Along with Friedlander, the Cantor Center is showing a selection of Richard Misrach’s Cancer Alley photographs. It’s not the full collection but it’s enough. I only discovered Misrach last year at the Oakland Museum. At that show, looking through the rest of his work, I found that I really liked him.
Misrach’s work isn’t exactly ruin porn but definitely dances around with and touches on some of the what makes ruin porn appealing. What keeps it from being ruin porn is that it’s making a point and capturing more than just the “this is old and looks cool” esthetic. The Cancer Alley photos take this a step further to the point where it’s no longer clear what’s been ruined. There’s a balance between the man-made and the natural—are we ruining nature or is nature reclaiming and adapting to our developments.
The photos are also huge (over 4 feet by 5 feet). Some are prints from 8×10 film, others are prints from digital images. If you look you can see the difference. But it doesn’t really matter much. For almost all the images, I found myself—and noticed the people around me doing the same—constantly leaning in to look at details, stepping back, looking in again at the wall text, stepping back again.
At some point for each image, something would click for everyone and I’d hear that quick intake of breath through pursed lips. Sometimes it would be a detail in the photo while other times it would be the context on the walls which caused the reaction. Whatever the cause was, we would all gesture our museum partner over and point out what we’d noticed and felt. I can’t think of another exhibition which was quite like this in this regard.
The wall text in particular makes a huge difference in understanding the images. As do the Petrochemical America infographics. As impressive as the photos are by themselves, it’s impossible to understand how everything—the ecology of the area and our global consumption of petrochemicals—fits together without this information. The infographics are all well done. Clear in making their point and cleanly referencing the photos in the process. They only add to our understanding of things.
The main understanding being exactly how much petrochemicals are entwined in our lives. It’s tempting to look at these photos as being a red state problem,* but we’re all consuming the results and demanding the cheap prices. We all want cheap clothes, fuel, and food. So we all bear some responsibility.
*That Burtynsky is documenting the same thing in China shows that it’s a worldwide thing.
Despite all this, and as tempting as it is to be depressed by this kind of thing, that’s not the sense I got from the show. If anything, there’s a sense of “is this the world we want to keep living in” rather than, “we’re screwed.” The photos are still beautiful even though they contain so much ugliness. They’re just not showing us pristine idealized nature. This is nature after we’ve messed with it. But nature is still surviving and we can change our habits.