The photographs of Richard Sexton’s Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River offer an evocative depiction of southeast Louisiana and the prodigious river that runs through it. From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, petrochemical plants and refineries line the banks of the Mississippi. It’s difficult to look at the artist’s latest collection of black-and-white images without being reminded of “Cancer Alley,” the somber epithet attached to the region due to its concentration of petrochemical facilities and the inordinate number of local residents afflicted with health issues attributed to living in close proximity to industrial pollution.
“We are intellectually aware of heavy industry’s importance, are in awe of its power, and, at the same time, fear and loathe its existence,” the artist writes in his latest book’s introduction. Originally from Georgia, the 65-year-old photographer has lived in New Orleans since 1991. His career spans over four decades. Past titles include New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence, Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, and Terra Incognita: Photographs of America’s Third Coast. Enigmatic Stream is his 14th book. The photographs within were shot with a Deardorff V810 large format camera (which Sexton rehabilitated himself), and a Leica M Monochrom digital camera.
I recently joined Sexton in his St. Roch home to discuss his most recent body of work.
I know you’ve been shooting for a long time. Walk me through your initial interest in photography and how you arrived at Enigmatic Stream.
I bought a camera when I was in college. I hadn’t travelled a lot, and I initially saw the camera as an accessory to that experience. My idea of a journal would be all the photographs I would take. The camera I bought was expensive at the time, a Nikon F, so I thought, “Well I bought this expensive camera. I really want to do photography, and this looks like a fun profession I could teach myself to do.” All of this may have been kind of pollyannaish, but that’s what I was thinking at the time. I was graduating with a degree in political science. I thought I’d get a graduate degree in photography because I had a portfolio. I moved to San Francisco for the San Francisco Art Institute. I loved San Francisco but I hated art school. It was nothing like I thought it was going to be. I had not had studio art classes up until that point. I had taken art history, but I’d never really experienced the academic world of art. It was a big disappointment. But there were publishers there. I formed a relationship with Chronicle Books.
In ‘91, I moved to New Orleans and started doing books here and gradually got to the point where I could make books that fell into the art photography genre. As far as the immediate backstory for Enigmatic Stream, 20 years ago I did a book on the plantation architecture of the River Road. Vestiges of Grandeur was the title. That was not my title; that was one of my biggest regrets. The working title all throughout the project had been “Vestiges of the Ancient Regime,” which I thought described that area. Slavery had been made illegal, but the residue that carried forward has not been resolved. There’s a stigma to that whole era of American history. I would have preferred to only have photographed the ruins that had not been remade into house museums that tourists would visit or anything like that. For the sake of having something that people could buy that would be commercially successful, and also journalistically complete, I had to include these other plantations that were the most famous, because those were the ones people could go to and see. But I did that project, and it turned out well, although I would have liked to have framed it differently thematically and journalistically. In the course of that project, I drove every mile of the River Road on both sides of the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. So I saw all this industry; and it’s really pretty spectacular when you see it out there in the middle of nowhere. Next to a cane field, here’s an oil refinery. And there in the towns, too. But I knew about all of that from living in New Orleans, and in Baton Rouge Exxon Mobil is right there in the city. But the industry out along the River Road, you didn’t see those structures unless you were living inside of those little towns, working there, or doing something like this project. I decided that I wanted to photograph the heavy industry on the River Road, and I wanted to do it in black-and-white because I thought it was more flattering to the subject, both to nature and to the industry itself. I thought it looked better, and you’ve got to create compelling images if you want to get anyone’s attention. I don’t think it’s really ugly—it’s extraordinary industrial design, although not everyone sees it that way. With global warming, toxic pollution, and the risk for everyone that lives close to this stuff, it’s controversial. The risk versus reward aspect to this whole scenario is subject to re-evaluation at this time.
It’s interesting to note that a lot of your work has focused on architecture. Do you see this body of work as being in conversation with your earlier architectural photography?
It is. The same thing that made me interested in architecture applies to these refineries and factories. In a formalistic sort of way, [the refineries and factories] are impressive structures and they’re graphically interesting. They’re also mysterious; that’s where the title comes from in part. They’re sort of impossible to understand. Even if you know it’s an oil refinery, just looking at it you’ve got no sense how that process works. What is it? What is the process in which they’re taking crude oil and it’s coming out as styrofoam, plastic, or rayon? That’s baffling to a layperson. It’s particularly interesting how they look at night, like a city all aglow. You see the smoke and the steam and the lights. They do have this spectacular quality to them, in a perverse kind of way. They still look scary, like whatever they’re doing in there looks kind of dangerous. And it is.
Enigmatic Stream documents what you consider to be the overlooked industry lining the banks of the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana. Why do you think of this industry as overlooked and what compelled you to bring attention to it?
I think it’s overlooked because it no longer represents the future. There was a time when this was what the future looked like. We now understand that this future of the past that we once idealized has caused severe environmental problems. All of these things that we thought the planet could maybe just absorb, it’s beyond that now. It’s overbrimming, and so climate is changing. Even if that weren’t happening, at the rate we’re going through it, there’s not enough crude oil to keep us going forever. As industry became taken for granted, it became overlooked. It’s just out there, in the background. The River Road is completely bypassed now. If you’re going to Baton Rouge, no one takes the River Road. No one even takes Highway 61. They go on I-10, so they can see a little bit of it from a distance, but that’s it. The river is still a place of commerce and transportation, but not on a personal level for most. So people don’t see it anymore, and there’s not that many people employed in industry relative to the number of people who live in south Louisiana. I think it’s also become increasingly controversial now that everyone has been made aware of the problems it has caused. People were blind to it, and now that we’ve been made acutely aware of what the consequences are, suddenly everyone is all jacked up about it, as they should be.
Tell me about your aims with this project.
I wanted to make this about the visual presence of heavy industry along the river. As a photographer, my philosophy is to hold up the mirror and say, “This is what it is. I have portrayed it as honestly and as straightforward as I can. This is exactly what it looks like. What do you think? Does this look normal to you? Is this a problem?” I think that’s the most effective way to influence someone’s feelings about all this: just show it to them.
Holy Rosary Cemetery surrounded by Union Carbide petrochemical plant, Taft; 2015 (2015.0364.53)
I’ve noticed the recurring imagery of cemeteries in close proximity to symbols of industry. What draws you to this juxtaposition?
With Enigmatic Stream, it’s a touchstone. I start the dedication with one person’s tomb who was an oil rig worker. That sets the tone for the conflict in this book. The dedication is: “To human ingenuity, the beautiful wildness of nature, and the conflict between the two.” Conflict is the key word here. In John Lawrence’s essay [at the beginning of Enigmatic Stream], there’s a cemetery in Algiers Point where the Crescent City Connection is in the background. You can’t see the river, but you can see the bridge going over it, and you have the cemetery there, almost right underneath it. You have industry, then you have the graves of people who worked in the industry, or on the river, or during their life had some connection to the scene behind. Then one of the last images in the book is at the [Union] Carbide plant in Taft, a town that doesn’t exist anymore. The chemical plant is where the town used to be. Even the church has been moved; there’s nothing left but the cemetery. Everyone that goes up and down the River Road always stops there and takes a picture. It’s just such a jarring juxtaposition that it isn’t lost on anybody.
While very much a body of work focused on documenting man-made structures, Enigmatic Stream also captures nature in relation to the built environment. I’m thinking of the images of trees growing next to bridges, like the shot of the Hale Boggs Bridge in Destrehan. Those photographs make me think of you as a passive observer to this oracular dialogue between opposing forces. I was wondering if you thought about some of these images in a similar way.
As I said, conflict is the key word. There’s a conflict happening. If you go back to the title, something enigmatic is mysterious or difficult to understand, but it can also be paradoxical. A paradox is a contradiction, something that doesn’t make sense. That is something that I wanted to show: this fact that you have a river, which is an organic component of the natural landscape, and it now has this engineered status. That engineering is way out in front of global warming—long before anyone had even heard of global warming there was this issue of the river flooding. Levees were put up so the river couldn’t flood anymore. Geologists knew this was a deltaic land formation, that it was created by the flooding of the river. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this was eventually going to cause problems, but those problems were far down the road. The bigger problem was flooding and people getting killed and having homes and industry destroyed, and having the river not function properly as a navigational waterway. It’s exacerbated by global warming, but it’s a separate problem that’s very, very local and if it isn’t dealt with, the ramifications from it are more readily discernible and are much farther along than rising sea level. The fact that we have sort of interrupted nature in this way, without regard to the long-term implications, is part of the storyline in the photographs and what the juxtaposition is all about. Nature versus the man-made; heavy industry versus residential use.
Cow pasture with fertilizer plant under construction in background, near Donaldsonville; 2015 (2015.0364.2)
Thinking of the Mississippi River in relation to nature and the built environment is particularly interesting, as it’s possible to conceptualize the river as existing in the liminal space between the two.
The river is mysterious to me in the sense that we don’t see it in a normal way. We’ve got all these levees that form a barrier. Even the people that live right by the river, they stare at this mound of earth, and the river is on the other side of it. Sometimes the batture goes on for two or three hundred yards, full of brush and willows. You might be on top of the levee and still not be able to see the river. You might be able to see a tall ship, but you still don’t really see the water. The river is hidden, and the landscape is low. We’re cut off, and we don’t see that it’s there.
Thinking of the framing of many of these photographs, I look at these structures like an intrusion on the landscape—
Or a form of violence. You have residential communities and cow pastures occupying the foreground, while in the background there’s chemical plants and refineries. What other vocabulary comes to mind for you when you think of these landscapes?
I would say it is a disruption to the landscape. You could make the case that anything man-made is, like if you look at the skyline of a city on a river or the ocean. Were it not there, things would look totally different. Even if you look at resort development, if you look at Miami Beach, that’s supposed to be something that’s glamorous. They’re not factories; they’re condos where people live. They want to be on the ocean, and they’ve got a 30-story residential tower and there’s one right after another. That remarkably changes what was there before.
River Road residences adjacent to warning siren, which indicates toxic discharges from nearby industrial plants; near Gramercy; 2015 (2015.0364.14)
Can you tell me about the warning sirens that appear in some of your photographs? I had never noticed those structures before.
They exist all along the River Road. They’re just on a utility pole and kind of inconspicuous, but those are the sirens that go off when there’s a toxic discharge at a plant. It’s a warning to residents—you’re supposed to stay inside until further notice. From a practical standpoint, if you live really close to the plant and there’s a really bad toxic discharge, it’s not going to do you much good to stay indoors. They would help, maybe, if you were on the fringe.
These photographs made me look at the megastructures differently—I’m often so fascinated by the lights and geometry that I lose spatial context. But the presence of sky is so prominent in this work; aside from being visually striking, it provides a different frame of reference for thinking of industry in relation to its environs.
The industry is relatively small. One of the things that I did—as opposed to the types of photographs that the refineries and heavy industry take of their facilities—I pulled back further to get more context, to show more of what’s around and what’s being affected. I also wanted to give that scale perspective—we are relatively small. The Earth is relatively small compared to the cosmos, and we’re smaller still. These things that we’re doing are relatively tiny, but they’re still really impactful. I guess I was probably trying to make the statement that nature is bigger than us, but we’re a part of it and we’re affecting it.
Would you mind describing your interactions with Homeland Security and the F.B.I.?
They don’t want pictures being taken. If they can prevent any photographs from being made anywhere around any of these facilities, they will. They certainly are not going to allow anyone to come on to the grounds and take photographs for a project like this. People would call the sheriff. I was photographing Little Gypsy, one of Entergy’s power plants. It was night, so the deputy sheriff couldn’t really see me up on the levee. When he finally found me, he told me had gotten four calls that there was somebody with a tripod taking pictures. Really, I don’t think it’s because they thought I looked like a terrorist or anything like that; it’s because they thought I might be a journalist or somebody that was going to be a part of some story that was going to have a negative impact on their world. There’s kind of a chip on a lot of people’s shoulders about how outsiders view what’s happening there, particularly for those that work at those plants. And plant security, they’ll turn you into Homeland Security as a deterrent. Any publicity is going to be bad publicity from their standpoint. They’re very, very distrustful, and they fully understand how society feels about what they do.
When you say “they,” who do you mean?
The people who run the plants, the people who work at them, the companies, the corporate interests behind them, all the way up the chain of command. They’re very defensive about what they do. It’s the same thing in agriculture. In most states it’s illegal to photograph a chicken house. They don’t want people to see how the chickens are raised. They’re so ashamed of it they don’t want people to see it. Your friendly butcher doesn’t want you touring the slaughterhouse, either. They don’t want you seeing the animals being killed and cut up. Again, it gets back to my philosophy: all you have to do is show it to people. You don’t have to give it a name like Cancer Alley. As much as it may deserve a moniker like that, I wouldn’t call it that because it’s a kind of a self-inflicted spoiler alert. You’ve given away your perspective right from the beginning.
Well, it’s been called Cancer Alley for the past 30 years.
Yeah, it’s been called that for a long, long time. And it’s had an elevated risk for a long, long time. And it’s still a difficult thing to prove that this is exclusively because of the heavy industry that’s there. It probably is, but it’s still such a difficult argument to win if you’re on the outside trying to affect the change.
But when you’re talking about the work you wouldn’t say that you’ve been photographing Cancer Alley?
I wouldn’t refer to it that way, because it gives away too much information about my personal point of view. When I’m holding up the mirror, I want you as the viewer to have your moment to react to it. It runs counter to good narrative visual storytelling to give it a loaded title.
You made this body of work over a period of 13 years. How did your concepts of industry, the river, and southeast Louisiana change throughout the process?
When I first started it was not as much about oil refineries and chemical plants. It was more about the engineered status of the river, quite honestly. But then it evolved to include all these other things. I think it’s also important to note that this was a background project. I started it, went on to do other things, and didn’t really come back to it in a major way until 2014 through 2016; that’s when the vast majority of the pictures were made. Thirteen years ago people already knew. It was already known how dangerous this all was, and the kind of accidents that could happen at these places. That was already established. I don’t think anything about my attitude really shifted. If I started it in the 1970s, that would have been enough of a timeline to see a major shift in personal opinion as well as society. Over the last 13 years, not so much. I already had sort of a mature attitude towards this, but I didn’t want to lead with that. I wanted to be more neutral in the portrayal of this. I don’t offer any solutions. This book does not have a normal conclusion.
View of Norco petrochemical facilities; from west bank levee in Hahnville; 2015 (2015.0364.92)
Tell me about your interest in examining the correlation between beauty and horror.
I think that maybe it’s just the way that I am, the way I see the world. I think that I like complexity. I certainly like things that are flawed in a way; sometimes they’re more beautiful because of that. An undercurrent of troublesomeness or fear in a beautiful image produces a more complex reaction that is probably going to stick with the viewer for longer.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between New Orleans art and oil- and gas-endowed foundations?
It’s complex. The [Historic New Orleans Collection], some of their money is from the Williams family. They had land with oil on it. Now they weren’t in the oil business, but I’ve never known anyone who had oil on their property who said, “Well, I’m just going to leave it there.” I’m sure there’s people that have made that decision, but [the Williams] didn’t. They put the oil leases out, and they made millions of dollars off of the fact that there was oil on their property that they owned originally for totally different purposes. I think it was timber. So there’s that. Then the oil companies are benefactors to a number of causes, not necessarily art but other civic endeavors. They’re trying to be good corporate citizens, but maybe it’s more like a bribe. Or maybe they realize that they really need to do something, because they do need the support of the local politicians and people to continue to have a presence. A lot of the oil companies were responsible for buying languishing plantation sites and restoring the architecture and making it available to the public. Look at all the families that have been great patrons of the arts, but they’re involved in big pharma and helped fuel the opioid epidemic. I don’t have any solutions for that. For Louisiana and New Orleans, it would be nice if people that are extraordinarily rich became so because they did such wonderfully benevolent things for the world and made money, but it doesn’t always work out that way. And some people that have done some remarkable things for society haven’t gotten the rewards. Life’s not fair. But you do have to make some hard choices. At some point you have to say, “We’re not taking the money.” And some institutions have made that choice; the money is just too tainted with public scandal.
When you envision the future of southeast Louisiana, what do you see?
I’m hopeful that the engineered status of the river can be modified. There’s some solutions there that could help with coastal erosion. I do think it’s going to be increasingly difficult to protect south Louisiana. Certainly Amsterdam is lower than New Orleans and it still survives and it’s not threatened in any big way, but the Dutch have proven that they’re willing to do the things necessary to save it. That’s the commitment that we would have to make. Certainly the rules for oil companies are going to have to change. I don’t think we’re going to go extinct, but it may not be pretty either. Southeast Louisiana is one of the areas that’s going to be severely affected, but there are lots of other areas that will be equally affected. I want to be optimistic, but it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Richard Sexton’s Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River is out now from The Historic New Orleans Collection. The accompanying exhibition is on display at the The Historic New Orleans Collection (520 Royal Street) until April 5. For more info, check out hnoc.org.
Top photo: View across flooded Bonnet Carré Spillway to Norco petrochemical facilities; from near Norco; 2015 (2015.0364.60)
All photos from Enigmatic Stream courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the G. Henry Pierson Jr. Photography Fund.
Portrait of Richard Sexton and Deardorff V810 by Adrienne Battistella.