The combined works of photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff in The David Brower Center’s exhibition of “Petrochemical America” portray a haunting reflection on the destruction caused by industrial growth in America. Focusing on the polluted stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the two highlight the harmful potential our “Petrochemical American” identity has to spread throughout the nation and, in turn, the world. Misrach’s collection of 12 photographs mirrors the evocative scenes found in Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”: rising water lines, shacks dispersed on marshes and government abandonment in favor of chemical industries.
In this 1998 series of photographs, Misrach reveals abandoned towns, homes and schools that lie within feet of the noxious plants and concealed barrels of toxic waste and extensive pipes that cut across the marshes, destroying ecological systems to compensate for a growing oil market. The pipes and canals that run across the wetlands are only the most apparent signs that the Delta ecosystem is being destroyed due to human petrochemical endeavors.
Misrach holds that the communities of this region will continue to receive the brunt of the pollution if the United States continues its preoccupation with the oil industry. A place once rich with culture has been reduced to an area in which industries feel comfortable abandoning their waste and turning a blind eye.
While each of these photographs captures a specific moment in time, within these frames lie remnants of the past, a vivid description of the present and a terrifying image of a possible future in which “Petrochemical America” extends past the banks of the Mississippi.
Rather than simply dwelling on the corruption that literally lies beneath the surface of Louisiana’s waters, the artists speak of their visions for the river’s banks and the towns that have been overtaken by chemical plants. In an interview with Aperture in 2012, Misrach envisions re-establishing the integrity the river demands by establishing it as a “cultural corridor with a vast array of regional museums linked by solar-powered monorails and repurposed river barges. The river could be used for recreation, fishing, and light industry; there would be jazz — and motel — and outdoor-theatre barges …”
Misrach and Orff want to inject life back into this stretch of the Mississippi by combining ecological and community-based thinking to create an environment that will thrive for generations.
Misrach, however, does not suggest a removal of the vital industry itself to accomplish this but instead acknowledges the necessity for companies to assume responsibility for the destruction they have created. Misrach captures this destruction in his colossal prints of toxic waste and dilapidated homes that invade viewers’ space, forcing them to address the issue at hand.
Although Richard advocates change, he recognizes that the complete removal of this thriving source of oil is impossible because, realistically, oil has too great of a hold in this area.
Misrach and Orff said to Aperture that “another way to change this region is to change the American pattern of consumption, to try to close the loops: less plastic junk, less waste, less chemicals; less can be more.” The destruction of this area, which became known as Cancer Alley, is no longer a matter solely based in digging for oil but rather one of Americans’ over-reliance on chemicals and and encouragement to consume.
While it remains vital for the future of our country to re-evaluate our practices, it also must be acknowledged that the United States may simply export this practice abroad, allowing for a facade of environmental consciousness. In her map “Cancer Alleys Around the World,” Orff recognizes the reality that some of the heaviest-polluting corporations simply have closed their doors in America, moving overseas to more impoverished and disenfranchised countries around the globe. Therefore, like the Cancer Alley found in this exhibit, the problem becomes isolated in an area but is never really dealt with.
Combining powerful photographs of the area with diagrams and drawings of the effects the oil industry has on the area and the world at large ultimately allows viewers to reflect on the power our nation’s practices have on the environment.