Book Review – David Maisel: Proving Ground (2020)

War has different temporalities. There is the actual war – the execution of organized large-scale physical force – and there is its aftermath. Both temporalities are explored in photography in abundance, capturing visually what war looks like and what remains of it.

There is a third temporality, however, also a “signature of violence” (Manaugh 2020: 19), yet one that does not appear prominently in photography. This temporality references war’s preparations, its “spatial prerequisites” (Manaugh 2020: 11): the locations, buildings and sites where war is being prepared for, where armies train, where weapons systems are developed and constructed, and where the effects of warfare are researched. Without this dimension, the visualization of war remains incomplete.

Dugway Proving Ground (Utah, USA) exemplifies this temporality, a facility operated by the US Army since 1942 among other things to test incendiary, chemical and biological weapons. It is an obscure facility, information about which is hard to obtain; it is remote and difficult to access. It is dedicated to obscure things, most people would rather not know about and few people actually do know about. Trevor Paglen, applying astrophotographic devices to circumvent the site’s inaccessibility but not its obscurity, took pictures of Dugway Proving Ground for his Limit Telephotography series (2010), of which it has been said that it “creates a space where viewers can self-critically examine their own viewing practices with regard to security, thus becoming aware of these practices” (Andersen and Möller 2013: 205).

With respect to David Maisel’s photography of the same military facility for his new book Proving Ground it has now been suggested that “Maisel’s pictures enable a conversation simply by giving us knowledge of the previously unknowable” (Green 2020: 164). Maisel waited ten years (from 2004 to 2014) for the permission to take photographs from the air and on the ground. Supervised by Proving Ground personnel, he was exposed to control and regulation to a degree Paglen, operating from large distance, was not. Despite permission, he seems to have been regarded as an “interloper[] and a potential threat” (p. 228) by some of those in charge of the facility, questioning the legitimacy of both his presence and his photographic activity.

Replicating grid patterns for measuring the effects of weapons on the ground, Maisel decided to “grid” his aerial photographs “into nine parts … The space between the images in the grid separate[s] each element into its own distinct zone, further abstracting the image, and further disturbing its capacity to be read,” the photographer explains (p. 230). Like Paglen, Maisel does neither aim nor claim to give viewers assurance. He renders the invisible visible, but this transformation does not increase viewers’ knowledge on the subjects and landscapes depicted. Without the excellent essays illuminating past and present of the facility, viewers would be rather helpless or, worse, merely fascinated by the photographs’ formal aesthetics and the quality of the print.

In any case, the grid pattern reminds us of the social constructedness of both the patterned landscapes we see in the photographs and the photographs themselves: “both maps and photographs – even aerial ones – have subjective frames, and … grids themselves, albeit mathematical, are created through the exercise of multiple decisions and choices” (Fox 2020: 205).     

Indeed, “the photographs that interest me most show us what we don’t yet know or understand. They limn the spaces that are outside our comprehension,” Maisel explains (p. 231), thus depicting not only what we do not know but also what we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand. Maisel, thus, aims to show the facility as “a disturbing place,” the “need [for which] is itself disturbing” (quoted in Helfand 2017).

Questions to think about when looking at Maisel’s work include the following: Does Maisel’s reliance on the grid – “the same apparatus … the military [relies on]: the carving of the desert hardpan” (Green 2020: 163) – constitute a critique of this apparatus and that which it seems to legitimize: the human habit of taking possession of seemingly empty land? Or does it, through repetition, affirm and naturalize this very habit? If these pictures enable a conversation by giving us knowledge of what had hitherto been unknown, what kind of knowledge is this if it is located outside the comprehensible? And, ultimately, what do we – as viewers and as citizens – do with such knowledge?

David Maisel, Proving Ground (Santa Fe: Radius Books, 2020).

Andersen, Rune S. and Frank Möller, “Engaging the Limits of Visibility: Photography, Security and Surveillance,” Security Dialogue 44 (2013), pp. 203–221.
Fox, William A., “A Landscape of Silence,” in Maisel, Proving Ground, pp. 195–206.
Green, Tyler, “At the Edge of the Knowable,” in Maisel, Proving Ground, pp. 155–165.
Helfand, Glen, “Death from above: how David Maisel turned ‘the new Area 51’ into land art,” The Guardian, 5 May 2017.
Manaugh, Geoff, “Nowhere to Be Seen,” in Maisel, Proving Ground, pp. 9–19.
Paglen, Trevor, Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes (New York: Aperture, 2010).