Why do we look at beautiful pictures of discarded things? Decay and decrepitude, things that have come apart: the Colosseum. Machu Picchu. Angkor Wat. The Anasazi cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly. From Pliny to today’s ruin pornographers, westerners have long gazed deep into history’s dustbin and felt themselves stirred by emotion, from victorious triumphalism at having prospered where others faded, to pathos, wistfulness, even a sense of critical alarm directed at the current course of empire. Overwhelmingly, suggests the literary critic Susan Stewart, scenes of ruined vastness offer viewers a chance to bring the past into the present, to reanimate the dead, to make whole again that which is cracked or crumpled, if only through an act of imagination — and so to win a small victory against the void that awaits us all. 1
Scabby grease, a frozen bearing. The detritus of abandoned oil fields. What’s the difference between ruins and junk?
It strikes me, though, as I gaze at Meghan L.E. Kirkwood’s series of photographs shot in the abandoned oil fields of Caddo Parish in northwest Louisiana, that eye-catching ruins are usually grand or gaudy, feats of architecture and engineering meant to last forever. Kirkwood’s subjects are different: horse-headed pumpjacks rusting in the woods, scabby grease and a frozen bearing, pipes, wires, cables, weeds. What’s the difference between ruins and junk?
Kirkwood spent five years photographing the boom in the Bakken oil fields along the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in the pandemic fall of 2020, she packed her large-format camera and drove south, to begin what has become another ongoing project, Orphan Wells. 2
It’s fiddly work, drilling a well. First comes the wellbore, a hole chewed deep into the earth, sometimes through tens of thousands of feet of rock — though in Louisiana, in 2020, newly drilled onshore oil wells descended an average of only 2,375 feet. 3 Next, the wellbore must be lined with a metal casing, which prevents cave-ins and is supposed to protect groundwater from contamination. Finally, smaller diameter tubing is snaked down the casing, deep into the reservoir of crude. Then the pumpjacks start, those contraptions monotonously dipping up and down, 20 times per minute, bringing up the oil until they’re stilled by falling profit margins. When that inevitable day arrives, when what remains in the ground is no longer worth the cost of hauling it out, then the owners have a decision to make. They can plug the well, a job that can cost $30,000. 4 Or, since Louisiana doesn’t require well operators to clean up their mess, they can abandon it to the public’s care. As of March 31, 2021, the state was home to 4,525 orphaned wells. 5
These wells are not dry. They’re just unprofitable — and remain ruinously productive, belching methane and leaking oil and brine into the aquifer.
But these wells are not dry. They are just unprofitable. And they remain ruinously productive, belching methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, and leaking oil and brine into the aquifer, there to be taken up by all of us, human and non-human, who drink and bathe or make a home in or on the water.
None of which is visible in Kirkwood’s photographs, suffused as they are with radiance. When I asked her about the clear clean luminosity in her prints, she mentioned the size of her negatives — four by five inches — and the fine-grained film she favors; she spoke about how chemical photography captures light differently than digital, and the quality of glass in her large-format lenses. But, as I’ve spent weeks gazing at her pictures, I’ve come to think that what’s at work is modal and atmospheric, though nurtured by the cumbrous difficulty of large-format photography, with its lack of focusing sensors and automatic meters, its costly film that must be loaded, sheet by sheet, into a special holder placed inside the camera and then protected from stray light sources both before and after the shot is taken. There are no snapshots with a large-format camera. “It slows you down,” Kirkwood told me. “I think a little bit more. And then you have that incubation period between photographing and developing.”
The luminosity that I perceive — I think it’s not only optical, but the effect of something layered deep in Kirkwood’s sensibility, something that takes time to emerge, and which is marked by the slight madness that seeks to make pictures of what can’t quite be seen. The derelict pumpjacks and rusted-out storage tanks carry traces of … what, exactly? Of chemicals percolating and gasses venting, certainly, but also of labor; there’s a still-evident musculature even if decayed, in the shapes of these machines, prints of the hands who tended them. We read, too, the traces of an international economic and political system in which each one of us is stuck, a worldview in which profit comes to those who walk away; a world where, it is assumed, what you can’t see can’t hurt.
But then consider the scrubby, grass-and-wildflower overgrown landscapes; the woods where a tree shoulders a pumpjack aside; and another where cypresses have survived and nothing of oil culture remains visible, save a branch-snagged wire — these are images of a world without us, a world reclaimed. But rather than settle into the post-apocalyptic, Kirkwood shows us, elsewhere in the series, a perfectly maintained field serving Oil City’s self-promotion; the odd bit of piping that sprouts from a scene of telephone poles, power lines, a cell tower, and trailer homes; fancy king-cabbed and lift-kitted pickup trucks parked at the boat ramp with their empty trailers, hinting at the petroleum-derived common pleasure of driving to the launch and spending a motorized day on the water.
The air in Kirkwood’s work is radiant with a multitude of stories half told and histories glimpsed, with intersecting tangents and connections. I have come to think that her photographs’ luminosity is an invitation to remember and, where memory fails, to imagine how thoroughly bound each of us is to oil, how thoroughly connected through it. Rather than gape at someone else’s ruins or ignore the junk at our feet, Kirkwood recalls for us that these are our landscapes, our orphans, our responsibilities, and we live our lives among them.