The Gowanus Canal–one of the most polluted sites in America–is like a layer cake of New York history: coal tar from the yards that opened in the 19th century, cement from the cement works, chemicals from the tanneries and ink factories, and later, heavy metals and PCBs from the 20th century. According to the New Yorker, it currently holds the lowest possible cleanliness rating: Fish can survive there but probably won’t reproduce. Scientists have even found traces of gonorrhea in its waters.
“To look into the Gowanus Canal is to gaze into the eyes of a corpse,” writes Brooklyn photographer Bill Miller, who lives next to a different Superfund site in Greenpoint. “It is murky and clouded over, but if you look closely you can see life and light reflected in the mercury, feces, and coal tar that drift in the canal like malevolent clouds.”
Miller’s take on the Gowanus is dire, but his photographs of it are beautiful, almost ebullient documents. Shot over the past two years, they capture moments of grotesque beauty: lacelike oil sliding across the water, dyes and toxins forming organic patterns, and shimmering pieces of plastic flitting just under its surface. Miller describes them as “strangely beautiful horrors.” When I contacted him for more information, he offered a comparison with a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s 1482 triptych, The Last Judgement. “The damned are being chased into a river by dragons and thrown off of a bridge by strange frog people,” he explained. “I keep imagining that when they’re headed into that terrible water, they unexpectedly catch a glimpse of god and that blue sky reflected in the black water below them and for one second imagine themselves falling down into heaven.”
The community–and the federal government–have spent the past two decades attempting to clean up the canal. But for many, it’s akin to going (as one resident said) “from sh*t to piss.” Miller is equally frank about his intentions as an artist. “This is not a story about the canal’s death and rebirth,” he says. “I am not interested in making this a documentary about the Gowanus canal but rather a documentation of the evidence of industrial crimes that took place there over 150 years.” Still, he admits to being seduced by the beauty of the shimmering patterns, saying, “the truth is that I’m just as attracted by the inherent beauty of this afflicted canal as I am by the poignancy of what it is.”