Sunday, October 6, 2019

Richard Sexton: Enigmatic Stream, Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River

In this “Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River” exhibit of nearly 100 black-and-white photographs, Richard Sexton has tackled perhaps his most challenging project to date. The vast petro-chemical corridor that extends from Baton Rouge past New Orleans is one of America's most vital heavy-industry complexes as well as a major economic engine for Louisiana. Lauded as a technological marvel and derided as a pollution spewing “cancer alley,” its controversies complicate the documentary photographer's task of clear and unbiased depiction. Here, Sexton lets these industries speak for themselves as otherworldly structures that arise improbably from among cow pastures, homes, cemeteries and the romantic remnants of fabled plantations.

Is it possible for fantastical technological complexes to visually inspire intense emotions? The view of the Norco refinery as seen from over the river at Hahnville, top, is “awesome” in every sense of the word, but what sort of awe does it inspire? Recalling science fiction illustrations, it harks to a disorienting realm beyond ordinary human experience as we struggle to fathom its implications. Comprising the cover of the book that accompanies the exhibit, it visually epitomizes the “enigma” that we live with. The river banks are also studded with utilitarian facilities like grain silos and the relics of antiquated industries in a kind of vast visual anarchy. For instance, the steel trusses of the Huey P. Long bridge, left, are starkly utilitarian, but the arches supporting them reveal surprisingly intricate gothic hints of old Europe. This interaction of vast natural and industrial forces with pervasive human whimsy is a recurring theme as we see in an image of vast oceangoing tankers anchored in the river adjacent the flooded Bonnet Carre' Spillway where a fisherman wades along the shore just as so many before him have always done, yet the dead reside ambiguously in the Holy Rosary Cemetery surrounded by a sprawling Union Carbide refinery, above. The contexts and contrasts defy easy interpretation. As Sexton puts it: “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. Such is the nature of enigmas.” ~Bookhardt / Richard Sexton: Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River, Through April 5, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St. 523-4662.