When I was growing up, my bedroom window glowed orange every night from the burn-off flare at the nearby Union Carbide plant. The local petrochemical factories were the Texas Gulf Coast’s primary employers—Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Amoco, Monsanto—and everyone, including my parents, made a living within these mini-cities of tangled pipelines, smokestacks, tanks, and valves. I didn’t think of the plants as mysterious or enigmatic then, but as I have grown more enthusiastic about the landscapes they inhabit, I have come to a belated appreciation of the paradoxes they represent: engineering marvels that look like Rube Goldberg constructions, classical assemblages of Platonic solids tarnished with rust and corrosion, and sites of forced intimacy with industries that are dangerous and difficult to understand.
The photographer Richard Sexton has long been in tune with such dissonances. He began with the landscapes of the lower Mississippi for his Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road (1999), in which he documented the “surreal juxtapositions of past and present” as heavy industry encroached on what was left of the state’s agricultural past. From there, he began to concentrate on what he calls the “incongruity and mystery” of the River Road itself: the alluring surface of the Mississippi, the swampy alluvial terrain of the batture, the unsettled drama of Gulf Coast skies, and the haunting industrial landscapes.
In his introduction to Enigmatic Stream, the historian Paul Schneider notes that modern American industry was born in the Mississippi watershed, which spans thirty-two states and two Canadian provinces. In the 1830s, steamboats were common on the Mississippi, many based in New Orleans. It was there that Norbert Rillieux, a free African American, revolutionized the sugar-refining industry with his multiple-effect evaporator. Several modern versions of this evaporator are visible in Sexton’s interior shots of the now-closed Cinclare Sugar Mill, depicting huge vats attached to screened drums punctuated by heavy-duty electrical panels. The machinery has its appeal, but more interesting is the disarray—the water bottles scattered on the floor, the plastic tarp draped in Renaissance splendor in front of the evaporators.
For a body of work that emphasizes the implacably real, Sexton’s imagery frequently surprises with its impressionistic qualities. Smears of steam clouds block out pipelines or trail upward into a twilight sky, softening the harsh contours of iron and steel. The effect is particularly evident in his many nighttime shots, in which the starry pinpricks of light outlining the plants’ superstructure convey bustle, productivity, and a kind of gaiety. Sexton is also willing to wait for just the right atmospheric effects, as in View of St. Bernard Parish industrial waterfront with ruins of old Piety Street Wharf in foreground; from Crescent Park, Bywater, New Orleans (2015). Presented as a gatefold in the book, this superb image moves the eye both horizontally and vertically. Composed of three registers, from darkest at the bottom to midrange gray tones across the middle to palest sky above, the photograph also tracks across time: anchored by the wood and concrete remains of the wharf, one of the city’s most storied places; continuing to the murky tugs, container ships, warehouses, and cranes subject to the exigencies of weather, markets, and water; and ending in a timeless, uninflected sky. Scores of photographers have been attracted to New Orleans’s undeniably picturesque qualities, but few could succeed in transforming what many would see as an eyesore into a complex image that works as both an experiment in aesthetic abstraction and a document of vital urbanism.
To these qualities, Sexton often adds a human element. Photographs of a lone airliner high above the Norco petrochemical facilities and of a fisherman dwarfed by a line of tankers anchored in the Bonnet Carré Spillway offer lessons in scale and balance. Photography’s primary gambit is one of distancing us from its subject—and Sexton makes ample and adept use of this—but human involvement is too thoroughly implicated in the plants’ sprawling industrialism for these images to stand as mere exercises in abstraction or smooth publicity shots. Sexton responds with a series of images of people living with power plants and oil refineries literally in their backyards. He shows us, in one image, a line of modest homes along the River Road, one of which shares its yard with a toxic-discharge warning siren; in another, children play along the fence line that separates them by just a few feet from the Norco plant. But take a closer look at the house in Meraux in the shadow of the Valero refinery. The “X” spray-painted on the house’s brick front wall is leftover from Hurricane Katrina, a code developed by rescue personnel to denote dates, search activity, victims, and interior hazards. We see the homeowner in the doorway, his car in the driveway, a pinwheel stuck in the ground, a mailbox—this is life intimately tied to a time and place. In the words of Walker Percy, “small disconnected facts, if you take note of them, have a way of becoming connected.”
Sexton’s influences—Charles Sheeler, Alexander Rodchenko, Josef Sudek, Walker Evans, and Bernd and Hilla Becher—are perceptible in his many remarkable images centered on bridges. The Huey Restaurant with passing train on the Huey P. Long Bridge in the background, Bridge City (2015) is a Walker Evans–style shot of a suburban street corner, full of textures and droll juxtapositions. What to make of The Huey’s invitation to enjoy “soulfood, seafood, wingz, burgers,” when a nearby sign admonishes, “No Parking on Servitude”?
In his preface, Sexton remarks on the “perplexity” that these industrial plants evoke in both the public and documentarians, who recognize the need for the products manufactured at these facilities while deploring their environmental effects. Sexton shares these concerns, but he is moved more by what these landscapes say about resilience, by how generations have withstood civil war, hurricanes, floods, and disease to construct an extraordinary ode to humanity’s need for speed and convenience. His “Notes on the Photography” describe how he often had to dig deep to find his own resilience and inventiveness. Uncooperative corporate suits who refused to allow him to photograph the plants at close quarters, inhospitable weather and terrain, and problems with his equipment threatened to derail the project, but Sexton admits that his reliance on these landscapes—for his livelihood, and to fuel the car or the plane he uses to pursue it—strengthened his determination. We can be grateful that he has made it a priority to record that which is unrecognized, underappreciated, and often under siege.