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Enigmatic Stream

Photographer Richard Sexton captures the complexities of the Mississippi’s industrial corridor

Enigmatic Stream

The Historic New Orleans Collection

Richard Sexton, Moonrise over Motiva oil refinery, from Highway 70 near Donaldsonville, 2015. Copyright Richard Sexton, 2015.

I first photographed the landscape of the lower Mississippi River in the late 1990s for my book Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road. Vestiges focused on the remains of an era when this section of the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans was devoted to the production of sugar. Over the last century, this region has witnessed the growth of the oil and gas industry and petrochemical manufacturing. Today, agriculture and industry present a dissonant chorus along the wide highway of brown, languid water. I began photographing this linear metropolis in the early 2000s, and that work is at the center of my exhibition Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River, which opens September 17 at The Historic New Orleans Collection and has a companion book. 

Oil refineries and petrochemical plants loom largest here, but there are also power plants, granaries, sugar refineries, bridges, levees, spillways, and more. Some of these sites are as old now as the plantation houses were when artists and photographers first romanticized them as relics of a bygone era. Time has only intensified the myopia that frames plantation life as a pastoral idyll, given that human slavery was its sustenance, and a comparable burden haunts today’s industrial landscape. The same plants that drive Louisiana’s economy cannot be disentangled from the consequences of global warming, toxic waste, and society’s unbridled consumption of vital, nonrenewable natural resources.  

Few documentations have focused on this landscape as a historical and evolving one. We, as a public, intellectually understand heavy industry’s importance, view its power with awe, and at the same time fear and loathe its existence. I can’t cast myself as a dispassionate witness. I am intrigued by the unrelenting human effort to mine the river’s resources in the face of floods, hurricanes, pestilence, civil war, and industrial disasters. I am also intrigued by the industrial design of this landscape, unfettered by aesthetic issues, artistic aspiration, or pretension—driven purely by function. In its juxtaposition of elements, the landscape is filled with incongruity and mystery.  

The human exploitation of a capricious river and its fertile delta has precipitated an extraordinary industrial infrastructure, which has formed an equally extraordinary contrast with the rural landscape around it. With Enigmatic Stream, I have tried, as with all things I photograph, to portray it deliberately, purposefully, eloquently, and, above all else, honestly.  

Richard Sexton is a fine art and media photographer whose work has been published and exhibited worldwide. His photographs are included in the permanent holdings of many institutions and have been featured in Abitare, Archetype, Photographer’s Forum, View Camera, and other magazines. Enigmatic Stream is the 14th book he has authored, coauthored, or photographed.