For the Reverse Alchemy series, I create self-contained but disorienting stories that imaginatively question themes in human experience by layering spaces, perspectives, objects, and moments of time and history. A recurring young character is the “witness” to the events in each scene in which I attempt to evoke unexpected memories percolating up from some deep well of experience, but connected to contemporary questions.
Alchemy was historically concerned with the transformation of base matter into something precious. The alchemy concept refers to my interest in this ongoing transformation of the photographic medium (from analog to digital or vice-versa), as well as the transformation of matter that is itself the essence of art making and practice. The reverse aspect in the title alludes, albeit ironically, to what the work is ultimately about: the ways in which contemporary society/culture can sometimes transform the precious into the base – with devastating consequences – and the concurrent human struggle to note and resist that degradation.
Drone Over Savannah, 2012
Drone Over Charleston, 2012
White Bison, 2018
Oil Field and Border Fence, 2018
Resistance (Grifters), 2018
Mission Accomplished, 2010
Last Resistance, 2010
William's Dream, 2007
My largest single project, "Incendiary Iconography" is a documentary project in images and text addressing Cold War-era nuclear sites in the United States that are in the process of public reclamation and/or transformation under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program. As a photographer, I seek to record and interpret aspects of our society that I think warrant our attention, understanding, and memory.
The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (later named the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, or RFETS) sat at the foot of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains overlooking the high plains of eastern Colorado. Boulder is ten miles to the north, Denver’s two million residents just 16 miles downwind and downstream to the east. The shallow mesa from which the atomic weapons plant derived its name was taken from the Church family in 1951, and since then the suburbs of Denver have extended to the border of what was a 25 square mile top-secret facility.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General raided the facility on June 6th, 1989, to investigate allegations of environmental crimes. Although thought to be a temporary halt to production, the investigation revealed the true conditions inside the plant, and these led to the eventual decision to tear down the entire Rocky Flats complex.
The Department of Energy had hid for decades behind a culture of security and secrecy, arguing the plant was exempt from federal regulations. In 1995 the U.S. Department of Energy labeled Rocky Flats the most dangerous weapons plant in the nation because of the health and safety risks it posed to the plant workers and the surrounding area. Although the search warrant documents were released in 1989, the full text of the grand jury investigation and findings remains sealed, despite efforts by members of the gagged grand jury to make them public. The former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant site was officially designated a National Wildlife Refuge with the completion of decontamination and deconstruction activities in October 2005. The wildlife designation was chosen because it afforded the lowest level of cleanup standards. Debate continues among former workers and local citizens about the adequacy of the cleanup.
In addition to photographing the progress of the decontamination and deconstruction process at Rocky Flats, I also photographed the disposal sites where many tons of contaminated materials were sent for burial, including the Nevada Nuclear Test Site (NTS) and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.
Repackaging Glove Box, Building 440, RFETS, 2003
This glove box was one of many used to re-chracterize and re-package legacy nuclear and chemical wastes that had built up on the site over decades.
Security Personnel, Building 771, RFETS, 2001
Looking through water barrier into plutonium storage vault, Building 771, RFETS, 2001
Analytical Lab, Building 771, RFETS, 2001
Door to “Infinity Room”, Building 771, RFETS, 2003
Building 771 had several “infinity rooms”, or rooms so contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive isotopes that the radiation exceeded the capacity of the Geiger counter to measure. These rooms were sealed off for years before the demolition activity required their cleanup and removal. Many were simply cut out of the building structure and shipped away for disposal or burial at a nuclear waste repository site. ( Full disclosure: In this one image, I have composited the scene from inside the room taken through the window into the window area of the door.)
J. Pacquette Characterizing Legacy Residues in Plutonium Building 771, RFETS, 2001
183 Reduction Tent, RFETS, 2001
A worker can be seen inside a supplied air bubble suit through a plastic window in the tent. The tent was used to cut up contaminated machinery and glove boxes to fit in disposal boxes. In 2001, several workers inhaled plutonium particles after an air filter alarm failed.
Respirator Suiting Room for 183 Tent, Building 771, RFETS, 2001
A former plutonium vault was converted to a respirator suiting room for the D&D Tent in Room 183, Plutonium Building 771. The tapes on the wall, with nicknames, track the usage of previous respirator kits in the air-supplied bubble suits., Each respirator kit is good for only three sessions in the tent - thereby creating a visual record of the many hours spent by the workers in the hazardous area.
C.A. Nanstiel with a Pipe Overpack Component Waste Drum, RFETS, 2001
Waste Drums Awaiting Shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for Burial in a Salt Mine, 2004.
Anti-Contamination Clothing, Building 771, RFETS, 2001
This legacy incinerator was “discovered” during the site demolition, and had burned contaminated materials in the 1950’s.
Accountability Badges Outside Building 371, RFETS, 2002
Bags of Contaminated Soils from the 903 and 904 Pads, RFETS, 2005
The contaminated soils were shipped by train to Nevada for burial at the Nevada Test Site.
Air Plenum Level, Building 771, RFETS, 2004
Lower Level, Building 771, RFETS, 2004
This level contained the gloveboxes seen in the images from 2001. The painted boxes represent areas that are still reading radioactively “hot.” In the background, contamination has been covered with a fixative, and a former “infinity room,” too radioactive to measure, has been cut out of the building structure.
On-Site Security Training Shooting Range, RFETS, 2003
The View of Denver from the Former 903 Pad
Thousands of barrels of wastes from the production area had been stored outside in a field called the 903 Pad. During the decades of production at the nuclear weapons plant, there was no designated place to dispose of the contaminated wastes and byproducts of the production processes. At one time, the plant operators injected wastes into the ground, and buried wastes in barrels around the 25 square mile site. These conditions contributed to the decision to demolish the plant and remediate the site. The decision to designate the site a “wildlife refuge” was made because that designation afforded the lowest standard of site cleanup and remediation. Many doubted the site could ever be fully cleaned, and controversy has surrounded the decision to allow the public into the resulting refuge.
Waste Box Awaiting Burial in a Subsidence Crater at the Nevada Test Site, 2003.
Standard Waste Boxes from Rocky Flats Awaiting Burial in a Trench at the Low-Level Waste Repository at the Nevada Test Site, 2003.
Waste-box Burial Trench at the Nevada Test Site, 2003
The Badger Army Ammunition Plant (BAAP), previously known as the Badger Ordnance Works (B.O.W.), was the largest munitions factory in the world during World War II. The plant in Sauk County, Wisconsin, manufactured nitrocellulose-based propellants such as smokeless powder, rocket propellant, and later rocket mortar during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The plant was placed on stand-by status in 1977 and never resumed production. It was declared excess to the Army’s needs in 1997, and plans for re-use of the lands began in 2000.
Demolition of the Army manufacturing infrastructure began in 2004 and completed in 2014. Federal and local entities continue to implement the Badger Reuse plan, which calls for conservation, prairie and savanna restoration, agriculture, education, and recreation uses.
Timekeeping Office, BAAP, 2000
Employees passing through the inspection house on the way into and out of work were checked for contraband items such as matches and cigarettes.
Change Houses, BAAP, 2000
Workers changed into work clothes before being bussed to the particular area of the plant where they worked. For security reasons, very few people knew the entire plant and its processes.
Constant Temperature Rest House, BAAP, 2000
Like many of the buildings on site, this one is surrounded by a wall of embanked railroad ties. In the case of explosion, the force would go up rather than out to adjacent production buildings.
Blending House, BAAP, 2001
Steam P.R. Station, BAAP, 2000
Isn’t all P.R. mostly steam?
Verlyn Meuller, BAAP, 2001
Fire was a constant threat, even after production was shut down. The production buildings were saturated with enough propellant that lightning, or even a hand saw, could easily ignite a fire.
Verlyn Mueller was one of the few people familiar with the plant’s comprehensive operations.
Norma Clavadatscher, Roll Cutting House, 2000
Norma worked in a roll-cutting house such as this one. She described how the workers would get migraine headaches from the nitroglycerin in the rocket propellant they were cutting and had to lay outside on the embankments. On weekends, they would sneak a small piece of propellant into their bras so they would have an ongoing dose of nitroglycerin over the weekend and not suffer from a heart-attack, referred to colloquially as “dynamite heart.”
Nitro-cotton Blending House, BAAP, 2000
The escape ramp was intended not for sliding but for running - however, it was essentially a false sense of security in the event of an explosion.
I have always appreciated the illusory and conceptual possibilities of photography. Inspired by Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Imagination series and an interminable Michigan winter, I found and/or sculpted snow piles in the parking lots of local big box stores to match images of some of the world’s most notable mountains.
Mt. Imagination #7,
(after Main Peak of the Four Girls Mountains,
seen from the shoulder of Lara Peak, Chang-gou),
D&W Food Stores Parking Lot, 2008
Mt. Imagination #8,
(after Großvenediger, Rainerhorn, and Hoher Zaun),