The magazine of photography and ideas
Richard Misrach and Kate Orff Discuss Petrochemical America
Melissa Harris talks with Richard Misrach and Kate Orff about the process of depicting and unpacking the complex ecologies featured in Petrochemical America.
Melissa Harris: What is the genesis of Petrochemical America? Why did you decide to return to Cancer Alley, Richard?
Richard Misrach: I made the original trip in 1998 on a commission from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It was a series called Picturing the South. I set out with no expectation of what I was going to do, no restrictions from the museum. I had some ideas about photographing Ku Klux Klan sites, or doing Civil War battlegrounds. I decided to fly to New York, rent a car, and then drive south, just wander around. I explored and took all kinds of reconnaissance pictures of potential ideas. At some point, somebody turned me on to the River Road in Louisiana, and the industrial corridor that was then called “Cancer Alley.” When I got there, I was just floored by what I saw. I had never come across an American landscape like that.
People were living side by side with these great industrial behemoths. I’d always thought of industrial sites as sacrifice zones, in that they would be off in an isolated area, like in Nevada with the nuclear test site in the middle of nowhere. It never occurred to me that people would live within feet of these toxic environments. I was really shocked to see that in the United States. And so in 1998 I photographed up and down both sides of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, making several trips.
MH: But then, Richard, you got sick, didn’t you? Unless I’m misremembering, we put the work in the magazine, and I was really interested in a book, and you went back, but then started feeling sick…
RM: That’s true. In fact, in my journal, I recently found an account of an argument I had with someone on the River Road Governors’ Commission Board from Louisiana. I was asking her, “Why am I feeling this terrible burning in my lungs, and constant nausea?” Some people who worked in the plants told me this could be caused by certain chemical emissions. She got really upset and said that wasn’t true, that she has two kids, and that in effect activists and journalists were spreading those myths…
But I did get sick working there. My eyes were burning a lot, and I was having a hard time breathing, and I thought, “It’s just too toxic; I’m out of here.” That was after I finished the first leg of the work. I didn’t have any desire to go back at that point.
Fast-forward to 2009: the High Museum had continued on its Picturing the South series, and Julian Cox, who was the photography curator at the High at the time, contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in revisiting the work. In the museum’s collection, there were the original ten large photographs that I did for the commission, but also forty-five contact prints of other images that I had made, which I had given to the Museum as part of the original commission. He asked me how I’d feel about making a new edit, including many of the smaller images, which he felt were strong. I said I’d be interested, but I’d be more interested to do that plus go back and see the state of the place. Had it gotten better or worse? What was the condition ten years later?
We agreed that it would be really interesting for me to revisit and photograph, but also, if I was going to do this, I didn’t want to just show the pictures; I wanted to do some sort of intervention that reached out and maybe had some constructive results (like what I attempted in my book Bravo 20, which proposes the conversion of a bombing range into a national environmental park). I started off with some pretty idealistic fantasies and drawings about how the area could be reclaimed.
MH: And Richard, very early on, we had discussed a visual way of manifesting the larger context of the images—rather than a long text.
RM: Exactly. And so I spoke to my friend, architectural writer Cathy Ho, who had written about the work early on, and when I described my ideas to her, she introduced me to Kate. It was interesting, because I talked to different people, but I thought Kate immediately got it. She zeroed in very quickly on a simple but exciting concept. She talked about “unpacking” the photographs in ways that I hadn’t imagined possible before.