Photo Essay

Art of destruction: A polluted canal's Monet moment

Steven Hirsch spent years capturing abstract images of Brooklyn's toxic Gowanus Canal—tracing 146 years of industrial waste

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, N.Y.—a three-kilometre strip that constitutes one of America’s most poisoned bodies of water—is the burial ground for 146 years’ worth of hazardous industrial waste from the fuel oil depots, bus yards, and scrap metal dumps that lined it. The canal has since been listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site—a location so polluted that the government has to earmark it for urgent, long-term treatment. But you can still see the impact of that waste: petrochemical reactions in the canal have produced colourful, alien shapes and abstract, geometric patterns in the brackish water.

Photographer Steven Hirsch noticed the remarkable designs’ impressionist quality—while exploring the area. His images, taken over the course of a couple years, are collected in a book, Gowanus Waters, that will be published in April. They are named after gods and other icons from ancient Greek mythology, and rightly so: the Gowanus Canal, this vivid yet toxic soup of our own making, is humanity’s Styx, the river that splits through life and Hades’ deathly coil. See a sample of some of Hirsch’s photos in the gallery below.