A Terrible Beauty

by Joshua J. Friedman ’08JRN
Petrochemical America
By Kate Orff, Photographs by Richard Misrach
Aperture, 216 pages, $80
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Petrochemical AmericaIn her ecological atlas, Orff tries to diagnose the underlying problems, often by connecting them to large-scale systems. She traces the development of the petroleum industry, beginning with prehistoric algae deposits in the Jurassic period, and parses the effects of oil and its derivative chemicals on the earth and living creatures. In a clever design feature, Orff reproduces Misrach’s photographs in miniature and expands their boundaries to include explanatory illustrations. For example, she extends Misrach’s swamp pipeline to meet cross sections of drilling equipment on one end and chemical plants on the other. In geospatial maps, we see the pipeline stretch along the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico, branching out and multiplying, with a red circle marking the site of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. Orff’s project is part academic, part political: she wants to restore people’s instinctive connection to the land and draw their attention to the ways that ordinary economic choices can ripple out to touch every part of the country.

At times, Orff’s ambition leads her to stray too far from local conditions and practicable solutions. Layers of information sprawl like suburbs, as if the atlas’s purpose were not to explain their order but to prove them unorderable. The most moving section of the atlas keeps its focus on this particular expanse of Louisiana land. Along several maps of the river, Orff charts selected incidents in the histories of affected communities. In Reveilletown, after an accident at a Georgia Gulf plant, vinyl chloride found its way into local children’s blood. In Morrisonville, fear of lawsuits led Dow Chemical to preemptively relocate the entire town in two pieces, sending one north and one south.

Amid such damage, it is occasionally shocking to notice how Misrach has looked at this compromised land and found beauty. One photograph of the water-covered batture north of Port Allen resembles a Dutch Golden Age painting, with textured sky and lush trees and shrubs reflected in the river. Images of destruction have a double pull, repelling and compelling at once, as in a sugarcane field that yields to a complex monochrome of gray sky, silver geometry, and dissipating smoke. By capturing beauty as well as hardship, Misrach implicitly makes a case for this land’s survival. “The world is as terrible as it is beautiful,” Misrach has written, “but when you look more closely, it is as beautiful as it is terrible.”

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