Alan Gignoux – Mountain Tops to Moonscapes

Review by Douglas Stockdale •

Coal mining in American is predominately in a region known as Appalachia, a divisive term applied to parts of Eastern Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia which can extend into parts of Ohio and Georgia. At one time, coal mining required deep tunneling to access the underground deposits, which since the 1990’s has evolved into a form of strip mining; just scrap the mountain top off to reveal the coal deposits hidden underneath. 

Removing mountain tops is cheaper, requires much less manpower, is a more destructive realm of technology, while creating even greater ecological issues beyond the subsequent burning of coal as a fuel. Coal is an inexpensive source of energy, economically speaking, and a costly one in ecological terms. Its carbon emissions are the highest of any energy source. Thus, coal and its extraction processes are a complex sociological, cultural, political and financial issue that Alan Gignoux examines in his documentary film and this subsequent artist book, Mountain Tops to Moonscapes.

Gignoux asks the question: how do you reveal the violence being done to the natural Appalachian landscape and the environmental catastrophe resulting from the mountain top removal process to cheaply access coal? How does this horrible mining process devastate the lives and communities of those who live in its proximity?

Similar to his subject, Gignoux’s artist book is complex and layered and related to a much earlier coal mining processes, his artist book is a handmade work of art. The primary photographic monograph that documents the ruinous impact is the larger of the two photobooks, while the smaller pamphlet stitched chapbook that provides the text and colophon, is equally intriguing. Glued into the middle of the chapbook is an origami folded image that unfurls and appears to explode in your hands, providing a sculptural form to its photograph subject of a mountain top in the process of being demolished by explosives. A really wonderful metaphoric object, which reminds me of the layered and complex photographic artist book by Julia Borissova Let Me Fall Again.

The larger monograph is an intriguing and massive combination of four book segments which are glued and pamphlet stitched together. The pamphlet stitch binding of the four parts allow his photographs to overlap in different combinations, showing the complicated and interactive relationship between environmental issues and the local economy.  When all of the book panels are open, the length of the book extends to 30 inches, while extending to 27 inches wide, with all of the interior images printed full bleed. The two side segments reveal 14 x 20-inch full bleed images, the resulting landscape details are engrossing as it is possible to delve into the complexity and details of each photograph.

Each of the four book segments are thematically related to the issues of converting beautiful mountains to barren and dangerous moonscapes. Prevalent are photographs documenting the massive scorched earth process of removing mountain tops to gain access to the coal. The visual narrative about the resulting poverty and economic ruin for the coalfield communities are more difficult to discern, yet a deserted and boarded up main street of an Appalachian town speaks volumes as to the current and dire Appalachia economic issues.

The photographic sequencing juxtapositions provides a searing testimony to the sociological issues that these regions face, issues exacerbated by the mountain top coal extraction processes. It is not hard to miss that extensive scope and extent of the equipment to remove a mountain is extremely expensive, thus the resulting political implications to protect this practice are well intrenched and deeply financed. An implied point is that any ‘green’ environment policies are an existential threat to the huge profits and on-going cash flow to the individuals who own and profit from these massive coal mining operations.

In conclusion as stated by Jane Branham in her accompanying essay “that if they keep mining coal, it will be so toxic here you will not be able to survive…it is going to take thousands of years for this earth to heal itself. It takes 100 years to form one inch of topsoil, so do the math.”


Alan Gignoux has previously been featured on PhotoBook Journal: Oil Sands


Douglas Stockdale is the Senior Editor & founder of PhotoBook Journal


Mountain Tops to Moonscapes, Alan Gignoux

Photographer: Alan Gignoux, Alan Gignoux, born Miami, Florida, resides London, England

Self-published, London, England, copyright 2017

Essays: Jane Branham with Mattew Hepler, Branham’s song lyrics with Buddy Delp of Strawberry Jam, 2011

Stiffcovers, printed corrugated slip-cover, handbound, 56 pages in large book, 12 pages in chap-book that contains a large ‘exploding’ foldout page (measuring 300 x 300mm), edition of 100, ISBN: 978-1-9999610-1-5

Text: English

Photobook Designer: Emily Macaulay at Stanley James Press & Chloe Juno


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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