A Brooklyn Photographer Found a Secret ‘Mother Lode’ of Psychedelic Beauty in the Filth of the Gowanus Canal

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Astraios, 2014
Astraios, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch

In the spring of 2010, around the same time the Gowanus Canal was declared an EPA Superfund site, photographer Steven Hirsch visited the fetid, dead-end waterway for the first time. “I’m not an environmentalist, and I wasn’t going there to do any project, it was a just a day trip with a friend,” recalls the Brooklyn native. But he happened to have a pocket Lumix on him, and he began snapping photos of some dazzling light effects on one of the canal’s oil slicks. “I got off 15 shots and then it literally just stopped,” he says. At the time, Hirsch was busy shooting various portrait series — “Crustypunks” (dope-addicted teenagers sleeping in Tompkins Square Park), “Courthouse Confessions” (of similar groups dishing about their run-ins with the law), and “Little Sticky Legs” (about desert dwellers and their UFO sightings in the Arizona and New Mexico desert) — and had no real interest in pursuing an abstract project. He certainly wasn’t looking to make any statement about the city’s most polluted body of water.

Rhode, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch

Still, he couldn’t quite forget the Canal’s toxic beauty. “I’m a child of the ‘60s, I worked at the Fillmore as a bouncer, so these images harkened back to that time in my life,” says Hirsch, who compared what he saw on the surface of the Gowanus to taking acid and watching the Joshua Light Show installations that played behind the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Earlier this year, the Times published several of Hirsch’s first batch of Gowanus photos. The positive response gave him a renewed interest in the project, and he explored the Canal until he found a pollution slick he describes as the “mother lode” — a “giant Monet that was 100 feet long and 50 feet wide.” If Hirsch’s 2010 images were like vibrant pastel spin paintings, these new photos, shot after rainstorms and during low tides, are their oil-paint counterparts, humming with condensed energy. From November 12 through December 1, the photographer is showing 25 of these images, all printed on metallic paper, at Flatiron’s Lilac Gallery.

Hermes, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch/2012

Don’t let their beauty fool you, of course — the Gowanus is still as disgusting as ever. In fact, Hirsch had to don a gas mask during shoots, Walter White style, and still developed skin rashes and breathing problems. “I suffered for this work,” says Hirsch, who still won’t reveal the location of his “gold mine” subject. “Most people see the garbage and wouldn’t even notice this stuff, but I can just look past it. It’s almost like photographing a Pollock or a de Kooning in a museum, looking past the chaos and breaking it down into these perfect abstractions. To me, it’s just an amazing subject.”

More from Hirsch’s collection, “Gowanus: Off the Water’s Surface,” below:

Tethys, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Elektra, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Thetis, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Oceanides, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Prometheus, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Nereus, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Benthesicyme, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Nyx, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Doris, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Dionysus, 2014 Photo: Steven Hirsch
Photographer Sees Insane Beauty in Gowanus Filth