SANTA FE, N.M. — Over six weeks, Mary Peck traveled thousands of miles across North America.
Starting in Santa Fe, the photographer drove to the tar sands of northeastern Alberta. From there, she traveled along the 1,200-mile proposed route of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, photographing the landscape – particularly the countless bodies of water – along the path spanning two provinces and three states.
The pipeline, which was first proposed more than a decade ago, would carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily from Canada to U.S. refineries. The project, however, has been hit with major delays and opposition from activist groups and individuals concerned about the environmental impact of construction and potential spills.
“It’s a stunning landscape,” Peck said about the land the pipeline would be built through. “I was concerned about the landscape, the impact that construction of a pipeline like that would have, and also concerned about climate change in broadest sense and the impact of fossil fuels …,” she said.
An exhibition with selections from “The Spaces in Between: Following the Route of the Keystone XL” opens tonight at 5. Gallery (“5 Point Gallery”). The exhibition will stay up until May 24.
Max Baseman, director of 5., described the work as “really still, quiet and fantastic from an artistic standpoint.” And at the same time, it offers a compelling backstory.
“For me, both artistically and environmentally if you will, it’s an important body of work,” Baseman said. “It calls to one’s conscience a responsibility in the world.”
The project differed from many of Peck’s other photography series over the past several decades.
Peck, who has been based in Santa Fe since 1974 – and worked previously under photographers Paul Caponigro and Laura Gilpin – has often been drawn to lands that are protected, “if not absolutely pristine.”
“And this was absolutely not that,” she said. “It’s rural North America, and so it’s populated, although sparsely. These places, these little rivers, watersheds and big rivers, are places that are more common to people. In whatever state they’re in, it’s not a place like a national park or a foreign country where you go to see the views and the big scenery. These are part of people’s everyday lives. I think there was a real poignancy of seeing all these water bodies along the way and thinking how integral they are to people’s lives.”
The photographs are published in color, contrary to the black-and-white style Peck has used for many of her previous works. She explained the artistic choice by saying black and white can sometimes bring a “distance” between the image and the viewer that color doesn’t always allow.
“Sometimes, there’s an immediacy to color that I think seemed to match the urgency that I felt about this situation and the threat of the pipeline,” said Peck.
Peck has been paying attention to the controversial pipeline plan since it was proposed in 2008. She considered a trip along the route for a while. When the Obama administration turned down a permit for pipeline construction, Peck didn’t feel the same urgency that grew after the 2016 election and the Trump administration took control.
The status of the pipeline is up in the air. On March 15, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling barring the TransCanada Corp. from working on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline during ongoing legal challenges. On the flip side, on March 29, President Donald Trump approved a new permit for the pipeline. A federal judge had blocked an initial permit Trump signed in March 2017.
“It’s like this back and forth and back forth, and it’s going to be in the courts for a long time,” said Peck. “These groups that have opposed it, the tribes, they’re not going to stop.”
From April to early June in 2017, Peck traveled between 3,000-4,000 miles, including her initial drive from Santa Fe to the tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada’s primary oil mining spot. Peck said oil extraction there has had drastic effects on local wildlife. The Keystone XL pipeline would begin in nearby Hardisty.
Peck continued her journey through other parts of Alberta and then on to Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and southern Nebraska, where the pipeline would end in Steele City and connect with the existing Keystone I.
She couldn’t take the direct pipeline route as published by TransCanada – parts of the path go through private lands – so she kept to the trail as best she could by staying downstream of the route, making the journey slightly longer.
That choice led her to focus on bodies of water. “In part because I knew it was accurate that those places would be impacted by the pipeline, and also because of the significance that a leak in the pipeline would have on those waters, which impact people far beyond the immediate parameters of the route,” she explained.
In the U.S. alone, she said, there are an estimated 1,000 bodies of water, big and small, and including seasonal creeks, ponds and streams, that exist along the route. She photographed areas along high-profile features, such as the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, and lesser-known, but significant, waterways, including Nebraska’s Niobrara and Little Blue rivers.
Although many of the bodies of water Peck visited aren’t on most people’s radar, they’re still a part of the local population’s everyday lives.
“These places, they’re personal and specific to a small town or a place, and not on anybody’s map,” said Peck.
Going through the images she’ll have in the show, Peck pointed out her photograph of Gooseberry Lake, a tiny spot on the edge of a provincial park in Alberta’s rural farm country. Others are of Durkee Lake just outside of Faith, South Dakota, a city with a population of about 400, and Beaver Creek, which runs across Boone County, Nebraska. Some locations didn’t even have names, or at least ones Peck could find out about.
“It really means we could never really know the impact it (the pipeline) could have for all the people along that route,” she said. “Some of (the impacts) are known and stated, but then there’s the less tangible: what it means for someone to take a walk along a river, or a family to go have a picnic along a river. It’s more about the everyday and seemingly small uses of these places.”
Peck said the places she photographed also have an importance that cannot necessarily be measured. When she started her trip, she recalled, she was driven by deep “disturbance” over the election and the drastic consequences that could emerge from the proposed pipeline.
But as she exited the tar sands country and spent the next several weeks traveling along the water, she began to feel better. That disturbed feeling, in a way, started to dissipate.
“It just kind of emphasized how important those places are – in contrast to the big protected national parks or areas that are set aside as reserves – these places are healing to people,” said Peck.
“So it can’t always be quantified in terms of water for farmers or people or even clean drinking water. It’s just the existence of these places that is important to our well-being.”