From a Helicopter, A Photographer Shows There’s More to Silicon Valley Than Meets the Eye

Emily Rappaport
Dec 10, 2014 11:34PM

The sunny Silicon Valley of our imaginations may be a sleek, cutting-edge hub for the technology world—replete with self-driving cars, futuristic architecture, and organic produce—but there is always more to Oz than meets the eye. A look behind the curtain in the Bay Area reveals a toxic environment: lead, PCBs, asbestos, and other hazardous chemicals pollute the land and waters, unbeknownst to many residents. Mountain View, California is home to Google’s corporate headquarters, as well as to Santa Clara County’s largest superfund site. This Moffett Field Naval Air Base, a freestanding structure famously massive enough to generate its own weather systems, has now been found to leak poisons into the wetlands surrounding the San Francisco Bay.

Barbara Boissevain considers this situation—namely, people’s lack of knowledge and consent about the contaminants in their environments—to be “one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.” The Air Base, subject of her “Ghost Hangar” photographs, is only one of the infected places that the artist documents in her ongoing series entitled “My Backyard” (2012-present). At age seven, Boissevain moved to Silicon Valley with her mother, a software developer, and her father, a NASA scientist. As a young child, she rode hot air balloons inside the Moffett Field hangar and played in orchards, which she has since discovered were sprayed with the notoriously potent and harmful pesticide, DDT. These days, she uses her camera to expose environmental issues and educate her community. Of  “My Backyard,” she says, “Yes, it’s an expression of my art, but ultimately my goal is to raise awareness.” 

Most of the pictures in the series (which currently comprises four chapters: Ghost Hangar, Big Dirty Secret, Salt Flat, and Oracle’s Oil Barrel Installation) were taken from a helicopter, between 200 and 500 feet in the air. This aerial perspective allows her to capture toxicity that is normally obscured. But it also lets her create colorful, abstract canvases that are disorienting in their scale and formal splendor. Boissevain’s “Salt Flats” photographs feature stark geometry and a palette that gradually fades from blue-purple to deep pink to noxious mustard yellow to beige. Her ability to transform ugliness into beauty reminds us that we have the power, and responsibility, to make change. 

Emily Rappaport