"Aquifer Test "(2006). 30.7” x 17”. Digital composite, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.
SciArt Magazine: While your current photographic work addresses the interaction between human beings and the earth, what initially drew you to studying geology?
Jonathon Wells: I spent my youth outdoors - hiking, camping, and skiing in the mountains of Vermont. I constantly looked at hills, valleys, and streams and wondered to myself why the landscape had formed the way it had, and I remember how excited I felt when I was first shown evidence of a fold through the Green Mountains. During my first years in college, it was the geology and environmental studies courses that interested me the most. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a career in geology to be able to work in a job where I would spend more time in the outdoors than in an office and where I would learn more about the earth.
SciArt: As a scientist, what prompted your desire to start making photo-geologic composites, to express geological issues artistically?
JW: I feel that I have traveled intertwined paths in science and art. While working full time as a geologist, I periodically spent evenings and weekends taking drawing, painting, or photography classes at continuing adult education centers and community colleges. I have had a love for art, especially landscape and nature paintings and photographs, since I was a boy. I was often struck by the patterns, textures, and colors that I saw in rock and sediments while working on sites as a geologist.
As a scientist, I love to collect, review, interpret, and present data. I find it exciting to understand the framework of underlying bedrock and groundwater flow. After spending time sketching geologic cross sections of a site late one night at work, I recall thinking that I wished the general public could also visualize the subsurface similarly to the way geologists do.
"Minneapolis – St. Paul" (2011). 30.3” x 74.9”. Digital composite, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.
The more I studied the geology of sites, the more I became interested in the ‘stories’ that I discovered. There are stories of geologic history, human history; in the rocks, I could read the fate and transport of chemical releases, the path of water moving through the water cycle, and the flow of groundwater to a pumping well. With my own knowledge and the interpretations of myself and of other geologists at hand, I could then often visualize the cross-sections that told these stories. As time went on, I continued to have the feeling that I wanted the general public to see the same subsurface geologic settings that I could see.
I had devoured artistic renderings of the subsurface in school textbooks and in the trade magazines that crossed my desk at work. I studied the images in the advertisements for equipment used in groundwater remediation projects at hazardous waste sites. I was drawn to the practice of three-dimensional modeling of subsurface contaminant plumes below industrial sites. I loved sketches of geologic scenes, depositional environments, block diagrams, etc. In natural history museums, it was the displays of geology that held my attention the longest.
Soon after attending a one-week nature photography workshop, I saw a call for applications to a one-year photography certificate program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City. I applied, forgot about it, and, months later, received a letter of acceptance. It was a risky step to jump off my geology career path and attend photography school, but the urge to express myself in an artistic manner was strong enough for me to take the leap.
The year in photography school was wonderful. My teachers encouraged me to play and experiment in photography using my geologic knowledge, work experience, and passion for landscape art. During that year I saw a diorama of the geology, water table, and water well below a farm at the American Museum of Natural History. In retrospect, this diorama probably had an influence on my later artistic endeavors.
Having recently worked on many sites where chemicals had been released and had contaminated the soil and bedrock below, I wanted to make a photographic image that would display a contaminant plume migrating in the groundwater. First, I thought of photographing the land above a hazardous material release and placing a geologic, black-line cross section below the landscape image. This evolved into taking photographs of the geologic formations that were referenced in the cross section and placing them below the landscape. That was the moment of discovery for me. It seemed to have the promise of looking viable as art with strong conceptual and illustrative components.
"Boston Basin" (2005). 25.0”
x 74.9”. Digital composite, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.
SciArt: How do you choose the various sites you’ve created composites of in both your “Urban Series” and your “Environmental Series”?
JW: Selection of my first sites grew out of my geologic work. It was exciting and freeing to artistically express my geologic experiences. Having worked on many gasoline station sites where gasoline had leaked from underground storage tanks and contaminated the subsurface, I chose to create a picture of what it looked like.
The image, Gasoline Station, shows a plume of gasoline migrating away from a former leaking underground storage tank. Bright colors represent 10, 100, and 1,000 parts per billion (ppb) of benzene (a compound in gasoline) dissolved in groundwater. White groundwater monitoring wells are visible. The photographs of the sand and gravel layers were taken at nearby places where these geologic elements were exposed on the surface.
Similarly, in my "Environmental Series,” I created Aquifer Test because I wanted to depict the setting of what such a test looks like and conjure up some of the feelings that I have experienced while conducting these tests. The image reveals the pumping of groundwater from a bedrock well during a 72-hour period. There are multiple devices used to measure the flow rate and the depth of the water in the well for later analysis to determine whether the well will provide the water necessary for a proposed assisted living facility.
I turned to the images in the “Urban Series” because for a time I lived in more urban settings, and I have always had a heightened sense of awareness for places where I live or visit. The geologic make-up and geologic history of places are often on my mind.
"New York - Central Park" (2004). 15.2” x 74.8”. Digital composite, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.
In the case of New York City, I took many walks around the city while attending ICP. In my childhood, I intimately knew the woods and natural world surrounding my Vermont home in the Green Mountains. In the city, I was fascinated by the juxtaposition between the feeling of being on a city street and the feeling of being in the woods of Central Park.
Both scenes are portrayed in New York – City Block and New York – Central Park, respectively. In Boston, I began with an attempt to view the downtown area in a similar fashion to New York City. Through the process, I felt the desire to “step back” and better understand how the entire city and metro area was situated within a geologic basin. In the end, I selected a view that looks west and represents four miles in depth and 16 miles in width. The tall buildings of downtown Boston may be seen in the middle of the image.
Then, while living in Minneapolis, I wanted to create a view of the sedimentary rock underlying the broad, relatively flat Upper Midwest and to consider the Mississippi River and relationship between the Twin Cities. Because of my interest in groundwater, I also wanted to display the groundwater wells that pump from multiple aquifers beneath the metro area. The image portrays a depth of 1,400 feet below the surface.
"New York – City Block" (2004). 22.0” x 76.1”. Digital composite, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.
Gasoline Station (2005). 11.8” x 72.8”. Digital composite, archival inkjet print. Image courtesy of the artist.
SciArt: Each photo-geologic composite piece you make requires months of investigation; can you describe this process a bit?
JW: The process of making these images travels along interwoven paths of science and art. After I select a site and am able to visualize the underlying geologic structure, I consider the overall composition, taking into account aesthetic and logistical factors. I research intensively the geology of the site, looking at reports, maps, and field trip logs that have been written about the area and region. Crisscrossing the area by car, I consider views and access to the optimal locations. I then photograph the land surface from various vantage points on land or from the air.
The subsurface framework is drawn from either geologic cross sections that have been completed in the past at the site or on a geologic cross section that I create using available data or a combination of both. I then research locations where the geologic units are exposed at land surface and take photographs of each rock and sediment type.
The photographs of land surface and geologic units are then imported to a computer and moved into position to create the digital composites that you see. I began photographing with a medium-format film camera and scanning the negatives for use in the computer. While making the image of the Boston Basin, I began for the first time to take hundreds of photographs to make the single image. It then became clear that I needed to switch to using digital photography to save on time and on the cost of processing and scanning film.
SciArt: What do you hope your viewers can gain from your work?
JW: I hope that my viewers will gain three things from my work. First, I hope they will absorb some of my fascination and passion for the earth and its beauty and diversity - signs of dynamic processes at work. Second, I hope that these works will lead all of us to exercise our ability to be more aware and open-minded. Seeing what we can’t typically see - the earth below our feet - may further open our consciousness of how we interact with the earth. Third, it is my wish that a portion of my passion and awareness will be transmitted through these images and encourage individual and collective action to treat the earth and all life on the planet with greater care and respect.