At Gowanus Canal, Turning Toxic Waste Into Art
New York’s Gowanus Canal is notoriously toxic — full of dangerous chemicals, industrial waste, and yes, poop. It reeks in the summer and lives in the popular imagination as the perfect dumping ground for dead bodies. No plant or animal life can survive in it for long. This tends to inspire two kinds of images: gritty photos of the filth and pollution, and scenic landscapes that try not to dwell too long on the former.
But in his Gowanus Canal photography series, William Miller evades both of these conventions. His photographs offer glimpses of floating clouds, glittering fragments, iridescent surfaces, and delicate whorls. Although he comes from a photojournalism background — he collaborated with Doctors Without Borders in Kosovo and has worked for The New York Post for ten years — these mesmerizing, dreamlike images leave reportage behind. Instead, they offer ambiguity and abstraction, capturing the fleeting, strange beauty of the Gowanus as well as the contradictions embodied in that beauty. We spoke to him about the inspiration behind his work.
What drew you to photograph the Gowanus?
I’m a photojournalist by trade. I’ve been doing that for most of my life, but in the last few years I’ve been interested in more abstract work and a different approach toward subjects, like with my “Ruined Polaroids" project. So when I was looking at the Gowanus Canal, how strange and beautiful it was, I didn’t want to approach it from a photojournalist’s perspective. I didn’t want to tell, necessarily, a story. I was interested in how it could be beautiful and disgusting at the same time, and I was attracted to those contradictions. And when you look down into the garbage and crap, you can see the sun and the sky and the beauty above.
What is your process for the series?
I go out whenever I can, and hope I get lucky. You’re literally running around, trying to get things from a certain perspective, to fall in the frame the way you want them to, to reflect the sky the way you want them to. But a lot of days, maybe ¾ of the days that I go down there, there’s nothing. The water is not cooperating. If there’s something floating, sometimes it’s too far away. Some days it looks perfectly smooth and there’s nothing going on. It isn’t successful every day, and there’s something rewarding about that.
Has living in New York influenced you as an artist?
The city’s scope gives you access to so much. When I started getting interested in fine art, I could go to MoMA and see the things I was reading about in textbooks up close, which is incredible. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon — when I walked past it I was floored, because I’d been reading so much about it and it was just sitting there. You’re looking at it and you can’t believe it. Not just because the painting is amazing, but also that you can just have access to it like that. It’s pretty exciting, even for a New Yorker.
Where do you find inspiration?
Recently I’ve been really interested in painting, especially abstract expressionism: Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Milton Resnick, and Rothko, obviously. It’s this idea of, when you’re really close to something, it looks remarkably similar to when you’re really far away from something. Like if you think about pictures of the atom and then pictures of planets revolving around the sun. The only difference between those two things is perspective. When you don’t know what you’re looking at, your mind starts to make up its own narrative. I like that shift, or confusion, in perspective.
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