Samples of the Gowanus

Neil Freeman, 2014
series of color photographs
10 x 15 inches

The Gowanus Canal runs through dense urban neighborhoods, edged with steel, concrete and wood. Few walking past the canal would consider it “natural” — its heavy pollution is obvious to the eyes and nose. Nevertheless, it is also a natural space. It was once a salt marsh, and still rises and falls with the tides, plays host to birds and fish, and is shaded by spontaneous trees.

The canal is a hybrid, an intersection between urban human intervention and wild forces. Its sewer overflows and flooding testify to limited human control of natural forces, even in the most manmade-seeming spaces. Understanding the canal means understanding how human-led processes mesh with natural forces to create new and unsettling environments.

The “Gowanus Samples” series combines photographs taken along the length of the Gowanus Canal with the chemical structural formulas of pollutants found in the canal. The compounds depicted are invisibly dissolved in the water, the remnants of past industry as well as modern-day runoff. The shadows or reflections of buildings are visible in most of the photographs, a reminder that this water is not entirely natural. While the crisp chemical graphics of these toxins point to the human actions that introduced them into the canal, these organic chemicals sometimes form naturally, and may be linked to the earliest development of life.