Good Life

Art plays bit part in drilling debate

Light from shale gas fracking operations light up a normally darkened back road in Franklin Forks in Susquehanna Township.
Light from shale gas fracking operations light up a normally darkened back road in Franklin Forks in Susquehanna Township. Photo provided

Few recent issues have ignited passions as much as the prospect of drilling for natural gas through the Marcellus Shale formation. Drilling and its potential effects on local water supplies have become not only an environmental issue but also a political one, with each side of the argument claiming rights in the best interest of the country.

Now, a group of six photographers has put together an exhibition that tells the story of the drilling debate through visual imagery. Starting Sept. 23, the Palmer Museum of Art will host the “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project,” a collection of photographs that the artists hope will shed some light and encourage debate through personal stories about the impact of drilling. While Marcellus Shale drilling is found in several neighboring states, the exhibit focuses on Pennsylvania.

Photographer Brian Cohen, who first proposed the idea of doing this project, was aware that, because of its volatility, the project had to be approached with balance rather than the political agenda that’s already widespread in the media.

“I felt it was important, with a story of such significance, that we make a good faith effort to represent the reality of gas drilling in Pennsylvania rather promoting the views of any particular constituency,” Cohen said. “Too much of the coverage when we started was one-sided; gas drilling is either the best thing that has happened to the state of Pennsylvania, or it is nothing short of a disaster. I felt it was important to see things for ourselves and show what we found to a receptive audience.”

In addition to the six core photographers, the collection is augmented by images from Penn State faculty, as well as student work and several related events.

“Penn State is certainly invested in shale energy — in research, education, and outreach — and we’re bringing representatives from across campus — rural sociologists, agricultural economists, landscape architects, etc. — into the galleries to participate in the larger conversation,” said Joyce Robinson, curator of the Palmer Museum of Art. “We’re showing films and hosting a panel discussion.”

The student satellite exhibitions will be on display in a number of locations across campus and downtown, thus giving a larger portion of the community a chance to learn more about the drilling project.

Just as art has always been used as a way to tell personal or cultural stories of great significance, so it is with this project.

“We want to engage a variety of constituents in a conversation about natural gas drilling, its impact — both good and bad — on the environment, on the families directly involved with leasing land, and on the communities and businesses affected by the industry,” Robinson said. “I think these photographs — these vivid documents of people’s lives and livelihoods — will bring the issue close to home for our visitors and encourage them to think about it in a personal way.”

“My hope is that a curious audience will find something valuable in our work that will contribute to a meaningful and constructive dialogue, as well as provide an archive of images for posterity,” Cohen added.

For information on the events at the Palmer Museum of Art, visit For more information on the student satellite exhibitions, visit