Illuminating the Petrochemical Landscape

Richard Misrach, Night Releases, Mississippi River Corridor, Louisiana (1998). [© Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles; from Petrochemical America, photographs by Misrach, ecological atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture, 2012)]

The alliance of photography and environmentalism is rich and contradictory. From the 19th-century USGS surveys of the American West by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, to the influential legacy of mid 20th-century masters like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, to the contemporary portfolios of Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Edward Burtynsky, Mark Klett, Chris Jordan and Subhankar Banerjee — to name just a few — photographers have sought not only to document the landscape but also to provoke awareness of the profound and often harmful consequences of human action upon the earth — upon the rivers and oceans, the forests and deserts, the arctic extremes and the suburban everyday. And yet the photographer-environmentalist inevitably struggles with the constraints of the medium — with the challenges of capturing temporal processes (like change and decay) and atmospheric outcomes (like pollution), with the de-contextualizing and abstracting effects of the photographic frame, and with the temptations of aestheticization, the tensions between artistic ambition and political meaning.

Richard Misrach’s Night Releases, Mississippi River Corridor, Louisiana (1998) embodies these tensions. Like many photographs in Petrochemical America — the compelling new book by Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff — Night Releases exudes a beautiful foreboding. Railcars rest quietly beneath a dense network of powerlines, shrouded in what appears to be yellowish gray fog, but which could be toxin-laden vapor; in the background, just barely discernible, are the outlines of industrial buildings and petroleum-processing infrastructure. As we study the beautifully produced photographic plate in the large-format volume, we cannot but sense: Something bad is happening here. But the closely framed nocturne does little to enlarge our understanding of what exactly that might be — indeed, the low contrast and soft focus seem to reinforce the photograph’s murky stance toward its subject.

In an earlier essay in this journal — discussing Edward Burtynsky’s series Oil and Chris Jordan’s series Midway — I argued that environmental photography must be accompanied by facts and narratives if it is to be an effective form of advocacy. This was not, I noted then, a new argument; and certainly I am not alone in worrying that images like Burtynsky’s — sublime large-scale color photographs of the sites of resource extraction, transport, processing, consumption and waste — might in fact harden and inure us to the presence of environmental damage. Too often such works prompt fleeting twinges of conscience but encourage little sustained response, because ultimately the images — no matter how extraordinary or sensational or troubling — provide only partial information. What precisely is happening in the massive Canadian refinery, or in the abandoned Azerbaijani oil field? Are we somehow implicated or even responsible?

Today a growing number of photographers are exploring innovative approaches to environmental and landscape photography; yet many of these explorations work within the formal markers of the field, and usually they succeed more fully as art than as advocacy. So the question remains: can photographs be presented and contextualized to create viewing experiences that illuminate the complexity of environmental issues and perhaps even compel us to action? Can this be done without compromising the open-endedness that is essential to photography as an art form? Several recent projects suggest promising directions; all are focused on the environmental impacts of oil.

Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier, from the series The Gitga’at people of the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada (2010). [© Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier]

Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier, from the series The Gitga’at people of the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada (2010). [© Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier]

Multiple Perspectives

In 2010 the nonprofit International League of Conservation Photographers organized what they term a “Rapid Assessment Visual Exploration” — or RAVE — of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, which was (and is) threatened by the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines. If approved, the 731-mile-long twin pipelines would connect the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta to a terminal on B.C.’s remote North Coast, where there is currently an oil tanker moratorium. The iLCP dispatched a team of seven photographers and three videographers on a 14-day expedition to capture images of the rainforest, using different styles and approaches, including “landscape, wildlife, macro, camera trapping, portraiture, [and] documentary.”

There is great promise in this approach, and in fact the iLCP has organized about a dozen RAVEs in the past few years; a coordinated team of photographers working on assignment can create images that extend the work of environmental scientists, and multiple perspectives promise to deliver a diversity of vision and thought. The contribution of Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier best exemplifies the potential of this approach. Her photographs, which focus on indigenous peoples, depict the First Nation Gitga’at fishing and harvesting Dungeness crab; the images remind us that northern British Columbia has been shaped for generations by human activity, and as such they deepen our understanding of the potential consequences of the pipeline. Unfortunately, however, too often the photographers in the Great Bear Rainforest RAVE made what seem to me timid aesthetic choices, settling for the (inaccurate) cliché of a beautiful, wild and unpeopled wilderness; the resulting photos show rushing rivers, snow-covered peaks and charismatic mega-fauna (especially the white spirit bear).

A more successful experiment in multiple viewpoints is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, a recent collection of writings and photographs edited by photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee. The book gathers 37 texts — ranging from personal essays and memoirs to scientific reports and government testimony — about Arctic peoples and resources and the varied struggles to conserve those riches; the authors include indigenous peoples, ecologists, hunters, geographers, conservationists and professional writers. Banerjee celebrates this multitude by quoting an old saying of the Tikigaq people: “Never tell one story. Always tell a second. That way, the first one won’t fall over.” Collectively the diverse writings help to contextualize 75 black-and-white illustrations and more than 40 color plates, including a 2006 photograph of gas flares at a petroleum production facility in Prudhoe Bay, by biologist Pamela A. Miller, whose 2003 report, “Broken Promises: The Reality of Big Oil in America’s Arctic,” is updated and reprinted. In this way Arctic Voices blends photography and the written word to give us a multidimensional and deeply engaged portrait of an endangered region (although it might have been even more powerful if the texts and images were more tightly integrated).

Subhankar Banerjee, Beluga Whale Hunt, Point Lay, Alaska (2007). [© Subhankar Banerjee]

Photography as Narrative

One tried and true method for uniting photography with narrative is the tradition of the photo essay. Samuel James’s “The Water of My Land,” in the September 2012 issue of Harper’s, documents oil production in contemporary Nigeria. Early on James offers a detailed explanation that allows us to grasp the meaning of an eerie photograph of a west African forest illuminated at night:

Fires from hundreds of illicit refineries burn every night throughout the Niger Delta. Rogue syndicates engaged in industrial-scale crude-oil theft, known locally as bunkering, sell the stolen oil in remote creeks and swamps, where makeshift refineries distill it to diesel, then ship it downriver to be sold on the black market. The delta’s refinery workers labor in environmentally toxic conditions, and are under constant threat from government authorities and local militias.

Formal and compositional puzzles (“What am I looking at?”) are resolved by detailed captions. A disorienting photo that shows a boat filled with dark liquid, a male figure, the river and the dense surrounding vegetation is explained thus: “At an illicit refinery, a worker sits on a wooden boat filled with crude. Local communities rely on river water for bathing, drinking, and fishing.” With this additional information, the image shifts from descriptive to horrifying. The photo essay format also enables James to examine many aspects of the Nigerian oil industry, so we begin to sense how it all fits together — how oil consumption produces environmental risk and inequality. And yet, despite the power of James’s photographs of the Niger Delta, they feel removed from the politics and economics — let alone the domestic lives — of the United States — even though Nigeria is our fifth largest supplier of oil. What is missing here is a strategy for extending these photographs in time and space, pointing to deeper causes and dependencies, longer-term effects and global systems.

Samuel James, from The Water of My Land. [© Samuel James]


One especially powerful and innovative project is Misrach’s and Orff’s jointly authored Petrochemical America, which concentrates on oil infrastructure in southern Louisiana — in particular on the 85-mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River that connects Baton Rouge and New Orleans, once known as “petrochemical alley” because of the many refineries located along the river, and more recently, and for much the same reason, as “cancer alley.” Here Misrach’s photographs are contextualized and extended by Orff’s carefully researched “ecological atlas,” which visualizes how America’s landscapes have been shaped by petroleum. One happy result of this collaborative approach is that the photographs are not overwhelmed; rather, they maintain their mystery and aesthetic force despite and perhaps even because of the informational and narrative overlays.

Orff refers to her compositions as throughlines — ways of extending the photographs in time and space and, ultimately, of telling stories; in this sense she sees her work as concerned more with narrative than with data visualization. For example, superimposed on Misrach’s Night Releases is a map of the lower Mississippi River that indicates the location of chemical processing and distribution facilities. A spidery network of red and brown lines trace the rail, road and pipeline routes traveled by petrochemical products and also the locations of various facilities — from Alcoa, Safety-Kleen and ExxonMobil Chemical upriver to DupontDow Elastomers, Amercan Cyanamid and Chevron Oronite further south. On the facing page, a small map of the United States shows natural gas transport corridors and provides broader context. Nearby is an explanation of how minimally processed petrochemicals exported from Louisiana are turned into “children’s toys, DVDs, dinner plates, and a dizzying array of other consumer products.” Orff’s throughline thus illuminates Misrach’s photograph like a flash, revealing some of the larger systems into which it fits. We still see the railcars and the mist, but now we can also comprehend earlier and later moments in the processes of petrochemical extraction, transport and production.

Richard Misrach is an accomplished photographer who achieved early prominence with his images of atomic test sites in the American West. Kate Orff is a landscape architect whose work focuses on urban ecology and green infrastructure. Petrochemical America is an unconventional book, made up of three parts. Part I consists of Misrach’s series Cancer Alley, which includes photographs taken over a dozen years. In 1998 he was commissioned by the High Art Museum in Atlanta to produce photographs for the exhibition Picturing the South; in 2009 the museum’s curator, Julian Cox, invited Misrach to create a new selection. Misrach was interested, but wanted to do more; as he puts it, “to do some sort of intervention that reached out and maybe had some constructive results.”

Richard Misrach, Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana (1998). [© Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles; from Petrochemical America.]

Richard Misrach, Norco Cumulus Cloud, Shell Oil Refinery, Norco, Louisiana (1998). [© Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles; from Petrochemical America.]

Kate Orff, from Petrochemical America. [© SCAPE]

The 49 full-page color plates of Cancer Alley that comprise Part I are often accompanied by explanatory paragraphs, written by Orff, that depart markedly from the neutral tone of the typical museum wall text or art book caption. Indeed, these brief texts inform the meaning and feel of the images. In Norco Cumulus Cloud, Shell Oil Refinery, Norco, Louisiana (1998), for instance, what seemed like a naturally fluffy cloud hovering by chance over an industrial site is revealed to be an artificial formation — “Norco cumulus” is the local nickname — “created by the commingling of moisture and volatile hydrocarbons” over the site of the Shell Oil refinery in Norco, Louisiana; we also learn that in 2009 “the EPA ranked Louisiana as one of the top ten polluters of air and water in the United States.”

Part II consists of Orff’s “Ecological Atlas”; here she works to “[unravel] moments in the photographs, revealing the dense interrelated systems and everyday scenarios that comprise them, and [provide] a broader template for understanding, imagining, and acting.” Her central contention is that our “failure to perceive” is partly responsible for our failure to act. Petrochemical America aims to help us both see and understand that “We have collectively made a landscape that is a machine for consuming petrochemicals,” and that this landscape, while naturalized, is anything but natural. As Orff describes them, the throughlines — which feature complex images that layer photographs, maps, drawings and infographics — are experiments in “narrative cartography”; they explore seven aspects of the petrochemical industry — oil, infrastructure, waste, displacement, ecology/economy, food and landscape — to enlarge our understanding of its scale and history.

In the section on waste, for example, Orff re-contextualizes Misrach’s Night Flare (2010). In the photograph the  flare of gas hints at an extensive system of industrial processes that are largely invisible. Orff’s visual narrative, titled “Deep in the Ground, Up in the Air,” explains how toxic waste — including “hydrochloric acid, explosives and pesticides” — is both released into the air and sequestered deep underground in “geological pockets” that could leach into groundwater. We can’t see poisonous waste a mile underground nor can we see airborne particulates, but in this way the gas flare is sutured back into its originating context as part of a petrochemical facility, and that context is extended beyond our direct perception. In the infrastructure section, the meaning of Misrach’s Pipeline and River Road, Donaldson, Louisiana (2010) is similarly extended. We learn where exactly these lengths of pipeline and road are leading and what they are transporting; we learn also that “waste, ethylene and massive quantities of oil” — including part of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve — are stored in “ancient geological features known as salt domes” miles beneath the ground. In an interview for Aperture, the book’s publisher, Orff explains that she perceived Misrach’s photos as suggesting “phantom stories” waiting to be explored and communicated. Indeed, Pipeline and River Road, like many of Misrach’s images, does seem haunted, more gothic than sublime, menaced by hidden forces. As a style the gothic has long been used to register secret desires and unhealed historical wounds; here the environmental gothic registers the fear that someday a well will burst, a pipe will leak, a toxin will bio-accumulate.

Richard Misrach, Pipeline and River Road, Donaldson, Louisiana (2010). [© Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles; from Petrochemical America.]

Richard Misrach, Night Flare (2010). [© Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles; from Petrochemical America.]

Kate Orff, from Petrochemical America. [© SCAPE]

One of the last throughlines, filed under “landscape” and titled “Bigger, Farther, Filled with More Stuff,” is an overlay depicting the oil required to build and maintain a large single-family exurban home. Here an enlargement of Misrach’s photograph New Housing Construction, Paulina, Louisiana (2010) is used to illustrate America’s ever growing houses (now more than twice the size they were in 1950) and the petroleum needed to manufacture household products, including particle board and PVC, paint and shingles, soda cans and milk cartons. It is fitting that Part II concludes with the section on landscape, because for Orff it is landscape that joins all the parts of the narrative. In her perspective it is landscape that provides a comprehensible middle scale between the seeming inconsequentiality of individual actions (“turn off the lights”) and the vastness of global environmental problems caused by climate change. She wants us to move beyond the traditional and now dated appreciation of landscape — as picturesque, beautiful, natural — and toward a multidimensional understanding of landscape as a product of diverse social, historic, environmental and economic forces.

Part III of Petrochemical America is a 24-page pamphlet nestled into a pocket inside the back cover: “Glossary of Terms & Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture.” Organized alphabetically, the glossary begins with Action Network, Adaptive Reuse, and Bioremediation and ends with Walking, Watershed Governance, and Wetland Terracing. While the book is glossy, full color, and impressive in weight and size, the glossary is small, lightweight, produced on matte white paper and printed in black and a brownish red. Instead of photographs it has schematic drawings illustrating a handful of scenarios. In “Body as Sensor,” for instance, we see residents bringing soil samples and getting their blood tested at a mobile lab. In essence, it shows us several key terms — Action Network, Mobile Health Clinic, Odors and Symptoms Journal, Toxics Release Inventory — in action. The modest production of the Glossary reinforces Orff’s point that solutions will depend on grassroots networks and local actions; you can imagine rolling it up and keeping it handy, a guide on the journey from the landscape of oil to a post-petrochemical future.

Misrach’s photographs and Orff’s throughlines share the space of Petrochemical America, but it is crucial that they operate in different registers. The photographs are relentlessly particular, while the graphics and texts of the throughlines aim to represent broader and more inclusive phenomena, both historic and contemporary. Together they underscore that we need both approaches. “Richard’s photographs are experienced almost intuitively and emotionally,” says Orff, in the Aperture interview. “My hope is that by integrating emotion and analysis, photography, research, and speculation, the book can play a role in sparking a deeper discussion about the future of energy and our shared climate and the landscape that we have made. … Hopefully it will spark other sorts of collaborations and exchanges.” I too hope that we’ll see more creative collaborations between artists and writers, photographers and designers — collaborations that can deliver a one-two punch in our collective struggle to visualize and understand complex environmental issues, and ultimately to envision and create better environmental futures.

Richard Misrach, New Housing Construction, Paulina, Louisiana (2010). [© Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles; from Petrochemical America.]

Kate Orff, from Petrochemical America. [© SCAPE]


Mark Feldman, “Illuminating the Petrochemical Landscape,” Places Journal, March 2013. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 03.19.2013 at 17:53

    This is an absolutely amazing essay, a starting point to further study (by me). Wanting to find a copy of Petrochemical America now. Many times it seems the data is so abstract--combining photography and design is a good way to give it emotional content as well as intellectual data. It seems to be a more effective way to achieve action then either one separately.

  • 03.21.2013 at 00:30

    Thanks, Brian. You should definitely track down a copy of Petrochemical America. I'd be curious what you think and if you know of any other projects that seem related in their combination of photography/design and words/data.

  • 03.21.2013 at 22:14

    This article is fantastic. I recently published an article on Burtynsky and Epstein and oil infrastructure, which may interest readers here:

  • 03.23.2013 at 14:58

    Thank you for this enlightening discovery! I will look for the book. The article (funny thing..spellcheck just popped up artillery for article) encourages me to share this with others. The photographs allow humans to see the big picture. We can gain distance and perspective this way. Distance from the petty pursuit of $ and things; greater understanding of our connections as humanity and nature.