Sitting by the edge of the Gowanus Canal, the infamously foul Superfund site in Brooklyn, photographer Steven Hirsch suddenly saw a bubble of swirling oil rise from the murk. It was disgusting, but beautiful, so he got out his camera.
"I put the pictures away at the time, but I really loved the way they looked—I thought they were amazing, and colorful and very abstract," he says. "And they looked nothing like what I had actually just seen . . . Sometimes when you photograph, you isolate things so radically that there's no context of where you are."
Two years later, he returned to the canal and took a new set of photos, now part of a new book titled Gowanus Waters. The place where he had taken the original photographs had changed, since a newly repaired pump was sending foamy water into the area. But Hirsch started wandering up and down the old factory and foundry buildings lining the water and found "the motherlode of surface pollution."
"One spot was completely different," he says. "The thing was enormous. Sometimes you'd see these massive slicks that would be 50- to 100-feet long. Layers of colors, swirling colors, gradations—just unimaginable shapes and designs. It was like a giant Matisse some days, some days it was like a Kandinsky. It was just bizarre."
He snuck behind buildings to find the best places to shoot, and risked falling into the toxic water. "I had to traverse this very narrow walkway the width of a bench," says Hirsch. "I'd hold on to the wall and kind of wiggle my way to the back end of the thing. And then when you got there, there was so much garbage around this area that you were literally just walking through mounds of trash."
The water is filled with heavy metals such as mercury, after over a century of nearby factories dumping chemical waste. Overflowing sewers have added gonorrhea and other pathogens to the mix. New bacteria have evolved in the 10-plus feet of toxic sludge that lines the bottom of the canal.
The canal is slowly beginning to get cleaned up. In the fall of 2015, construction began on the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, which uses engineered soil and plants to suck pollution from the water. Millions of empty gallons of oil storage tanks are being dismantled and moved from an old oil depot next to the water. And in 2017, the EPA will begin to dredge the sludge at the bottom of the canal, the first step in a $506 million remediation project.
The EPA doesn't recommend getting close to the water, and Hirsch says spending time there made him sick. "You can smell the arid, chemical smell in the air . . . You can kind of feel yourself engulfed by it," he says. "It's a weird place. And now they're building condos on it, on the water I was hanging over and being sickened from. It's nuts."