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The 'Apocalyptic Sublime' of Spain's Surreal Landscapes

Ashen borax fields, abandoned urban developments, and more from photographer David Maisel.

The Fall (Borox 2), 2013

A couple years ago, David Maisel was flying above Spain’s La Mancha region when he came upon a bizarre sight: a battleship-gray field that shimmered like metal, with squiggly pathways carved through it as if a huge, dirt-eating worm had just enjoyed dinner.

“I think what you’re seeing there is some guy on a tractor had too much to drink at lunch or something,” says the 54-year-old Bay Area photographer.

Maisel had come to Spain in 2013 to shoot around Madrid and Toledo, and he was not disappointed in the bounty of human-affected landscapes that were equally strange, beautiful, and sad. Strapped into a helicopter’s harness—and aiming a camera with the same format as the one 1960s astronauts used on the moon—he documented vast patches of ashy, reflective borax, sprawling plantations of neatly gridded olive trees, and an abandoned development on the edge of Madrid that looked like ghostly remnants of a Martian forward-operating base.

“It was an enormous urban-development project that after the economic collapse of 2007 basically ground to a halt and began to return to the earth,” he says. “You can see the beginning of roads and the sketching out of a new urban complex, but it feels like an archaeological site, like looking back on an ancient civilization.”

Maisel has a term for the appeal of such scenes—the “apocalyptic sublime”—imagery that conveys both beauty and terror. “These are portraits of society, pictures of who we are, and to me there is a sense of impending breakdown,” he says. Now, thanks to a new exhibit at San Francisco’s Haines Gallery, titled “The Fall,” people can get to experience his personal apocalypse in the full-sized glory his camera intended. The show runs from January 7 to March 12; folks who won’t make it can get a taste with these selections.

The Fall (Borox 4), 2013
The Fall (Borox 5), 2013
The Fall (Borox 6), 2013
The Fall (Borox 8), 2013
The Fall (Borox 9), 2013
The Fall (Borox 11), 2013
The Fall (Fuensalida 2), 2013
The Fall (Fuensalida 5), 2013
The Fall (Vicalvaro 1), 2013
The Fall (Vicalvaro 3), 2013

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.