Photo Essays

The Improbable Nature of the Gowanus Canal, Photographed at Night

Since 2012, photographer Miska Draskoczy has explored the urban ecology of the toxic yet gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood.

Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)

Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood is a rapidly gentrifying Superfund site, where the ecological disruption of over 150 years of industry endures alongside new condos and commercial spaces. Yet animals and plants, both natural and invasive, live amid the decay and revitalization. Beginning in 2012, local photographer Miska Draskoczy explored Gowanus’s streets and toxic canal by night, capturing the “wilderness” of this urban environment.

Cover of Gowanus Wild (courtesy Unnatural Kingdom)

“My working definition was any element of organic material or weather phenomenon that interacted with the built landscape, whether it’s a plant hanging on a cinderblock wall, footprints in ice, or more traditional forms, like the canal as a body of water or shots of wildlife,” Draskoczy told Hyperallergic. “I thought less about the series being strictly documentarian and more as a metaphoric longing for the wild. Like how even a small bit of overgrown weeds or a patch of crumbling masonry is still an expression of wild forces unchecked by human control, and can provide an avenue for us to experience that connection to wilderness.”

Over 50 of Draskoczy’s photographs are featured in Gowanus Wild, recently released by Unnatural Kingdom in conjunction with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. The monograph follows a 2014 exhibition of the images at Ground Floor Gallery and a 2015 installation at the Brooklyn Public Library. In these recent years, the EPA began a cleanup of the canal (that reportedly can’t be halted by the Trump administration), while artists have faced eviction from longtime studios. The residential and commercial stories of the Gowanus continue to overlap with its distant past as a pre-colonial salty marsh on the edge of the harbor.

Pages from Gowanus Wild (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from Gowanus Wild (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

“These photographs capture a distinct moment in the evolution of the Gowanus watershed, one that is dramatically different from how it was one hundred years ago, even more different from four hundred years ago, and I expect quite different from what we will see in another fifty years,” writes Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, in a book essay.

In one image, a snowy egret perches by the quiet canal, while a sunflower blooms above strewn coffee cups and a discarded plastic barrier. Branches of a tree crawl through a chain-link fence, and, in another shot, red vines creep over graffiti on a white wall. Some of these saturated scenes are accompanied by Draskoczy’s poems, with the first setting the tone: “Night sets and the green canal smooths out / a soft promise in umber tones and emerald glass. / The city holds its breath, the tides of commerce recede.” The streets in the photographs are deserted, and sometimes an eerie mist hovers over the waterway, which is polluted with overflow sewage and chemicals from 19th- and early 20th-century gas plants and tanneries.

“It’s taken on an almost mythic quality,” Draskoczy said. “I wanted to touch on that sense of adventure, of exploring places you’re supposed to avoid, while also illustrating the paradox of Gowanus still remaining very much alive in spite of all the environmental destruction.”

Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)
Miska Draskoczy, photograph from Gowanus Wild (courtesy the artist)

Gowanus Wild by Miska Draskoczy  is out now from Unnatural Kingdom.

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