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Industrial Wastelands Surprisingly Close to Home

Patterns in waste ash at coal fired electrical generation plant, Moncks Corner, SC, 2009

Patterns in waste ash at coal fired electrical generation plant, Moncks Corner, SC, 2009. Photograph by J. Henry Fair. 30 x 45 inches (unframed). Fair #:3596-105

When we began planning for J. Henry Fair’s exhibition, Industrial Scars, several years ago we knew his images would be striking on many levels. First, his large-scale photographs are indeed artistically beautiful, both in composition and in color. The second striking factor is his subject matter—coal ash, hog fecal waste, radioactive fertilizer mining waste, and the Gulf oil spill. But if these factors are not eye opening enough, the locations of the sites Fair photographs from the air may draw your attention.

For instance, this image of coal ash waste —reminiscent of a lunar landscape—is in Moncks Corner. If you are wondering, “what is coal ash?” It is the ash captured from coal fired electrical plants and stored long-term in impoundments. Coal ash contains contaminants including arsenic, lead, and mercury, and according to Fair, a typical 500 megawatt coal burning power station produces over 125,000 tons of ash per year.

Since Fair’s message is one of conservation and sustainability, you will also notice when you visit the exhibition that he prefers his images remain unglazed. This is because the process of producing and disposing of plastic glazing materials can be harmful to the environment. Fair designed the blonde frames showcasing his photographs and they are made from a sugar maple tree that died in his yard. The exhibition features images taken of industrial sites throughout the Southeast and Fair reveals surprising views of environmental wastelands that are usually hidden from sight.

—Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art

J. Henry Fair: Industrial Scars is on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art through March 27, 2011.

Video: J. Henry Fair talks about what he aims for in his aerial photographs of industrial scars on the American landscape. Courtesy of

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