When you first set eyes on Steven Hirsch’s spellbinding photo series, Gowanus: Off the Water’s Surface, it’s hard to believe that the pictures are something from earth, let alone Brooklyn. The swirling, intersecting colors look like a cross between an impressionist painting, a Martian landscape, and a visualization of an acid trip. But they are, in fact, just the result off light playing off the toxic accumulation of sludge off the Gowanus canal, a waterway so polluted that in 2010, it was declared a superfund site.
Hirsch, a Brooklyn native, first took some shots of the Gowanus with a pocket Lumix while out with a friend. The Times published several of those original shots earlier this year, encouraging Hirsch to return to the site. What he found was that the toxic metals and fetid garbage that made the Gowanus an environmental nightmare also turned the water’s surface into a colorful tapestry, rich with texture and patterns.
It wasn’t an easy shoot. Hirch told New York Magazine that he had to don a gas mask for part of it, hitting upon a toxic patch in the Canal that he estimates as 100 feet long and 50 feet wide. “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,” Hirsch said. This week, the resulting exhibit opens at the Lilac Gallery in Flatiron. The photos are haunting and gorgeous, a reminder to take a closer look at the everyday environment of Brooklyn.