Petrochemical America: Project Room, Photographs by Richard Misrach, Throughlines by Kate Orff/SCAPE @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 color photographs and 20 maps, diagrams, and other informational displays/ephemera, hung unframed against dark blue and white walls in the main gallery space. Misrach’s exhibition prints are sized either 96×120 or 60×76/82 and have been pinned directly to board, the largest leaning against the walls at angles. There is also an array of original contact prints, each sized 8×10. All of the works are digital c-prints, the vast majority taken in 1998, with an outlier or two made in 2010. Orff’s diagrams are mounted directly to board and displayed on small ledges. A two-sided plexiglas divider wall contains a dense selection of sketches, emails, and preliminary drawings, and a small table contains two copies of the book and its supplement for easy viewing. An in-depth monograph of this body of work was recently published by Aperture (here) and is available in the bookshop for $80. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: The last decade has seen a marked increase in the photographic investigation of the oil industry in America. Many leading contemporary photographers have tackled this immense subject (most notably Mitch Epstein and Edward Burtynsky) and made pictures of wells, refineries, the Gulf oil spill, and the whole end-to-end delivery chain of petrochemical products that has touched nearly every corner of American society. Given the scale of the industry, most of these pictures play with size and scope in formal ways, juxtaposing large with small, corporate with community, ugly with beautiful. We have come to expect a looming hugeness in these kinds of images, where an attempt is made to simplify this bafflingly complex industry by boiling it all down to a handful of iconic visual motifs.

Richard Misrach’s approach to documenting the world of oil is in many ways a contrarian response to this dumbing down trend. Pairing up with landscape architect Kate Orff, the two have produced an exhibit which positively revels in complexities, diving deep into the interconnected details and working extremely hard to connect the dots coherently. Instead of looking at issues on a worldwide scale, they have focused on a stretch of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans (a corridor known as “Cancer Alley”), and have collaboratively explored the impact of the industry on virtually every factor of life in this zone, from economic growth to toxic waste, from swamp ecosystems to food cycles.

Given this intellectual mindset, Misrach’s photographs come off as extremely careful and deliberate. The obvious juxtapositions are still there (a big refinery dwarfing a small house, a pipeline running through a swampy marsh, a forest of dead cypresses, a basketball hoop backed by another refinery etc.) but each image seems precisely chosen with an eye for illustrating a specific piece of the larger story. There are subtle angles on poverty, the gradual poisoning the community, misty historical ghosts, and the enduring life of the river. Orff’s diagrams and maps trace and define these ideas more fully, grappling with the complexities of how waste is metabolized, how synthetic nitrogen cycles through the environment, and how the flora and fauna of the bayou is being transformed. It’s brainy, time-consuming, scientific stuff, with a focus on secondary and tertiary downstream impacts, and its density is smartly balanced by Misrach’s visually elegant vignettes which help bring home the key messages.

What I like best about this exhibit is its respect for the viewer, its attempt to unpack something seemingly impenetrable and make sense of it in a manner that requires real attention and thoughtful engagement. The dialogue between the photographs and the supporting material produces something that is successfully both emotional and educational, where the fluffy 19th century cumulus clouds over the Shell refinery are initially quite beautiful and then revealed to be fed by the flare of hydrocarbons coming from the plant, giving us a grim sense for the multi-layered complexity of what’s really going on. Overall, Misrach and Orff make a persuasive, deftly constructed argument here, combining photography and rigorous investigation into something rich and weighty, going beyond the easy simplicity of a bunch of well made pictures.

Collector’s POV: Since this venue is typically a non-selling environment, there were, of course, no posted prices for the photographs. Misrach’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $80000, with his newer, larger prints at the top end of that range. Misrach is represented in New York by Pace/MacGill Gallery (here) and in San Francisco by Fraenkel Gallery (here).

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JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, hung against white and black walls, in a series of three connected spaces (and their exterior walls) on the museum’s main floor. The ... Read on.

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