colorful lights from an industrial area create reflections on a rivere

After Images

Photography professor AnnieLaurie Erickson captures the strange beauty of an industrialized Louisiana landscape.

Above: Section from an afterimage photographic scroll, a work in progress

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The electrified banks of the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana are both concrete and symbolic in the photographic work of Associate Professor AnnieLaurie Erickson. 

In her “Slow Light” series, white-hot energy pours off those refineries, creating a glowing landscape against the night sky. But the factories along the 85-mile stretch of the river south of Baton Rouge spotlight questions about the relationships between industry and the environment, between residents and economic development.

Erickson, an associate professor of photography and associate chair of the Newcomb Art Department in the School of Liberal Arts, arrived in Louisiana in 2012 and was immediately drawn to the landscape of refineries. She began capturing these “strange forbidden cities” and the role of the river in “Slow Light” the next year.

Now, Erickson is working on a new iteration of the series, with photographs taken from a vantage point on the Mississippi River, documenting, artistically, larger segments of the petrochemical and other industries along that stretch.

“As a photographer, I’ve always been interested in capturing things that are a part of our daily lives, but that are hard to see,” she said.

The billowing clouds of smoke above the refineries are easy to spot, but the overall environmental and public health toll may be harder to pin down. The toxic emissions from the refineries have been blamed for increased risks of cancer in the region and are the subject of study by regulatory agencies. The river itself is cleaner since the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in the 1970s but historically was a dumping ground.

“I’m using the afterimaging process to look at the fossil fuel industry to render this toxic landscape as these ghostly and unearthly vanishing cities that should be perceived as a relic of our destructive past,” Erickson said. “To me, as a conceptual artist, that meeting point between process and content made sense.” 

The heart of Erickson’s work is the afterimaging technique, which she developed before coming to Tulane but which she continues to refine. She has received grants from Tulane’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South and the School of Liberal Arts to support her artwork.

glowing yellow lights at an industrial facility at night
29°59´57.01˝N, 90°23´45.77˝W (Norco)

“I’ve always been interested in capturing things that are a part of our daily lives, but that are hard to see.”

AnnieLaurie Erickson, associate professor of photography

Custom-Built Cameras

The technique involves handmade “artificial retinal” plates that are coated in phosphorescent material and fitted inside her custom-built cameras, where they absorb and retain light from the pictures Erickson takes, similar to the way human retinas temporarily retain an image after a person closes their eyes. She then exposes these “afterimages” to large format film.

The resulting images are both shadowy and inviting, until a viewer settles into a sense of slight unease. 

“Beauty can be a really powerful access point into these very complex and overwhelming social and environmental issues,” she said. “Artists can then serve as partners in the communication of the knowledge, but beauty is one of the hooks. I have that desire as an artist to make things that I find beautiful, even if I’m making images of things that are also really horrifying in other ways.”

Erickson is digitally stitching together the individual images into a 100-foot-by-5-foot photographic scroll. Having used a new set of retinas this time, Erickson sees vivid colors and water patterns emerge in her photographs.

The process could be harrowing, though. Last summer Erickson, accompanied by two experienced river guides and her colleague Sean Fader, a photography professor of practice, piled into a wooden canoe with camping gear and thousands of dollars of camera equipment and began paddling downriver, to scope the region by day and to take the photos by night. The quiet was eerie, the weather unpredictable. The massive freighters, the river’s omnipresent symbol of commerce, created wakes that could overwhelm a canoe. Erickson was seven months pregnant at the time.

“I had some great support. But it was quite the endeavor. And it was also very scary at times,” she said.

Red flame burns from the top of a tower
29°59´23.64˝N, 90°26´19.76˝W (Taft)

Service Learning

Erickson’s interest in documenting the refineries gave rise to service learning courses in which students combine activism with art. She had already taught an archiving course, done in partnership with the HealthyGulf. 

In that course, which received support from the Tulane Center for Public Service, students conducted balloon-mapping around Mardi Gras Pass in Plaquemines Parish after wetlands were created following the removal of part of a Mississippi River levee. They rigged digital cameras on helium-filled balloons that were tethered to a boat, and later sorted and stitched together thousands of photos to document the state of the pass.

“The river built pretty much all of the land in Louisiana, but getting documentation of it happening incrementally as it continues to change was the goal,” she said.

There were other projects with the network, and the students created their own art as well, resulting in individual research-based projects that served as their final for the course.

In 2020, Erickson’s affiliation with New Orleans’ Antenna gallery led to students volunteering at the Fossil Free Fest, a biennial art-centered gathering that examines the complexities of the fossil fuel industry.

The service learning was intended to support the festival, including a student exhibition at Antenna. 

“We were learning about issues surrounding the fossil fuel industry and broader issues about climate change. I was bringing in experts and scientists; we were taking field trips, all under the umbrella of using that as inspiration to make environmentally informed artwork,” she said.

COVID-19 eventually forced the cancellation of the 2020 festival, but Erickson is hopeful about future gatherings. At any rate, the opportunity to plan and stage the festival, while examining the implications of fossil fuel production on the region from different angles, still benefited the students. They held a virtual exhibition instead.

ghostly yellow industrial plant at night with smoke
30°28´5.88˝N, 91°12´37.73˝W (Port Allen)

Climate Change Artist-Activists

Dire predictions dominate many conversations about climate change. If there’s a bright spot, on the Tulane campus at least, it’s that the next generation of artist-activists is prepared.

“At this point, young people have been thinking about climate change since they became people,” Erickson said. “Everyone’s already ready to go in terms of understanding the urgency. They already care so much, and they want to contribute to solutions. That, to me, is so hopeful and inspiring.”

Pieces from “Slow Light” will be part of the “Many Waters” biennial exhibit at the Minnesota Museum of American Art this fall and included in a Prospect New Orleans satellite exhibit this December.