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Industrial Materials

Mining California

When I began photographing California’s sprawling network of mines, pits, quarries and materials-processing plants in the early days of the new millennium, I was drawn to the landscapes by their terraformed brutalism, which seemed at odds with the California imaginary. The denuded terrain felt almost Martian, the immense machinery deployed to mine it like the temples of a colonizing civilization that suddenly gave up the effort for being too backbreaking.

But the deeper I dug, the more I came to see how essentially Californian these strange landscapes were: 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.

Detritus washed downriver by hydraulic gold mining operations in the 1850s was used to build San Francisco. Limestone mined in Tehachapi provided the raw material for the L.A. Aqueduct. Mt. Slover in Colton—once the tallest mountain in San Bernardino County and now a whitish-grey lump of rock—became many of the freeways, highrises and suburbs that today are icons of Southern California and the new American West.

After all the years I’ve spent photographing California—both as a place and an idea—this is the conclusion I’ve come to: if tons of ink has been spilled in writing about the essence and meaning of the California spirit, the key to understanding California’s physical body probably lies somewhere in a pile of unassuming white boulders blasted out of a mountain of limestone.