4.15 / Review

Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley

By Lea Feinstein May 5, 2013

Richard Misrach, an artist whose riveting work reflects a profound social conscience, has aimed his lens at one of America’s festering environmental sores. His nineteen color photographs and fourteen contact prints currently on view at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center document the miasma that pervades Cancer Alley—a stretch of land on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Home to a quarter of the petrochemical companies in America, the area suffers from extreme environmental degradation and has seen incalculable damage to human and animal populations. Misrach deploys all his skills to make his point. The huge scale, head-on perspective, and bleached colors of the prints make for powerful confrontations. Paired with the recent publication of Petrochemical America, a book Misrach co-authored with the landscape architect Kate Orff, the exhibition is both an elegy and a stinging indictment.

The petrochemical companies that have proliferated in the area since the 1950s might be viewed as the heirs to plantation culture; much of the acreage previously belonging to plantations has been bought by these businesses. Misrach’s images suggest the continuation of the historic disregard and violence perpetrated against whole populations in the area. The works titled Restored Slave Cabins, Evergreen Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana, 1998 (1998), Community Remains, Former Morrisonville Settlement, Dow Chemical Corporation, Plaquemine, Louisiana, 1998 (1998), and Playground and Shell Refinery, Norco, Louisiana, 1998 (1998) draw a line through decades of injustice up to the present day. Home and Grain Elevator, Destrehan, Louisiana, 1998 (1998) portrays a modest home abutting the massive walls of a grain elevator. The stark contrast in the architecture and scale of the buildings is crushing. Close examination of the photograph reveals the text on a battered brown van, which reads “Susie’s Early Childhood Development Center.” Whose children are these? That the environmental degradation of the region is self-inflicted in the name of economic development doesn’t lessen its impact. View of Exxon Refinery, State Capitol, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1998 (1998) is an image of the gas-emitting Exxon chemical plant viewed from the State House balcony, and the physical proximity of the two buildings underlines their relationship.

Misrach takes great care composing his images, frequently shooting them during the early hours of dawn or in an eerie evening haze, in effect denuding the land of color and intensifying the sense of environmental toxicity. With the exception of two images, the photographs are devoid of people. When individuals appear, their backs are turned to us. In Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998 (1998), an African American woman peers out of an entry foyer. In Night Fishing, Near Bonnet Carré Spillway, Norco, Louisiana, 1998 (1998), a lone fisherman is silhouetted on a riverbank while a huge tanker glides past, with factories visible on the distant shore.

Richard Misrach. Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998 (printed 2012); inkjet print; 60 x 72 in. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. © 2012 Richard Misrach
Richard Misrach. Night Fishing, Near Bonnet Carré Spillway, Norco, Louisiana, 1998 (printed 2012); inkjet print; 96 x 120 in. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. © 2012 Richard Misrach

In many photographs of polluted waterways—rivers, streams, cypress swamps, and bayous—Misrach employs a compositional device I think of as doublingIn Cypress Swamp, Alligator Bayou, Prairieville, Louisiana, 1998 (1998) and New Housing Development, Sorrento, Louisiana, 2010 (2010), shoreline imagery is reflected in the opaque surfaces of water, seeming to ask, “What lies beneath the surface?” In one of the largest and most visually stunning prints in the exhibition, Hazardous Waste Containment Site, Dow Chemical Corporation, Mississippi River, Plaquemine, Louisiana, 1998 (1998), Misrach captures the gates enclosing a contaminated waterway. The watery preserve behind the chain-link fence is off limits, as indicated by a small sign attached to the gate. The giant size of the photo is overwhelming and thrusts viewers into a visceral confrontation with the reality of water contamination.

Commissioned by the High Museum in Atlanta for an exhibition titled Picturing the South, most of Misrach’s images were taken in 1998 and were reprinted in 2010. The photographer revisited the area in 2010 to take additional pictures. Helicopter Returning From Deepwater Horizon Spill, Venice, Louisiana, 2010 (2010) and Shopping Cart, Tanger Outlet Center, I-10, Gonzales, Louisiana, 2010 (2010) add weight to his argument. In the latter image, an abandoned grocery cart in a fog-filled parking lot seems like essential equipment for Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia in his novel The Road. Combining Misrach’s photographs and Kate Orff’s eloquent charts, Petrochemical America lucidly documents the extent of the damage to the Mississippi River Basin ecosystem. A Glossary of Terms & Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture, inserted into the book, suggests methods of abatement. Together the photos and data are a persuasive plea for America to wean itself from its dependence on oil and its plastic byproducts. In creating this work, the authors have asked: How can photography and landscape architecture make a difference? If the problem is envisioned, will those who hold power be compelled to enact change?

There is ample evidence in photographic history to suggest Misrach and Orff should be optimistic. Lewis Hine’s photographs of child workers in the early twentieth century contributed to the passage of child labor laws. Ansel Adams’s photographs of Yosemite and other unsullied Western landscapes extended the range of the national park system. And Joel Sternfeld’s images of grasses sprouting on an abandoned railroad in New York City led to the creation of The High Line, a popular elevated park and tourist destination. At the root of Cancer Alley is a global problem. As endocrine interrupters and chemical byproducts pollute our world and cause ever more harm to our global community in the name of industrial development, what is to be done? Richard Misrach, a citizen and an artist of acute sensibility, has pictured the problem in his elegant suite of images. We can hope that his and Kate Orff’s work will be an agent of change.


Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley is on view at Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, through June 16, 2013.

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