by Barron Bixler
I began photographing California’s sprawling network of mines, pits, quarries, and materials-processing plants a decade before the Mars Curiosity rover touched down in Gale Crater in August 2012. Until then, my sense of the project I call Industrial Materials: Mining California was wholly terrestrial and specifically Californian.
At first, I was drawn to these landscapes by their terraformed brutalism, which seemed at odds with the California imaginary. But the deeper I dug, the more I came to see how quintessentially Californian they are. The incalculable volume of minerals extracted from our mountaintops and riverbeds has been refashioned into the very infrastructure that has paved the way for California’s growth. For instance, detritus washed downstream by disastrous hydraulic gold mining operations in the 1850s was used to build Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Sacramento River levee system. Limestone mined by the Monolith Cement Company in what is now Tehachapi provided the raw material for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Mt. Slover in Colton—once the tallest mountain in San Bernardino County and now a whitish-grey lump of limestone with an American flag stuck on top—became many of the freeways, urban highrises, and sprawling suburbs that today are icons of Southern California and the new American West. Through this project, I have discovered that while tons of ink has been spilled trying to pin down the ephemeral nature of the California spirit, to understand California’s corporeal body you need only regard a pile of unassuming white boulders blasted out of a mountain of limestone.
When Curiosity began beaming back images of the surface of Mars to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August 2012, the meaning of the project changed for me. I thought to myself just how much like Mars my pictures of denuded mining landscapes looked, and how Curiosity, in its many Martian selfies, resembled the hulking machines that have been used to dismantle and scrape bare the California landscape. A part of me was comforted to see novel photographic evidence of a sister planet with a recognizable, Earthlike geology. But another part—the part that has an affinity for dystopian sci-fi stories—was unsettled. Given that our drive to create world-altering technologies is outpacing our ability to mitigate their consequences, I thought, how long will it be before California comes more closely to resemble the surface of Mars?