Picturing the boom

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about oil. It’s a fascination.

Not oil in general, not OPEC, and not Middle East instability. I’m talking domestic oil. North Dakota oil. The Bakken.

You’ve probably heard the story by now, but here are the contours:

Vast oil reserves are now accessible in western North Dakota, attracting job-seekers from around the country.

The North Dakota oil boom story has everything.

It’s your classic American narrative of the rugged land holding vast riches, and of people setting out, trying to strike it rich.

New technology, mind you, has enabled this not-so-new story. Hydraulic fracturing –– “fracking” in common speak –– lets wells extract oil from areas previously inaccessible.

The oil flows, and money, too.

And where the money flows, the people flow, and where the people flow, the photographers flow.

In the airport the other day, I was grabbed by a front-page story of the North Dakota oil boom in Harper’s Magazine. 
The photographs were made by Danny Wilcox Frazier. I recognized the name from a photography project I came across a few years ago. In “Driftless,: Frazier had documented his native Iowa, focusing on how the economic downturn was affecting rural areas.

The pictures he made were personal, in emotion and distance.

Frazier’s more recent photographs from the North Dakota oil boom seem distant. Sure, we see that he was there and got his boots dirty. We see that life is rewarding but harsh out there. But the small set of photographs might not reveal the complexity of the Bakken boom.

You don’t see the people making six figures, yet sleeping out of their car because there isn’t enough housing.

Frazier’s pictures also don’t show that the state of North Dakota is putting away money now, hoping ghost towns don’t turn up at the end of this story.
 This one is different, the state says.

National Geographic Magazine recently ran a story about the Bakken, too, this one shot by Eugene Richards. Before frack drilling was happening, Richards was photographing abandoned homesteader houses that dot the Great Plains.
Richards’ own two stories are worlds apart — one tracing the remnants of a population exodus, the other, a modern day Gold Rush — yet are right next door to each other.

I am not a native of the Midwest, although in the past several years I’ve done my best to get to know the area. My upbringing makes me partial to large bodies of water, which orient my mental compass.

But there is something nevertheless appealing about the Great Plains. We are on the indistinct eastern edge. Travel northwest for long enough and, I’ve been led to believe, you’ll start seeing oil rigs.

There might not be much noticeable difference above ground, but it’s a whole different story below ground, where geologists and economists have conspired to make some places more prized than others.

I don’t mean to romanticize this topic either. The environmental and health effects of fracking are still working themselves out. The technique requires massive amounts of water, and local aquifers aren’t inexhaustible. The debate over these issues is still in its infancy.

But in the meantime, the rigs continue to pump, and job-seekers continue to head to the Bakken.
I’ll be watching out of curiosity as to what comes next.

Do you know someone who is working in the North Dakota oil fields? I’d love to hear their story.

Veasey Conway is the night editor at the Globe. If you have questions about photography or visual media, or have story ideas, contact me at vconway@dglobe.com or on twitter @veaseyc.