The current photography exhibition at the High Museum, “Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley,” is a powerful reminder of the virtue only a photograph can deliver. Misrach’s gigantic photographs of juxtapositions between graveyards, playgrounds, fishermen, and chemical plants in Cancer Alley, an area along the Mississippi river in the deep south where many petrochemical plants are located, are laced with social commentary, irony, satire, realism, and exquisite beauty.
The show opens with a photograph of a humongous structure that looks like a steel dragon towering over a tiny one-floor ranch style home. “Home and Grain Elevator, Destrehan, Louisiana, 1998” immediately confronts the viewer with what could be the moral of the entire exhibition (even more true today then in 1998 when the photo was shot): that we have lost control over our machines and they now rule over us. The message it conveys is not pretty. This theme — death and pollution at the hands of an out-of-control industry dependent on machinery and petrochemicals — is present in every corner of the show. It hits the viewer particularly hard in images like “Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex), Taft, Louisiana, 1998,” which contrasts a southern graveyard with a Union Carbide Complex seemingly inches apart, framed with a crucifixion from the graveyard in the foreground and an endless tangle of steel belching smoke behind it (by the way this image feels a lot like Walker Evans’ image Bethlehem Graveyard and Steel Mill, November 1935). Even though it feels, perhaps, heavy-handed, this lesson deserves no subtlety. On it on it goes throughout the first room of the exhibition, picture after picture of mankind's factories spewing death in Cancer Alley.
Another picture that builds on this same theme, “View of Exxon Refinery, State Capitol, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1998,” is scarily hilarious. In it our point of view is from a tourist's telescope, looking from the balcony of the state capitol, and just behind the telescope, again, is a creepy refinery, unlike anything you have seen. It's a scene of apocalyptic madness, painted with dozens of obtrusive vertical exhaust pipes, like a thousand mufflers all exhaling at once, their toxic smoke across a scarred landscape. It is hard not to laugh how insane it is, a viewing platform from the state capital to gaze into our toxic apocalypse. It's a perfect metaphor for our modern government's symbiotic relationship with corporate America, the capitol and the refinery drowning together in a cloud of toxic smoke. (Interestingly, High Museum photo curator Brett Abbott told me that when Misrach returned in 2010, the viewing platform had been removed.)
The final image of the first room, “Night Fishing, Near Bonnet Carre Spillway, Norco Louisiana, 1998,” is a giant print of a fisherman on the edge of the shore with an enormous barge barreling through the center of the frame, dwarfing the fisherman. On the other side of the river is what appears to be another chemical plant with its smoke and chaotic lights, seemingly spewing unknown chemicals into the water. It makes you want to scream at this guy, “No! Stop! Don’t fish there.” it seems so obvious doesn’t it? That is of course the subtext here as you look deeply into these pictures framed by glass and see your own reflection: we are the fishermen, and we are also the consumer who uses the gas and the chemicals. We are the cause and we are the victims. We are all implicated. It is easy to leave the exhibit feeling righteous, but it is more challenging to contemplate our roll in it all. And this is what the exhibit demands.
The second room opens with a beautiful landscape of a river framed by green grass: “Batture, North of Port Allen, Louisiana, 1998,” a photo like an impressionist painting. At this point we know what’s coming. Sure enough, the next image, “Cypress Swamp, Alligator Bayou, Prairieville, Louisiana, 1998,” seems to be a similar place, only now it looks like a dead river and the caption affirms the Alligator Bayou’s fate, a place that once “boasted 250 different species of birds,” but now the caption reads, because of “Subsequent sewage and human waste pollution from a nearby prison followed by the Timber industry’s attempt to harvest the remaining cypress trees... forced the wilderness area to close down in 2010.” The next photo, “Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998,” is even more disgusting. In it, a thick green sludge appears to have such high viscosity that, even when in the water, it looks like you could drive a truck on top of it. In the background, sad, dead trees lean in various directions, while a rusted pipeline snakes through the lower third of the frame, inches above the sludge.
The final image is the most recent in the exhibition. Shot in 2010, it reminds us that the past is the present. In it, a cow stares at us from dead center of a frame otherwise filled with grass and sky, with an expression that screams “Why?” Above the cow, a helicopter is high in the sky, almost perfectly over the cow, seeming odd and out of place. The title of the photo, “Helicopter Returning from Deepwater Horizon Spill, Venice, Louisiana, 2010,” brings us to the present, and the seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction birthed by our reliance on petrochemicals.
Many of these photos are so aesthetically alluring that their lyrical beauty alone draws you in; once you are close enough, you are smacked hard by the reality behind this surface beauty. This exhibition is disturbing and lovely in a way only great photography can be.
The High Museum is free all weekend to Bank of America cardholders. Just show your card at the ticket desk. It is also free on Saturday for Fulton County residents (make sure you bring your ID). “Revisiting the South: Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley,” presented in conjunction with Atlanta Celebrates Photography, runs through October 7.
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