Joshua Dudley Greer is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Photography at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. His series, Point Pleasant, caught my eye some time ago because of its Appalachian connection. The project also stood out to me as an anomaly of sorts of fine-art Appalachian landscape photography. There seems to be no shortage of “gritty*” documentary photography and photojournalistic projects about Appalachia, but I’ve had a hard time finding landscape work outside of the Smoky Mountain or Appalachian Trail genre. (Andy Adams‘ fantastic Looking at the Land exhibition, featured six photographs from Appalachian states as well as an image of Greer’s from California.)
While researching the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse and its connection to the Mothman legend, Greer learned of a nearby TNT complex whose subject matter eventually came to construct the series. He agreed to share some of his work from the series. The Point Pleasant project statement:
The West Virginia Ordnance Works (WVOW) was an explosives manufacturing facility constructed during World War II just outside Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Occupying 8,000 acres along the eastern bank of the Ohio River, the WVOW was built specifically for the production and storage of trinitrotoluene (TNT). At its peak, nearly 500,000 pounds of TNT were produced here each day and stored in a massive array of concrete igloos. The site was officially declared surplus and closed in 1945, after which time much of the land was deeded to the state of West Virginia for the creation of the McClintic State Wildlife Management Area.
A large system of ponds and wetlands was constructed as a habitat for waterfowl, migratory birds and other wildlife species. This area came to be known simply as T.N.T. and developed into a popular hangout for local youth, hunters and fishermen. In the early 1980’s, EPA and state investigations revealed that the groundwater, soil and surface water of T.N.T. were heavily contaminated with explosive nitroaromatic compounds including TNT, trinitrobenzene, and dinitrotoluene, as well as arsenic, lead, beryllium and asbestos. The site was placed on the EPA’s National Priority List in 1983 and extensive cleanup efforts began in 1991. While a large portion of the original facility has been remediated, many of the toxic and explosive contaminants were simply buried on site. The remnants of the WVOW facility survive as relics to our nation’s violent history, while the re-purposed landscape hides much of its true nature just beneath the surface.
The site that remains outside Point Pleasant is a haunting place of beauty, mystery and violence. Using an 8×10 view camera, I am photographing the ruins of a once monumental military-industrial complex as it tangles with the surrounding landscape of forest, fields and swamp. While certain structures offer a glimpse of what has transpired on this site, many of my photographs refer indirectly to violence and environmental neglect through metaphor. The repetition of specific imagery is intended to create a labyrinth of sorts where certain motifs are experienced over and over. The interplay of visibility and invisibility that runs throughout these images alludes to the way in which we commonly misperceive both contamination and beauty through strictly visual means. TNT storage igloos are depicted in a serial typology to convey the massive scale of contemporary weapons production, while the emptiness of the landscape, photographed with a muted palette and diffused light, is meant to evoke a kind of post-apocalyptic environment – one that is at times bleak and somber, yet also strangely resilient and beautiful.
There is a familiarity for me with these photographs. They, on some level, remind me of how outside agencies – public and private – have, for decades upon decades, come to West Virginia with the promise of jobs and a semblance of security only to leave (taking jobs with them) a wake of environmental destruction and a threat of danger to mountain communities. I see similarities in a long-neglected and potentially dangerous landscape. In the last few years, the nation’s awareness of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining has increased exponentially under the watchful eye of communities and a plethora of environmental groups. Greer shows us spaces that are “re-purposed” landscapes, much like the reclaimed mountaintop mining sites in southern West Virginia, and as Greer notes, “these places hide much of their true nature just beneath the suface.” In the case of southern West Virginia, where I grew up (130 miles from Point Pleasant), what was hidden beneath the surface – coal – has been extracted in the most violent of means, often using TNT, and then left flattened, forever altered.
Greer’s ability to showcase the “interplay of visibility and invisibility that runs throughout these images” is a powerful reminder that what isn’t seen is often just as powerful – sometimes more – as what it shown.
1. Station 36, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2012
2. TNT Storage Igloo N1-B, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2009
3. TNT Storage Igloo N1-F, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2009
4. Bones and Branches, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2012
5. Bullets, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
6. TNT Storage Igloo N1-A, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2009
7. TNT Storage Igloo S6-B, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2009
8. North Acid Area, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2010
9. Path S7 (Entrance), Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2012
10. TNT Storage Igloo S7-G, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2010
11. TNT Storage Igloo S8-A, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
12. Path N3, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
13. Pond 34, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
14. TNT Storage Igloo S1-E, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
15. TNT Storage Igloo S3-A, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
16. Pond 3, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2009
17. South Acid Area, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2010
18. TNT Storage Igloo S5-A, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2012
19. TNT Storage Igloo N7-A, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2012
20. TNT Storage Igloos in Pond, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2010
21. Interior, TNT Storage Igloo S1-A, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
22. Interior, TNT Storage Igloo S7-B, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2010
23. Interior (Exploded), TNT Storage Igloo S7-F, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
24. Campfire, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2009
25. Dead Deer, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2010
26. Drag Trail, Point Pleasant, West Virginia, 2011
All photographs © Joshua Dudley Greer.
*I used the word “gritty” sparingly, intending to reflect the played out notion of how Appalachia has been portrayed.