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Gallerina

My Life in Oil

For almost his entire professional life, from the late 1940s well into the 1990s, my father worked as an engineer in heavy construction. He helped build petroleum cooling towers and plants that processed nickel, the metal found in everything from rechargeable batteries to guitar strings. Over his life, he also took pictures—thousands of them—assiduously chronicling everything, including his dingy work sites. Among photos of our family vacations, he kept images of refinery operations, open-pit mines, and mining camps.

I stumbled upon a stash of these pictures on a recent visit to my mother's house (my father passed away almost two years ago) and was riveted by the brutal honesty of the pictures. In so many of them, the surroundings couldn't be bleaker: scarred earth, industrial machinery, matte skies that seem perpetually filled with dust. But they reveal a strange and wretched beauty as well. 

In seeing them, I couldn't help but think of the New Topographics photographers of the 1970s, whose seminal images forced us to contemplate the implications of our man-altered landscape. Or the work of renowned contemporary shooter Edward Burtynksy, who, in a recent project exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., chronicled the ways in which oil has transformed the earth around us. To be sure, my father's images aren't as elegant or composed. But the reality they reveal—lots of destruction—is just as powerful. He also didn't set out to showcase environmental degradation. My dad was proud of what he did, proud of some of the engineering feats he was a part of, and the pictures he took were a way of recording work that he found meaningful. (That's him, below, to the right, standing before a microwave tower in Saudi Arabia, in the '70s.)

Felipe Miranda in Saudi Arabia, 1978But with the spill in the Gulf growing at ever calamitous proportions, the photographs also proved difficult to digest. I'm one of those bleeding-heart crunchies who likes to think I can maintain a low carbon footprint. I ride a bike, keep clothes until they're worn out and recycle my batteries. Certainly, I was aware of what my father did, but in an abstract way: we moved around a lot, to obscure international locations, near power plants and dams. (Civil engineering is not really one of those professions that captures the average child's imagination.)

Looking at the pictures, however, made me realize that my life, in a direct way, has been made possible by the extraction and processing of oil (and nickel and copper). Oil is what put food on our table. Oil is what funded our occasional family vacations. Oil is what sent me to college, allowing me the luxury to sit around and ponder the ways in which I could string words together. We never lived extravagantly. But neither did we want for middle class comforts. And I owe it all to oil.

It's easy to look at the industrial wastelands shot by the likes of Burtynsky and the photographers of the New Topographics and think of the damage as abstract, as something other people do. It's equally easy to wag our fingers at BP and demand a boycott of the company or an end to deep-sea drilling. But my father's photographs reminded me that I have not only played a role in our environment's misfortunes, I have personally benefited from them in the process—in ways that are greater and more profound than I would have ever cared to admit.

Note: To the best of my knowledge, all of the photographs here were taken by my father, unless otherwise stated. Photo caption information is taken from notes he placed alongside or on the back of each picture. By and large, I have left them as I found them. In some cases, due to fading, I digitally sharpened the photos to make details perceptible at standard web resolution.

The staff quarters at the Toquepala copper mine in Peru, where my dad worked in the 1950s. The mine is one of the biggest in the Andes, more than 1.5 miles wide and 2300 feet deep.
The staff quarters at the Toquepala copper mine in Peru, where my dad worked in the 1950s. The mine is one of the biggest in the Andes, more than 1.5 miles wide and 2300 feet deep.

This photo was likely taken by someone else, since the print size and quality doesn't match the rest of my dad's work.

( See it large. )
A conveyor at a nickel-mining operation in Marcona, Peru, 1967. Nickel is commonly used in alloys, such as stainless steel, as well as in household items like batteries
A conveyor at a nickel-mining operation in Marcona, Peru, 1967. Nickel is commonly used in alloys, such as stainless steel, as well as in household items like batteries ( See it large. )
Marcona's open-pit mine. My father worked here for a time in the late '60s.
Marcona's open-pit mine. My father worked here for a time in the late '60s. ( See it large. )
The nickel plant at Marcona, with something my father described in his captions as a "pellet stockpile area."
The nickel plant at Marcona, with something my father described in his captions as a "pellet stockpile area." ( See it large. )
Not everything was an engineering triumph. Above, a nickel conveyor at the Marcona plant collapses.
Not everything was an engineering triumph. Above, a nickel conveyor at the Marcona plant collapses. ( See it large. )
The crushing plant galleries in Marcona. The nickel dust kicked up by mining operations is considered a human carcinogen when inhaled.
The crushing plant galleries in Marcona. The nickel dust kicked up by mining operations is considered a human carcinogen when inhaled. ( See it large. )
A conveyor cuts through the Peruvian desert near the nickel mine operations in Marcona.
A conveyor cuts through the Peruvian desert near the nickel mine operations in Marcona. ( See it large. )
In the Andes: A view of the Caletones copper smelting project, in 1968. It was in the vicinity of this job-site where my parents met. My dad was a project engineer; my mother a secretary.
In the Andes: A view of the Caletones copper smelting project, in 1968. It was in the vicinity of this job-site where my parents met. My dad was a project engineer; my mother a secretary. ( See it large. )
Building the Highland Uranium Processing Plant in Wyoming in the early '70s. I was born in the nearby town of Casper.
Building the Highland Uranium Processing Plant in Wyoming in the early '70s. I was born in the nearby town of Casper. ( See it large. )
The building of the Shar Chesmeh copper plant in the Alborz Mountains in Iran, 1976. In his notes, my father stated that the plant was intended to process 40,000kg of copper ore per day.
The building of the Shar Chesmeh copper plant in the Alborz Mountains in Iran, 1976. In his notes, my father stated that the plant was intended to process 40,000kg of copper ore per day. ( See it large. )
The copper workings at Shar Chesmeh in central Iran. We lived in the vicinity, in the town of Rafsanjan, for almost three years -- during which time my mom learned how to haggle in Farsi.
The copper workings at Shar Chesmeh in central Iran. We lived in the vicinity, in the town of Rafsanjan, for almost three years -- during which time my mom learned how to haggle in Farsi. ( See it large. )
Copper processing infrastructure rises amid the Alborz Mountains. Copper is a key component in electrical wiring, such as the bits used in the integrated circuits that power computers.
Copper processing infrastructure rises amid the Alborz Mountains. Copper is a key component in electrical wiring, such as the bits used in the integrated circuits that power computers. ( See it large. )
The mine operations at Shar Chesmeh, blanketed in snow in the winter of 1974. My father's commutes to work were often long and fraught.
The mine operations at Shar Chesmeh, blanketed in snow in the winter of 1974. My father's commutes to work were often long and fraught. ( See it large. )
Cranes erect the Saudi city of Riyadh. We lived here for less than a year in the mid-70s, at a time when the city's population growth began to skyrocket.
Cranes erect the Saudi city of Riyadh. We lived here for less than a year in the mid-70s, at a time when the city's population growth began to skyrocket. ( See it large. )
A worker's camp near Buraydah in Saudi Arabia, in 1978. As foreigners, we usually occupied fairly good housing. The local workers, not so much.
A worker's camp near Buraydah in Saudi Arabia, in 1978. As foreigners, we usually occupied fairly good housing. The local workers, not so much. ( See it large. )
The Sasol plant in Secunda, South Africa, which processed coal into oil/gas. By the '80s, my father had far fewer industrial photos in his albums. Perhaps due to work-site restrictions in photography?
The Sasol plant in Secunda, South Africa, which processed coal into oil/gas. By the '80s, my father had far fewer industrial photos in his albums. Perhaps due to work-site restrictions in photography? ( See it large. )
Felipe Miranda, armed with camera, stands before a shaft to the Caletones coppermine in Chile, in 1969. His job was divided between desk duties and hard-hat work. He loved being in the field the best.
Felipe Miranda, armed with camera, stands before a shaft to the Caletones coppermine in Chile, in 1969. His job was divided between desk duties and hard-hat work. He loved being in the field the best. ( See it large. )
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