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Photos

A Photographer Makes the Toxic Gowanus Canal Look Beautiful

It sounds impossible, but these shots bring out an impressionist dreaminess.

(Steven Hirsch)

Poisoned with industrial pollution, infected with gonorrhea, home to the occasional dead body—it's difficult to see the Gowanus Canal as anything but a filthy hell-swamp. Yet Steven Hirsch has managed to do the impossible: depict the notorious waterway in gorgeous, jewel-hued strokes reminiscent of Impressionism's finest masterpieces.

Note that the 66-year-old Hirsch is not a painter but a photographer; it's hard to believe that when scrutinizing his rainbow-dripping images. For those who think of the Gowanus as a fetid pipeline of sewage-brown water, this documentation of the Superfund site will seem strange. It may also be disturbing once they realize that the splashes of intense color hint at petroleum spills, coal-tar waste, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and all the other crap people have dumped in the canal over the decades.

The East Village photographer became intrigued with the Gowanus after a visit in 2010. "While sitting on the bank a large eruption of oil started pulsating on the surface," he says. "I photographed it for about 15 minutes, and it disappeared as quickly as it started."

He soon enough compiled a compelling body of work on the canal, with the help of a little digital trickery like contrast shifts and burning and dodging. "The colors in most cases are exactly as they appear," he says, "but with increased contrast comes increased saturation and hence vibrant, explosive colors."

Hirsch has a show of the work opening November 12 at the Flatiron District's Lilac Gallery, which writes:

Stunning with toxic beauty, the abstract and psychedelic work on view was captured by Steven Hirsch’s lens at the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, one of America’s most polluted waterways. Revealing otherworldly waterscapes in the slime and detritus atop the tainted water, Hirsch’s painterly images swirl in a frenzy of elusive shapes and bright and explosive colors. The artist, known for his many projects depicting the fringe, states, "I would sit there on the side of the canal, and what looked like a giant painting by Monet would be there in front of me hovering on the surface of the water."

Is Hirsch disappointed the Gowanus is being cleaned up, possibly erasing the chances of more of these eerie photos? Nah. "It's a terrible rape of the earth," he says. "It's a desecration of everything wonderful about nature. I'm only sad that man brought this upon himself." Here's some of what will be included in "Gowanus: Off the Water's Surface" (more images are posted here):

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.