Phantom stories : photographing Petrochemical America
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For over forty years, Richard Misrach has been photographing the American landscape, interweaving the politics and poetics of place in the form of striking, large-scale photographs. He is considered a pioneer of color photography, and his work continues to provoke questions about culpability, American identity, and the peculiarities of place, particularly in the American West. Breaking with this geographical trajectory in 1998, Misrach turned his lens to the southeast to explore the relationship between Louisiana’s chemical corridor and the rest of the country. This project, Petrochemical America (2012), is a collaboration between Misrach and landscape architect and sustainability researcher, Kate Orff. Through a combination of Misrach’s photographs and Orff’s text and elaborate maps, Petrochemical America exposes the complex web of social, political, and environmental histories that have variously impacted the construction of place, home, and culture in an area that has come to be known as Cancer Alley. Misrach and Orff argue that Cancer Alley is not a localized phenomenon, but rather is indicative of the ideological landscape of the entire country. Through their compendium of surreal images of homes dwarfed by chemical plants, pipelines cutting through swamps, and preserved slave quarters, Misrach and Orff create an otherworldly environment, a place that is wholly American. The authors draw explicit links—through both image and text—between Louisiana’s past as a slave state and its present as the largest crude oil producer in the nation. Through narratives of production, consumption, displacement, and health, the present Cancer Alley––and indeed the nation––emerge as reiterations of history. While Petrochemical America has been exhibited around the country, published in a book which is now in its second edition, and received critical praise, it has yet to be studied within the three histories that frame the project—race, capitalism, and the environment. Through a close reading of Petrochemical America in both its exhibition and photobook form, this essay seeks to explore how the project points to a new paradigm of the American landscape––a landscape that is haunted by its slaveholding past.