When Hills Hide Arches


Landforms masquerading as architecture and vice versa seem to dominate a few sets of older images hosted at the Library of Congress.

Photos taken between 1865 and 1872, these are—photographically speaking—almost impossibly ancient, approaching a point of chemical age as comparatively old to us today as the structures they depict were to the military expeditions that documented them in the first place.


The first shot—depicting the “ruins of the Mulushki Mirza Rabat near Khodzhend,” as the Library of Congress explains it—establishes something of a theme here: works of architecture built from modules of fired clay, their wind-pocked brickwork extracted from the hills around them and transformed by kilns into something artificial, “manmade,” now more artifact than natural object.

Ironically, though, it is exactly their resemblance to the earth that sets the stage for these structures’ later decay, falling apart into mere dust and minerals, little pebbles and grains of sand, literally forming dunes, blending imperceptibly with the landscape. Once they’re gone, it’s as if they were never there.


Domes and extraordinary arches stand in the middle of nowhere, as if left behind by the receding tide of some alien civilization that once slid through, depositing works of architecture in its wake. Like the slime of a snail, these are just residue, empty proof that something much bigger once passed by.

What’s so amazing about these pictures, I’d suggest, is that, among other things, they come with the surreal implication that, beneath or somehow within all the rolling hills and dunes of the surrounding landscape, these sprawling bridges and spinal forms are actually hidden, just waiting there for hooded, 19th-century backpackers to rediscover.

These tiny figures are probably laughing in awe at the anti-gravitational urge that pushes these structures up above the sand line, into the photographs of these seemingly nameless expeditionary teams intent on cataloging every spatially exotic detail they find.


Here, in the ruins of Murza Rabat, seen below, natural hills are actually catacombs of architecture, buildings fooling us for their resemblance to caves, structurally camouflaged as the surface of the earth.

But it’s not the planet—it’s not geology—it’s just architecture: a shaped thing, an artifact, something plastic and formed by human hands. Not hills but abandoned buildings.


In the end, photographs of sand dunes might actually depict scenes of collapsed architecture; that landscape there in front of you might really be a city seen one thousand years after the fact, every wall cracked open and broken into pointless little mounds you’d probably stomp through without even thinking, the desert all around you giving no indication that this all used to be structure.

It used to be arches, bridges, vaults, and domes, huge mosques and cathedrals of human form before crumbling into mindless anthills of mud and clay.


It’s almost like these photographs exist to remind you that everything you now think of as a room—as space, as volume, as creation—will soon just be a suffocation of sand grains packed together in dense, amnesia-ridden hills, landscapes almost laughably quick to forget they once were architecture.

All photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Library of Dust

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

There’s a spectacular new book coming out at the end of this summer called Library of Dust, by photographer David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books. I had the intensely exciting – and flattering – opportunity to write one of the book’s introductory essays; that essay now re-appears below.
I first learned about Library of Dust when I interviewed Maisel back in 2006 for Archinect. In 1913, Maisel explained, an Oregon state psychiatric institution began to cremate the remains of its unclaimed patients. Their ashes were then stored inside individual copper canisters and moved into a small room, where they were stacked onto pine shelves.
After doing some research into the story, Maisel got in touch with the hospital administrators – the same hospital, it turns out, where they once filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and he was granted access to the room in which the canisters were stored.

[Image: Abandoned rooms of the hospital. From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Over time, however, the canisters have begun to react chemically with the human ashes held inside them; this has thus created mold-like mineral outgrowths on the exterior surfaces of these otherwise gleaming cylinders.
There was a certain urgency to the project, then, as “the span of time that these canisters are going to be in this state is really finite,” Maisel explained in the Archinect interview, “and the hospital is concerned that they’re now basically corroding.”

So when I was there just a few weeks ago, photographing for I think the fourth time, there was a proposal being floated that each canister be put into its own individual plastic bag, and then each bag would go into its own individual black box that’s made for containing human ashes. And that would be it.
To me, the arc of the project – if it ends like that, which it seems it probably will – has a certain kind of conceptual logic to it that I appreciate. I appreciate the form and the story of these canisters, that they’re literally breaking down further every day, even between my visits to the hospital. My time of doing it, then, is finite as well.

In order to deal with the fragility of the objects, and to respect their funerary origins, Maisel set up a temporary photography studio inside the hospital itself. There, he began photographing the canisters one by one.
He soon realized that they looked almost earthlike, terrestrial: green and blue coastal forms and island landscapes outlined against a black background. But it was all mineralogy: terrains of rare elements self-reacting in the dark.
Maisel’s photos have now been collected into a gorgeous, and physically gigantic, book. It’s expensive, but well worth checking out.
The following is my own essay for the book; it appears alongside texts by Terry Toedtemeier and Michael Roth.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

• • •

In Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an unnamed man finds himself walking through an unnamed town. Its depopulated spaces are framed most prominently by a Clocktower, a Gate, and an Old Bridge. The nameless man is told almost immediately to visit the town’s central Library – an unspectacular building that “might be a grain warehouse” for all its allure. “What is one meant to feel here?” the man asks himself, crossing a great, empty Plaza. “All is adrift in a vague sense of loss.”

Once inside the Library, the man meets a Librarian. The two of them sit down together, and the man prepares to read dreams. They are not fairy tales written in pen and ink, however, but the psychic residues of long-dead creatures, a gossamer field of electrical energy left behind in the creatures’ bleached skulls. Weathered almost beyond recognition, one such skull is “dry and brittle, as if it had lain in the sun for years.” The skull has been transformed by time into something utterly unlike itself, marked by processes its former inhabitant could not possibly have anticipated.

Each skull is the most minimal of structures, seemingly incapable of bearing the emotions it stores hidden within. One skull in particular “is unnaturally light,” we read, “with almost no material presence. Nor does it offer any image of the species that had breathed within. It is stripped of flesh, warmth, memory.” It is at once organic and mineralogical – living and dead.

The skull is also silent, but this silence “does not reside on the surface, [it] is held like smoke within. It is unfathomable, eternal” – intangible. One might also add invisible. This “smoke” is the imprint of whatever creature once thought and dreamed inside the skull; the skull is an urn, or canister, a portable tomb for the life it once gave shape to.

The Librarian assists our nameless narrator by wiping off a thin layer of dust, and the man’s dream-reading soon begins.


[Images: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Dust is a peculiar substance. Less a material in its own right, with its own characteristics or color, dust is a condition. It is the “result of the divisibility of matter,” Joseph Amato writes in his book Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Dust is a potpourri of ingredients, varied to the point of indefinability. Dust includes “dead insect parts, flakes of human skin, shreds of fabric, and other unpleasing materials,” Amato writes.

Many humans are allergic to dust and spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to rid their homes and possessions of it, yet dust’s everyday conquest of the world’s surfaces never ends. Undefended, a room can quickly be buried in it.

Dust lies, of course, at the very edge of human visibility: it is as small as the unaided eye can see. And dust is not necessarily terrestrial. “Amorphous,” Amato continues, “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe.” But dust is found beyond that earthly sphere, in the abiotic vacuum of interstellar space, a freezing void of irradiated particles, where all dust is the ghostly residue of unspooled stars, astronomical structures reduced to mist.

Strangely representational, the chemistry of this stardust can be analyzed for even the vaguest traces of unknown components; these results, in turn, are a gauge for whatever hells of radiation once glowed, when the universe burned with intensities beyond imagining. Those astral pressures left chemical marks, marks which can be found on dust.

Such dust – vague, unspectacular, bleached and weathered by a billion years of drifting – can be read for its astronomical histories.

Dust, in this way, is a library.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

A geological history of photography remains unwritten. There are, of course, entire libraries full of books about chemistry and its relationship to the photographic process, but what the word chemistry fails to make clear is that these photographic chemicals have a geological origin: they are formed by, in, and because of the earth’s surface.

Resists, stops, acids, metals, fixes – silver-coated copper plates, say, scorched by controlled exposures of light – produce imagery. This is then called photography. Importantly, such deliberate metallurgical burns do not have to represent anything. Photography in its purest, most geological sense is an abstract process, a chemical weathering that potentially never ends. All metal surfaces transformed by the world, in other words, have a literally photographic quality to them. Those transformations may not be controlled, contained, or domesticated, but the result is one and the same.

Photography, in this view, is a base condition of matter.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

David Maisel’s photographs of nearly 110 funereal copper canisters are a mineralogical delight. Bearded with a frost of subsidiary elements, their surfaces are now layered, phosphorescent, transformed. Unsettled archipelagos of mineral growths bloom like tumors from the sides and bottoms – but is that metal one sees, or some species of fungus? The very nature of these canisters becomes suspect. One is almost reluctantly aware that these colors and stains could be organic – mold, lichen, some yeasty discharge – with all the horror such leaking putrescence would entail. Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.

Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?

After all, these ash-filled urns were photographed only because they remain unclaimed; they’ve been excluded from family plots and narratives. A viewer of these images might even be seeing the fate of an unknown relative, eclipsed, denied – treated like so much dust, eventually vanishing into the shells that held them.

It is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

Yet perhaps there is something altogether more triumphant at work here, something glorious, even blessed. There is a profoundly emotional aspect of these objects, a physical statement that we, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal: an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, not one of loss but of reunion.

There is a broader kinship being proclaimed, a more important reclamation occurring: the depths of matter will accept us back. We will be rewelcomed out of living isolation. We are part of these elements, made of the dust that forms structures in space.

Maisel’s photographs therefore capture scenes of fundamental reassurance. The mineralized future of everything now living is our end. Even entombed by metal, foaming in the darkness with uncontrolled growths – there is splendor.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

To disappear into this metallurgical abyss of reactions – photographic, molecular – isn’t a tragedy, or even cause for alarm. There should be no mourning. Indeed, Maisel’s work reveals an abstract gallery of the worlds we can become. Planetary, framed against the black void of Maisel’s temporary studio, the remnant energies of the long dead have become color, miracles of alteration. There are no graves, the photographs proclaim: only sites of transformation.

That is our final, inhuman release.

[Image: From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books].

At the end of winter 2005, David Maisel traveled to a small city in Oregon. There were bridges, plazas, and gates. He was there to locate an old psychiatric hospital – a building now housing violent criminals – because the hospital held something that interested him.

Upon arrival, he met with the head of security, who already knew why Maisel had come. The two of them walked down a nearby corridor, where Maisel was shown what he’d been looking for. It was an isolated room behind a locked door – smaller, less official, than expected.

Within it was the Library of Dust.


• • •

David Maisel’s Library of Dust is available both through Chronicle Books and through Amazon.com – though you can also buy a signed copy through photo-eye.
Don’t miss my earlier interview with David over at Archinect – and, at some point soon, take a long trip through David’s website.

(Thanks to Joseph Antonetti for his help with the images – and to editor Alan Rapp for instigating this book in the first place).