People make their quickest and often most lasting judgments based on what they see. In recognition of the iconic power of environmental photography, the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) has dubbed photographer Richard Misrach the 2001 Environmental Messenger of the Year.
Misrach is best known for his Desert Cantos, a series of photos documenting the often-bizarre mix of human-wrought environmental devastation and austere, timeless serenity in the deserts of the American West. The EGA has recognized him specifically for his work documenting widespread pollution in an area along the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley.” Home to seven oil refineries and at least 175 heavy industrial plants, the area suffers from strikingly high rates of cancer and asthma. A growing body of evidence ties the smokestacks and the human health problems together, but the industries hold political power over complacent state environmental agencies.
Misrach’s photographs, commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, show bleak and abandoned landscapes. In one photo a sprawling chemical complex and a bank of gray clouds loom behind one of Louisiana’s above-ground cemeteries; in another, a grizzled tree stump and what looks like an old smokestack are the only distinguishing features on a stretch of eerily clear and calm river. The drab, lifeless character of the photos is especially shocking given the ecological richness of Louisiana and the Mississippi River.
“Richard Misrach’s photographs of Cancer Alley best represent our criteria of extraordinary creative images that convey a compelling environmental message,” says Sarah Hansen, the EGA’s executive director. Based in New York City, the EGA is an association of foundations and grant-making programs concerned with environmental issues.
“My hope is to continue working on the issue and eventually do a book,” says Misrach, who has recently relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, but hopes to do more work in Cancer Alley. “I’m currently working with some architects on a long-term plan to revitalize the area. I think it has great potential for eco-tourism if we play our cards right.”