Books

The Psychedelic Pollution Floating in the Gowanus Canal

Steven Hirsch’s photographs capture unexpected beauty in one of America’s most polluted waterways.

“Chronos” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)

For his Gowanus Waters photographspublished last year in a monograph by Powerhouse Books, New Yorker Steven Hirsch brings his lens so close to the toxic surface of the heavily polluted Brooklyn waterway, you may worry about his health. Yet the results are strangely mesmerizing, transforming the burbling brew from more than 150 years of industrial runoff into psychedelic abstractions. Streaks of purple mingle with neon greens and blues, while rainbow wisps swirl amid a murky darkness, like galaxies floating in space.

Cover of Gowanus Waters (courtesy Powerhouse Books)

The Gowanus Waters book follows a 2014 exhibition of the pictures at Lilac Gallery. Like Miska Draskoczy’s recently published photographs of the wildlife and nature of the Gowanus Canal, Hirsch’s vibrant images encourage a new perspective on the 1.8-mile waterway. And while they’re not necessarily a form of environmental advocacy, it’s hard to separate them from the site’s polluted past. The Gowanus neighborhood continues to be gentrified and developed (the gleaming Whole Foods got a $12.9 million tax credit for its cleanup of contaminated land) even as the adjacent waters remain poisonous. In a 2013 article for Popular Science, Dan Nosowitz asked, “What would happen if you drank water from the Gowanus Canal?” The answer was complex due to the sheer number and variety of pollutants — in one of the stagnant micro-zones, you might be guzzling raw sewage or E. coli, while another would be rich in radioactive material or arsenic. No matter what, you’d probably get dysentery.

The Gowanus Canal is now an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Site, although it’s possible the cleanup plan could be delayed under the Trump administration, with longtime EPA opponent Scott Pruitt leading the agency. Some of its “black mayonnaise,” a grotesque mix of coal tar, heavy metals, and PCBs lining the canal’s bottom, along with old boats, tires, ragged metal, and even boulders, was dredged late last year. Will Hirsch’s photographs eventually be a time capsule of industrial folly?

“One spring day, we visited the canal and Hirsch saw, for the first time, the water teeming with tiny fish, but caught virtually none of the slime he’d been hoping to discover to make new photographs,” journalist Jordan G. Teicher writes in an introduction to Gowanus Waters. “Indeed, thanks to its Superfund status, the canal — long referred to by locals as ‘Lavender Lake’ for its distinctive, unnatural hues — is slowly on the mend. Soon enough, Hirsch’s polluted palette will be a memory, much like the industrial heyday of the borough’s interior.”

“Theros” (2015), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Theia” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Symplegades” ( 2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Styx” (2015), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Hephaestus” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Ceto” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Psamathe” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Asteria” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Mania” (2015), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)
“Aphrodite” (2014), from Gowanus Waters by Steven Hirsch (courtesy the artist and Powerhouse Books)

Steven Hirsch’s Gowanus Waters is published by Powerhouse Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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