Marble and granite are among our most famous exports. When we see TV images of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, we are looking at pieces of Vermont.
What happens, though, when we see the stone itself as art?
That’s one of the questions posed by the compact, compelling exhibit of Edward Burtynsky photographs of Vermont quarries, on display until April 22 at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer best known for his scenes of environmental destruction, such as arsenic and cyanide waste pouring from mining sites.
But in this exhibit we see work from when he was on the verge of exploding onto the art scene — a time, according to co-curator Pieter Broucke, that was pivotal to his development as an artist.
Burtynsky (pronounced burr-TIN-ski) began photographing Vermont quarries in the 1990s. He was transitioning from a semi-documentary style – which depicted the flawed beauty of human impacts on the planet — to something darker.
What followed was what Broucke and others have called “the toxic sublime” – studies of tangled, foreboding piles of discarded tires, compacted oil field drums, abandoned ships on the beaches of Bangladesh.
In this Vermont exhibit of semi-gigantic images, though, we find more beauty than beast.
Burtynsky takes us to stare down deeply into a green-marble quarry in Rochester that glows like an inverted skyscraper.
In another photo, the cables and machinery of mining – even the miner’s Port-a-Potties – are dwarfed by magnificent blocks of gray-white Barre granite as big as bank buildings.
We see an abandoned marble site in Rutland, where nature’s greens and browns have all but absorbed the mining scars. What’s left are gently undulating walls that recall the Anasazi ruins of the American Southwest.
Why should we care about photos like these?
It’s partly because they remind us that quarries have shaped what we see today, such as the Middlebury Marbleworks. Following Eben Judd’s 1802 discovery of a pocket of fine marble at the Middlebury Falls, the invention there of a machine to cut stone with water-powered saws was adopted both in North America and Europe.
By inviting us to see the stone anew, Burtynsky also reminds us that quarries are not just charming remnants of old Vermont, gone to secret swimming holes and fenced-off No Man’s Lands: They are woven into the geology we drive over, our natural environment, even our ethnic culture.
Quarries carry the scars of monumental human activity, but they are also part of our workaday world. They are as contemporary as the granulate marble being hauled, at this very moment, out of the enormous hole in the ground that is the OMYA quarry in Middlebury.
When Burtynsky was in Vermont, a quarry administrator pointed him to the quarries of Carrara, Italy, which have for 2,000 years supplied marble, including the stone worked by Michelangelo.
The museum exhibit includes several views of these Tuscan mines. But a more interesting piece of the Italian connection is found in the historical photographs of Italian quarry workers who immigrated to Vermont for work beginning in the 1880s.
The most revelatory part of the exhibit catalog, in fact, comes in the form of an essay by Ilaria Brancoli Busdraghi, a Swiss-Italian social historian who teaches at the college.
Brancoli Busdraghi recounts the journeys of skilled Italian artisans to Proctor and Barre. They came there to shape marble and granite into gravestones, mausoleums, and architectural details that were shipped across America.
Her essay reminds us that these workers brought with them their families, food, culture, and political leanings.
In sharp contrast to today’s world where “liberal” has become a dirty word, the Italian immigrants of Barre were divided between the more mainstream Socialists and a solid corps of Anarchists.
Their fiery debates echoed through the Socialist Hall in Barre. That building is now on the National Register of Historic Sites and is one of the few structures so honored for its ties to the labor movement that shaped 19th and 20th century America.
It was a different story down in Proctor, which is named for mining magnate Redfield Proctor. He ran a company town where political activity among the Italian immigrants was rigorously suppressed.
I wonder how many of today’s progressive Middlebury College students know that the Proctor dining hall and ski trail were named after a notoriously conservative man who, writes Brancoli Busdraghi, “not only made money but also controlled the lives of his employees.”
Proctor’s loss, though, was Barre’s gain. The more political of the skilled Italian stoneworkers migrated to Barre and made a name for the self-proclaimed Granite Center of the World.
Burtynsky’s photos don’t show us these resonances. But they have served as the occasion for a marvelous exhibit and accompanying catalog, which surveys the history, art and geology of our quarried landscape.
Ultimately, of course, it all comes back to the photos.
My favorite is an abandoned section of the E.L Smith Quarry, in Barre. Unlike so many of the other scenes, this one doesn’t show a breathtaking earth hole or a pool of limpid green water that’s begging for a swim.
It’s pretty much all about the horizontal rock — white slabs of it streaked in plunging vertical black lines by water and time. More abstract painting than photograph.
The only context is provided at the edges. A line of autumn-colored trees squiggles along the top right-hand corner. And there’s a slice, too, of cerulean blue sky at the top left.
If you squint your eyes and use a bit of imagination, you can see that the blue sky is shaped a bit like the state of Vermont.
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