Petrochemical America

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© Courtesy of Aperture Gallery
Petrochemical America

547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10001
August 25th, 2012 - October 6th, 2012

(212) 505-5555
Monday–Saturday, 10:00 am–6:00 pm


Petrochemical America (September 2012) features Richard Misrach’s haunting photographic record of Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor, accompanied by landscape architect Kate Orff’s Ecological Atlas—a series of “speculative drawings” developed through research and mapping of data from the region. Their joint effort depicts and unpacks the complex cultural, physical, and economic ecologies along 150 miles of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, an area of intense chemical production that first garnered public attention as “Cancer Alley” when unusual occurrences of cancer were discovered in the region.

This collaboration has resulted in an unprecedented, multilayered document presenting a unique narrative of visual information. Petrochemical America offers in-depth analysis of the causes of specific environmental abuses in the region, and expands into an extensively researched study of the way in which petrochemicals have permeated every facet of contemporary life in America.

What is revealed over the course of the book is that Cancer Alley—although complicated by its own regional histories and particularities—may well be an apt metaphor for the global impact of petrochemicals on the human landscape as a whole. Misrach and Orff's collaborative examination of Cancer Alley points to the past and into the future, implicating neighborhoods and corporate states. It also aims to participate in new thinking about how we can best divest ourselves of our addiction to petrochemicals, and to sketch the outlines of a more hopeful future.

The book is presented in two parts. Part 1, Cancer Alley, pairs Misrach’s photographs and extended, contextualizing captions, showcasing the immediate plight of embattled local communities and surrounding industries. Part 2, the Ecological Atlas, unravels moments in the photographs, revealing the dense interrelated systems and everyday scenarios that comprise them, and provides a broader template for understanding, imagining, and acting. The chapters included are Oil, Infrastructure, Waste, Displacement, Ecology/Economy, Food, and Landscape. The Appendix includes an index of Common Petrochemicals, Notes and Data, and a reference Bibliography. A Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post–Petrochemical Culture can be found in a pocket on the inside back cover. This booklet weaves together analysis of local environmental conditions with case studies, tools, and practices that are models for change.

Ultimately, this joint enterprise brought forth an exploration and expansion of both disciplines: how can photography and landscape architecture generate change, and how can design choreograph public and private interests to refashion a place? Misrach and Orff started with a discussion of public health and local politics and ended in a dialogue about the future American landscape relative to obsolescence and sprawl. 


Richard Misrach (born in Los Angeles, 1949) has a long-standing personal connection with New Orleans and the surrounding region. Destroy This Memory, his latest published monograph, shows a record of hurricane-inspired graffiti left on houses and cars in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, which garnered Aperture a nomination for a 2010 Lucie Award for Book Publisher of the Year, and won the award for Best Photobook of the Year 2011 at PhotoEspaña. Another standout success was his 2007 large-format Aperture book On the Beach, a sublime visual meditation on the relationship between humankind and the environment, which is as spectacular as it is unsettling. Earlier, Aperture published Violent Legacies, which addressed, in part, the contamination of the desert due to nuclear testing. Richard Misrach’s other books include Golden Gate, released by Aperture in spring 2012, on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the iconic bridge.


Kate Orff (born in Maryland, 1971) is an assistant professor at Columbia University and founder of SCAPE, a landscape architecture studio in Manhattan. Her work weaves together sustainable development, design for biodiversity, and community-based change. Orff’s recent exhibition at MoMA, Oyster-tecture, imagined the future of the polluted Gowanus Canal as part of a ground-up community process and an ecologically revitalized New York harbor.

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