as seductive and evocative as possible.” Working carefully in Photoshop, Maisel made adjustments to contrast and saturation, but didn’t change anything dramatically. “I don’t feel like I need to go in and falsify color and invent something whole hog. But these prints are like a series of translations—many many, many translations.”

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