The art of Marcellus Shale

Project documents gas drilling’s impact across the state

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Seeking to capture the complexity of an industry described as monstrous by some and miraculous by others, six photographers set out to document the impacts of Marcellus Shale gas drilling across Pennsylvania.


The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project tells the stories of those affected by the gas industry through an online photo archive, a 220-page book and a traveling exhibition, which opened in October at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries and closes at 2 p.m. today.


“It’s kind of hard to live in Western Pennsylvania and not be aware of Marcellus Shale,” said Brian Cohen, the London native and Pittsburgh photographer who spearheaded the project.


After being spurred by his wife to consider creating a project on Marcellus Shale, Cohen realized he would need help tackling such an expansive subject and reached out to Laura Domencic, director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, who ultimately curated the exhibition.


The project landed funding from the Sprout Fund, the Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments, and Cohen was joined by top-notch photographers Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Martha Rial.


In the fledgling stages of the project, Cohen, who also serves at an adjunct professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, recalls it taking a long time for he and Addis, a Philadelphian, to find a well pad – a task made easy after becoming familiar with areas like Washington and Greene counties.


“It’s very easy to be right out in the middle of it and not see it, then turn a corner and be completely surrounded by it,” said Cohen. “It’s a very overwhelming presence, yet it can hide in board daylight.”


As for the work itself, the images vary greatly in their composition – from stark, close-up portraits of people claiming to have been wronged by drilling, including an Avella woman who suspects contaminated water caused health issues for her family, to gas workers going about their day to sweeping aerial shots of well pads seemingly plopped down in an otherwise untouched wilderness. While some photos feature fiery, flaring wells, others handle the industry’s footprint more subtly, such as one showing the crest of a hill with the horizon lit from beyond by a drilling site. Others, like a shot of a child playing along the Susquehanna River, show no drilling activity at all but bring to mind issues below the ground and in the water.


“It’s a very complex, nuanced, multifaceted story that is not black or white,” said Cohen. “If people walk away from this feeling conflicted, that would be a very good start.”


While the majority of images were captured with digital cameras, Addis shot on film and Johnson snagged a series of pictures using her smartphone.


“It wasn’t about trying to have that flashy image that will get everybody talking, but to get people thinking and having a real conversation,” said Domencic.


The collection also features photographs of the Hallowich family, which Goldsmith took prior to a gag order that followed a court-sealed settlement between the Mt. Pleasant Township residents and several gas drilling companies. Cohen described Goldsmith as a “committed humanitarian” who had built a meaningful relationship with the family that became difficult to maintain after the court proceedings.


“People who have suffered as a result of this are actually fairly easy to find,” Cohen said. “Getting through to the industry, on the other hand, has been like banging one’s head against the wall.”


As for his own relationship with the gas industry, Cohen said he has spent plenty of time reaching out, to no avail. Cohen recalled chatting with Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella while photographing him a few years ago for a story for the online magainze Pop City. Nowadays, Cohen said he would love to sit down with the often outspoken face of Range, but Pitzarella won’t talk to him.


With regard to how the exhibition represents drilling, Domencic explained that the photographers weren’t trying to push their own agendas and were committed to fact-checking their information. She said the participants were trying to be true to what they experienced. Cohen said the group’s collective experiences also led them to find commonalities and patterns despite working in different parts of the state.


“It was very helpful for me to understand that this is not a totally evil thing that is monolithically bad in all of its manifestations, because that’s clearly not a very informed view,” he said. “It’s also important to understand it’s not a completely good thing.”


More information on the project, including a photo archive, can be found at www.the-msdp.us. The exhibition will next appear in Philadelphia and will continue traveling through 2014.


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