Marcellus Shale Documentary Project at Pittsburgh Filmmakers October 11, 2012 to January 6, 2013

Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Six artists travel throughout Pennsylvania and become photojournalists, meeting with individuals of a multitude of perspectives on the title topic, attempting to document an honest telling of the effects of the drilling on the communities, as well as debunk myths that surround Marcellus Gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project. The exhibit features photos from the artists alongside placards featuring relevant information presented in an academic and emotionless fashion; the photographs bring life and detail to the statements.

The artists individually take a fair and balanced approach, successfully telling the unfortunate stories of a well-represented subset of community members and representing their opinions on the issue. The overall lack of factual evidence and input from the industry’s side of the topic fails to provide a truly balanced and unbiased discussion of the topic. The overall message trends toward an anti-industry one that appears to victimize all persons located anywhere near drilling sites. Families living in trailers were forced to move; people from a variety of locations claimed to have had their water and air polluted by industry to an unlivable level.

While actual harm may have occurred for some, the artists seem to suggest that many of these “victims” are over-reacting or misinformed. Beside Nina Berman’s photographs are descriptions featuring language that subtly suggest exactly that – prefacing any statement made by those interviewed with words and phrases like “claim”, “they say”, and “allegedly as a consequence of nearby gas drilling.”

One problem with avoiding skew in the discussion is that very little information and research on the topic is not biased in one direction or the other. In The Arithmetic Of Shale Gas, a paper discussing the costs and benefits of Shale gas, Yale economics graduates (many of whom are in the energy industry) calculate all expected costs of the drilling, and concluded that the $250 million a year in damages against the $100 billion in savings makes the “economic benefits… exceed costs to the community by 400-to-1.” While these statistics may be accurate, research conducted in-industry could be just as slanted as the information found in The FACTS about FRACKING, the informational handout found at the beginning of the exhibit, which fails to mention one benefit or positive statement in its entirety.

Noah Addis creates a family centric aesthetic on his wall, placing (in order) an image of an older woman, piping being installed in the wilderness, a young girl wearing a shirt featuring the American flag in a heart, more piping, and an older gentleman on the end. Aesthetic choices like these shift the conversation to one direction. And while it’s artistic expression on the individual level, the collaborators as one entity provided more support to one side of the debate, creating a message that doesn’t match their statement. The deficiency of facts, statistics, and other research-based information makes the exhibit as a whole a means of opening discussion rather than debunking myths and educating on the topic of Shale Drilling.

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Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

In Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, currently on view at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, six documentary photographers put faces to the “no” (as well as the “yes”) to shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania.  By capturing it as a hazard to American values such as the home and family, curator Laura Domencic exposes drilling as a threat to Pennsylvanians livelihoods through the emblematic display of Americans fighting for their values in a world in which the meaning of patriotism is questionable.

Throughout the exhibit, many people are photographed with their cats or dogs: ‘man’s best friend’ and a symbol of home and loyalty; yet in the photographs pets are seen exploring lands contaminated by the results of drilling near family homes. Nina Berman’s photographs show protesters waiting outside the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.  Their hands are pressed against the glass, Pittsburgh pride apparent in the black and yellow of a woman’s shirt, while red white and blue signs crowd most of the photo.  Noah Addis addresses the American dream most directly with his much larger than life portraits. Jeannie, Skylar, and Fred look solemnly at the viewer, eyes following you around the gallery. They have been forced to leave home, can no longer drink once potable water, and their families are plagued by illness. “I’ve been through hell” Jeannie is quoted as saying. All three are dressed in blue. The small girl sports a t-shirt with a white and red striped heart in the middle of her chest, while Jeannie and Fred on either side are dressed in navy collared shirts.  These photographs are undeniably speaking to the average American: the blue collar worker with the want to succeed through rugged individualism.

Images of farmland, once viewed as sublime when depicted in artworks, are now tainted by the presence of a rig or a commentary telling of the contamination of the should be pure and perfect land you are gazing at. While traditionally landscapes of the countryside are images of tranquility and retreat, these are polluted with underlying stories of fear, denial, and helplessness.

Most consistent among all of the photographers work is the issue of water contamination.

Nina Berman illustrates this most literally in her photographs outside of the main gallery space.  A mug of fizzing, white water in a mug, bubbling its acidic greeting to the viewer in a large format photograph, is clutched between bright purple fingernails, adding to the ‘poisoned’ effect of the picture.  Another photograph zooms in on the face of a small boy as he peers at something out of view of the camera; his closeness to the lense reveals a rash spread across his face caused by using contaminated water.

This exhibition is the local.  It is the small town, the family farm, the all-american family.  In a way, it outlines the quintessential nightmare.  If home and sustenance are contaminated by government endorsed projects, who will hear your protests? When nature and home turn foreign, dangerous, and harm you and your children, this is the point of pure fear and desperate hopelessness.

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The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, occupying several rooms of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, explores “fracking” – a type of gas drilling that can be especially damaging to the environment – in Pennsylvania through the lens of those affected by the process. Farmers, trailer park residents, gas company employees and their neighbors all make an appearance in the form of photographs and testimonials. Featuring the work of several photographers – including Martha Rial, Brian Cohen, and Noah Addis – the show returns to several images again and again: close-ups of those adversely affected by the drilling, industrial equipment bunched up against farmhouses, and drilling towers marring some idyllic Pennsylvania landscape. That Laura Domencic, the curator of the show, claims “arguments can be made on both sides of this debate and this project is not about taking one of them” does the exhibition as a whole a great disservice. If there are two sides to this debate, it’s never quite clear what arguments the gas companies could possibly make other than the usual MONEYMONEYMONEY. (One of the exhibit’s placards relates how fracking brought nearly four hundred million dollars into Pennsylvania last year.) The fact that the show claims, however, a dispassionate distance when it so clearly assumes a position makes the viewer uncertain as to how to approach the exhibit. If the exhibition was disingenuous once, it can be disingenuous again, encouraging the viewer the approach the show’s photographs and information with a good deal of incredulity.

Upon passing the concession stand, one encounters a series of photographs displaying individuals dealing with the side effects of fracking. One woman cups a mug of grimy water, while another picture features a man at the edge of a lake – its accompanying placard relates the difficulty this man finds in securing drinkable water. Conspicuously absent from these early photos is any evidence of the actual gas-drilling. When the viewer does get a glimpse of the drilling equipment, it appears as a supernatural glow through the forest, like some type of X-Files alien encounter. The unnatural gleam of bronze and steel, coupled with insect leg-like piping, imbues the fracking equipment with menacing qualities, especially when viewed next to photographs and descriptions of the machinery’s devastating effects on the residents of the surrounding area. After a time, a certain dichotomy becomes clear, with the fracking equipment acquiring an abstract, terrorizing abstract and the individual portraits assuming a noble, almost tragic air. These farmers and trailer-park retirees have lived in the area for generations, and will be there long after the gas companies have left. And while certain gas company executives can drink a glass full of the chemicals used in fracking, it is the residents of Pennsylvania who have to drink such contaminated water every day, an idea summed up quite nicely in a photograph of a woman speaking with a gas company worker. A caption beside the photo describes how, while relations between Pennsylvania natives and workers have been cordial, the workers don’t stick around long enough for a real relationship to develop.

Works Cited

“Bottoms Up: Energy Exec Drinks Fracking Fluid.” NBC 6 South Florida. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

“Marcellus Shale Documentary Project.” Pittsburgh Filmmakers. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.

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The Marcellus Shale Project at Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Fracking: a slang term describing the extraction of natural gas from rock formations, using pressurized liquid to break through shale.  Such a simple definition inspires complicated reactions from a wide range of people who are affected by this drilling process, which is currently used throughout Pennsylvania, but an exhibition at Pittsburgh Filmmakers utilizes art as a medium to offer a new perspective on the effects of the process itself.

            The Marcellus Shale Project, curated by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts director Lauren Domencic, creates a visual narrative that portrays the processes and effects of the controversial natural gas drilling that is drastically altering the lives of rural residents of Pennsylvania.  Six photographers spent a year traveling throughout regions being drilled, capturing both protests and support for the drilling, displaced families, drill workers, and the natural environment itself.  The techniques and style of the photographs vary by photographer, in turn altering their effect upon the viewer.

Nina Berman’s work reflects the tense relationship between rural PA residents and their environment through her photographs, capturing rig flares igniting the forest skyline, and the reflection of a woman and her children in their mobile home.  Berman’s photograph of a young girl blowing bubbles exemplifies the important role that text has in this exhibition.  The photograph would seem almost idyllic if not for the caption next to it, which states “Paige Simons lives without drinking or bath water”.

Lynn Johnson’s photographs are solely in black and white and feature human subjects more prominently than the environment, focusing on the lives and relationships that have become complicated by the drilling.  She shows Reverend Leah Shade hugging the son of a gas worker, hinting at the criticism and social backlash that families of workers must face.  She captures the tragedy of such displacements through her photograph of an elderly woman, Betty Whyte, standing in the doorway of her now empty mobile home, which she was forced to sell for a pitiful compensation.  Johnson’s focus on displacement is strengthened by her use of black and white photography, which casts an ominous, tragic tone to her pieces.

Noah Addis’s photographs are the largest of the exhibit, and the viewer is instantly drawn to the triptych in the center of the wall, featuring (from left to right) the face of a woman, that of a small girl, and an old man.  All are looking directly at the camera as though to dare the viewer to deny their existence or the statements made in the wall text.  The text features their names and their grievances against the drilling practices, emphasizing the subjects as individuals rather than nameless members of a forgotten demographic.

Though the techniques and focuses of the six photographers vary, their goals do not.  The website of the project vows to “engage communities in the current Marcellus debate while providing important historical images for the future”.  The exhibit effectively engages viewers in this debate and provides an ominous hint as to what ‘the future’ might entail for the region if this engagement is not maintained.


  1. “About.” MSDP. N.p., n.d. Web. Oct. 2012. <;.
  2. “Fracking.” – Definition of by Macmillan Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. Oct. 2012. <;.
  3. “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project.” Pittsburgh Filmmakers. N.p., n.d. Web. Oct. 2012.

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Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries

Mention fracking to any Pennsylvanian and you will likely get a strong response. The impact of Marcellus Shale gas drilling (known as fracking) has been felt statewide, fueling countless debates over the past decade. Arguments abound between those who see it was an under utilized, economically effective source of fuel, and those who regard it as an ecological disaster with repercussions that extend beyond our generation.  The highly emotional dispute on Marcellus drilling grates on the neutral walls of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries, where the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project seeks to open a dialogue about the impact that the process has had across the commonwealth.

Sharing in documentary style, photographers Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Brian Cohen, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Martha Rial have displayed the fruits of a yearlong project to capture the social and ecological impact of drilling. The glossy, museum-style prints show the shades of emotion of the people they worked with. The sites of drilling and the people who live by and work on them, the gas companies and the activists opposing them; all of the photos are reminiscent of other work that has been done to document places like the rust belt, where rapid de-industrialization has lead to depressed economic conditions. The indications of where drilling has touched people are subtle to blaring. The ghost of a flame hovers above the water top as the gas that has leaked into spring water combusts at the surface of David Headly’s property in Smithfield. Tough men like John “Denny” Fair break down in tears because of the lack of clean drinking water. The poignancy of these photos is testament both to Scott Goldsmith’s compositional eye, but also to the universality of the emotions they portray, giving the audience a point of entrance to a thoroughly complicated issue.

A rolling landscape illuminated by summer light seems like a visual refuge amongst the difficult content of the gallery. The aerial view shows a luminous pond next to cornfields. Unnaturally geometric for the setting, it is only by virtue of the wall text that the viewer is privy to the grit of the truth. The pond is a holding site for polluted water left over from drilling. Saturated with chemicals, the fluid evaporates and lands as dew on the nearby crops, and is a water source for much of the wildlife in the area. Where the image seems straightforward, the wall text complicates the image; nothing is as simple as it seems.

The bulk of these photos make drilling companies out to be the bad guy, and the amount of desperation as a result of drilling operations is overwhelming. While one might argue that all six photographers are biased, it is hard to sugar coat the situations they documented. Nina Berman’s photos of picnics thrown by gas companies are impotent next to images of a child’s rash-covered face due to contaminated water. While the cleanliness of the gallery setting makes for academic discussion, these gritty, hard-to-swallow photographs certainly strike nerves.

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The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

Pittsburgh Filmmakers present a series of photo essays that act as documentation to be archived and reexamined in retrospect. Encouraging activism does not seem to be a motive; there isn’t much hope in stopping the already charging beast of the natural gas industry exploiting resource-rich lands. Being a team of six, the photographers were able to cover more ground, problems, and personal stories all over Pennsylvania within 18 months. They attempt to equally present both sides of the situation, but in reporting their encounters as truthfully as they experienced it, along with the incompliance of companies involved, fail to do so. Nevertheless, they are still effective in prompting refection rather than handing over their opinion.

Though not exclusive to Pennsylvania, it’s daunting to realise that whilst standing in the gallery, this grave situation is happening right at the city’s doorstep. The crucial stories in the captions make it more personal to us. For those who aren’t directly affected, the extent of impact on the environment and certain communities can be easily missed. The challenge of visually presenting a situation caused by excavating an invisible gas, with consequences that are slow to surface and not particularly active, is tackled with different approaches.

Nina Berman photographs a gas/oil corporation’s third annual picnic (attended by thousands), as well as protests outside the Environmental Protection office, showing the divisive nature of the situation. Brian Cohen’s panoramic landscapes bring a more impartial and observational perspective to the table. Gas pipes snake through pastures; well pads and drilling rigs sit in what would have otherwise been beautiful, serene landscapes. Noah Addis’ huge portraits are separated by just as large photographs of spoiled landscapes. The elderly man, middle-aged woman and child perhaps represent what has happened, the current suffering, and the probability of a dismal future. Lynn Johnson’s weary subjects sit with heads in hands; the colourless photos evoke a sense of irreversible time, crushed dreams, and the legacy of past generations lost. Martha Rial’s narrative shows how close to home the operation is; it becomes a backdrop to their goat farm. Not much economic value is brought by the operation to areas that have been affected; instead, like in wartime, they are left with only devastation, and fruitless land and sources of water. Both Goldsmith and Cohen show the positive aspects; though there are risks, and relations with neighbours become strained, it’s easy to rationalise when some people’s rise in profits helps keep their business afloat in such an economy.

Even with the record numbers of animals dying and people getting sick, proving indirect consequences that aren’t immediate is difficult. What’s worse is what we don’t know, what’s purposefully hidden from the public. This documentary project shows that even though the product may be clean, the process is clearly not. It is difficult for one to leave it concluding that the process of extracting gas is safe. Despite the intention of bringing light to misconceptions surrounding shale drilling, the photographs manage to keep the mysterious aura

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Marcellus Shale Documentary Project

As I slipped into the second floor of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, straightaway I was confronted with the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project exhibition—an unexpected encounter that filled me with a sinking feeling. Led by Brian Cohen, the one-year collaboration of five experienced photographers chronicles the complex story of the energy rush in Pennsylvania. Photographs taken from diverse aesthetic and narrative angles explore the environmental, social, and economic impact of natural gas drilling upon the shale region. In attempting to present an honest appraisal of the process known as fracking, the photographic narratives examine invisible, unspeakable dimensions to both the apparent economic boom, as well as the environmental hazards that accompany it.

Outside of the main gallery, the prime mood of the exhibition reveals itself through Nina Berman’s works displayed in the dimly lit corridor. In her works, one experiences the mixed attitudes of those communities in which natural gas drilling has recently been introduced. There is hope, since the energy boom has given a jolt to the economic growth of languishing towns, and promised new lives for those on the edge of despair. In a photograph of a scene behind a windshield, a woman attentively listens to an instructor. According to the accompanying text, the woman is being trained as a truck driver for a drilling company that needs employees to fill these jobs. There is also fear—stories of homeowners who haven’t drunk water from their wells since the start of drilling, and stories of children who have had severe skin rashes as a result of drinking contaminated water—these stories equally represent the consternation that pervades the shale region.

Amid the hope and fear depicted throughout the exhibition we encounter the invisible chasm among the people, communicated by the juxtaposition of photographs that record the population’s split views towards drilling. Farmers, landowners, businessmen, job seekers, environmentalists, and activists are all represented.  Lynn Johnson, one of the photographers participating in the project, stated that the acrimony drilling created made it toxic not only to the land, but also to personal relationships.

Corresponding to the diverse views on the issue, the six photographers employ varied aesthetic approaches. Brian Cohen presents breathtaking panoramic views of an idyllic countryside, where natural gas pipelines have crept in quietly, laying down a sense of promise, as well as of threat. Noah Addis also notes how the pipelines have transformed the landscape, capturing them in large-format photographs as they cut a swath through the land. The exhibit juxtaposes the landscape with oversized portraits of local residents who claim that the contaminated water created by fracking has endangered their health. This group of work treats such complex issues with simply composed, sensitive pictures that powerfully demonstrate the insidious effects of natural gas drilling.

While stating its reluctance to advocate on behalf of any particular stakeholders, the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project unavoidably expresses a critical view on industry’s failure to take up its social and environmental responsibilities. By the end of the show, the viewer can only sympathize with those whose land, social relations, and lives overall have been contaminated by fracking.


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