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A Closer Look: Petrochemical America

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture
In the last century, the landscape of the Mississippi river that runs through Louisiana has been transformed many times; from its natural features of bayou, floodplain and backswamp, to a rich agricultural area ripe for the production of sugarcane, indigo and cotton, to the area thick with petrochemically-related industrial plants. This area epitomizes all that is beneficial and detrimental about our contemporary petrochemical age. Many of the products we use daily contain elements derived from these production facilities and those like it around the world. In the new publication by Aperture, Petrochemical America, photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff combine their talents with a team of great designers and researchers to communicate the complex issues relating to the extraction, storage, disposal, distribution and refining of this finite resource and the multiple ramifications of this highly political and controversial industry.

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture

In 1998, the High Museum commissioned Misrach for a series titled Picturing the South and he chose the industrial area nicknamed “Chemical Corridor” or, as Petrochemical America more often refers to it, “Cancer Alley,” as his subject. The Museum revisited the project in 2012 and Aperture subsequently published a monograph to accompany the show. The artist wanted the book to function not just as a showcase for the project, but also as an illustration of the many issues surrounding this land’s use and as a potential solution to the issues. This is where Kate Orff came in. Using what in design terms is called a Throughline, Orff and her team combined interviews, narratives, and research with Misrach’s photographs to tell a well-rounded story of the life of this oil rich coastline.

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture

Petrochemical America is divided into two primary sections: Misrach’s photographs and Orff’s Ecological Atlas. Misrach’s plates present a desolate landscape, showing the lack of quality of life in this region. A few modest dwellings are dwarfed by their proximity to industrial plants that loom in the background, gray and lifeless, except for the unnatural clouds that hover above. The monstrous factories are often covered in fog, creating a foreboding feeling, as does the remnants of communities -- house plots, abandoned schools and cemeteries – left behind by those who where forced to move because of burning eyes, asthma and increased rates of cancer or simply to make more room for industry. Fences mark polluted areas, many of which do not contain the pollution as the water floats beyond the confines of the wire gates. Forests of dying Cypress trees are noted with captions describing the failed attempts at preservation and clean up. This pollution is a part of the everyday life and although it may be overlooked, it defines the lifestyles of all who live in its proximity.

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture

What is striking about Orff’s contribution is the approachability and eloquence of her writing and her persuasive but non-proselytizing voice. Titled Oil, Waste, Infrastructure, Displacement (of the citizens by plants and pollutions), Ecology/Economy, Food, and Landscape, she and her team present many of the challenges in our embrace of and inevitable move away from this non-renewable resource. Graphics show salt domes that house ethylene; the compressed gas used to manufacture plastics, petroleum, oil, and gas; Louisiana’s coastal wetlands that Orff notes are disappearing at the rate of a football field every thirty-eight minutes (p. 177); many of the products that reside within the contemporary home; an index of common petrochemicals and the contributors’ use of these products in the research of the project—a wealth of information in over 90 full color pages of text and illustrations. The land, our national economy and politics are all intertwined with petrochemical production and when finishing the book we understand that solutions are not as simple as solar panels, windmills, electric cars in reducing our energy independence. Petrochemicals permeate our entire society.

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture

Recognizing the difficulties of the situation and the fact that it has taken us this long to understand the consequences of our social, energy and economic dependence on petrochemical products, Misrach, Orff, Aperture and the team involved in the production of Petrochemical America offer a helpful booklet titled Glossary of Terms & Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture. They briefly define options for complex, manufacturing based advances like by-product synergy, as well as community based solutions such as community supported agriculture, and also individual efforts like car pooling and personal education with organizations like Eco-Label Index founder Big Room.

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture

The book itself is full of eye candy. The endpapers present an aerial view of the region with numbered circles correlating to the plate number of Misrach’s photographs. The book measures approximately 27 inches wide when opened demanding full attention to all its details. Words and arrows flow around the page leading the eye on to the next illustration. Orff often references Misrach’s photographs to illustrate her charts, graphs and timelines, and the double-ribboned page markers make it easy to reference both the photographs and the Throughline. It is a book to be revisited often as it offers more visually and intellectually with each reading.

Petrochemical America. By Richard Misrach & Kate Orff from Aperture

Will such a book have an effect on the way we think and make decisions regarding the petrochemical process and the role individuals play? In the introduction, Orff mentions how the work of Ansel Adams motivated a generation of Sierra Club activists into a movement that culminated in the Wilderness Act, founding new legislation that helped preserve national landscapes. Orff puts Misrach’s images in direct lineage with Adams. Petrochemical America is an important factor in the education of America and if its lessons are applied could be a major factor in making a difference. It is a smart, approachable, and beautiful book. -- Melanie McWhorter

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