Voices from the Field

The Copper Kings: Arizona, Utah, and Montana Betsy Fahlman

The Copper State

Mining is the transformative industry of the American West—one that competes in scale and in color with the scenic landscape on its own terms, with the industrial sublime dynamically coexisting with the natural one. When Arizona became the forty-eighth state in 1912, Lon Megargee (1883-1960) was commissioned to paint a series of fifteen large canvases that celebrated icons of state identity. The first to be completed, Mining: The Prospector, hung in a place of honor in the governor’s office, emphasizing the importance of Arizona’s extractive enterprises in the Copper State. Mining is also central to the state’s cultural and economic identity: the industry was one of the five Cs that were fundamental to the state’s economy at the time of statehood: cattle, citrus, climate, copper, and cotton. Agriculture, mining, ranching, and tourism continue to significantly define the distinctive character of Arizona.

Many scholarly studies of the western landscape explore the state’s spectacular geological formations. But the landscape of mining is a grittier sublime, one at the bedrock of economic development—the risky speculation from which huge fortunes could be made and lost—and one that reframes our understanding of an equally mythic chronicle of the American West.This essay is focused on Arizona, Utah, and Montana, three states are particularly identified with huge copper mining operations, and I consider the multiple landscapes created by large-scale mining: the mines themselves and the towns that grew up around them, as well as the people who populated those communities.

These landscapes are not ones of traditional scenic beauty, such as that which inspired Ansel Adams (1902-1984), and of what might be called Sierra Club aesthetics. Nor is it one that concerns the darker, banal ironies of the 1975 exhibition The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, which presented austere, mostly black-and-white images of prosaic subjects, including suburban sprawl, warehouses, motels, and parking lots.

Landscapes of Extraction: The Art of Mining in the American West is on view from November 7, 2021 through March 6, 2022, at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, Arizona, 85004, 602-257-1880, www.phxart.org. A 187-page exhibition catalogue, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, and edited by Betsy Fahlman with additional essays by William L. Fox, Barbara L. Jones, James R. Swensen, accompanies the exhibition. This essay has been adapted from this book.