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Gallery View: “The Black Land” photography exhibition documents legacy of coal country in NEPA

“The Black Land,” is a stark journey through remnants of the coal industry-related landscapes of Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) seen through the lens of Ed Dougert.

The haunting black and white photographs are on display through March 30, The Nurture Nature Center, Easton.

“This exhibit not only reflects the magnitude of industry that once was in this region but also to the tremendous effort the photographer has made in his 25-year journey of documenting these remains,” says Nurture Nature Center Art Director Keri L. Maxfield.

Dougert’s photographic odyssey began in 1999. He continues capturing the legacy of the anthracite coal mining industry throughout a seven-county region, which includes Dauphin, Schuylkill, Carbon, Northumberland, Columbia, Luzerne and Lackawanna counties.

The exhibit is in three parts. “Part 1: Remnants of the Great Anthracite Industry” focuses on abandoned mining infrastructure such as exposed shafts, breakers, powerhouses, miners’ homes and mountains of mine waste.

“Part 2: Architectural Legacy of the Economic Boom and Decline” reflects the towns that thrived and crumbled in the region. The buildings that once housed businesses, eateries, and places of worship are forlornly featured.

“Part 3: Transformation - The Social and Environmental Impact of 200 Years of Mining” provides stark views of some of Pennsylvania’s 287,000 acres of unreclaimed land strewn with tons of tailings and toxic chemicals and 5,500 miles of waterways polluted with acidic mine drainage.

There is a great amount of research involved in this project including Dougert’s pouring over old maps found in mine bureau archives.

According to Dougert, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has reported more than 91,400 acres of high-priority mining sites have been reclaimed, 1,880 shafts and portals were sealed and $142.8 million has been dedicated to treating waterways degraded by abandoned mine drainage. There is much mitigation yet to be done, Dougert says.

He pointed out there are 39 active mine fires in the Commonwealth and many buildings sit on top of unstable ground that is honeycombed with abandoned shafts.

Dougert takes snapshots of the various sites with a point-and-shoot digital camera for reference. The final images are captured with various film cameras, including a panoramic camera for taking the wider shots.

He often returns to a site at night and illuminates his subject with strobe lights to enhance contrast. The black and white work represents how he “interprets” these scenes, taking them “one step away from reality.”

“My family is from up there,” says the Philadelphia-based photographer. “I spent a lot of time up there as I was growing up and I still have relatives up there.” Dougert says childhood summer visits to Schuylkill County drew him back to coal country.

“As I became interested in photography, the graphic appeal became apparent,” says Dougert. “Historically, I was interested from a personal perspective, because my family had a lot of coal miners in it.”

Among the architecture of declining towns that Dougert photographed in the anthracite region is “Buildings - Lansford“ (2023; darkroom processed photographic prints on silver gelatin paper, 10 in. x 30 in.), depicting decaying commercial building façades.

Dougert cites painter Edward Hopper as an inspiration, as well as photographers Joel Sternfeld, George H. Harlan and Josef Sudek.

Dougert is self-taught and considers his film and digital cameras as “tools.” The silver-gelatin printing process he employs is what’s important to him.

“I want to do portraits of people who are trying to make a positive contribution to improvement, socially and economically, to the area,” says Dougert.

He plans to chronicle and share their stories as another component in his ongoing project to document “The Black Land” of NEPA.

The Nurture Nature Center is an interactive museum with three galleries.

“The Black Land,” through March 30, The Nurture Nature Center, 518 Northampton St., Easton. Hours: Noon - 4 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and by appointment. Closed Sunday through Tuesday, Thursday through Friday. 610-253-4432; https://nurturenaturecenter.org/

“Gallery View” is a column about artists, exhibitions and galleries. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

PRESS PHOTO BY ED COURRIER Ed Dougert with “Buildings - Lansford“ (2023; darkroom processed photographic prints on silver gelatin paper, 10 in. x 30 in.), “The Black Land,” The Nurture Nature Center, Easton.