Valero St. Charles Refinery from the West Bank Levee; Hahnville, LA; 2015

In his “Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River” exhibit of nearly 100 black-and-white photographs, Richard Sexton has tackled perhaps his most challenging project to date. The vast petrochemical corridor that extends from Baton Rouge past New Orleans is one of America's most vital complexes of heavy industry, as well as a major economic engine for Louisiana. Lauded as a technological marvel and derided as a pollution-spewing “cancer alley,” its controversies complicate the documentary photographer's task of clear and unbiased depiction. Sexton lets these industries speak for themselves as often otherworldly structures that arise improbably among cow pastures, ranch-style residences and remnants of plantations.

Is it possible for fantastical technological installations to visually inspire intense emotions? The view of the Norco refinery, as seen from across the Mississippi River at Hahnville (pictured), is awesome in every sense of the word, but what sort of awe does it inspire? Recalling vintage science-fiction illustrations, it harks to a disorienting realm beyond ordinary human experience as we struggle to fathom its implications. Comprising the cover of the book that accompanies the exhibit, it visually epitomizes the “enigma” that we live with. The river banks are studded with utilitarian facilities including grain silos and the relics of antiquated industries in an expansive visual culture anarchy. The steel trusses of the Huey P. Long Bridge are starkly utilitarian, but the arches supporting them reveal intricate Gothic hints of old Europe.

This interaction of natural and industrial forces with pervasive human whimsy is a recurring theme, as in an image of oceangoing tankers anchored in the river adjacent to the flooded Bonnet Carre Spillway, where a fisherman wades along the shore as so many have done before him. The scale and contrasts defy interpretation. As Sexton writes, “We are intellectually aware of heavy industry’s importance, are in awe of its power and, at the same time, fear and loathe its existence. Such is the nature of enigmas.” Through April 5, 2020. The Historic New Orleans Collection, 520 Royal St., (504) 523-4662;

Contact D. Eric Bookhardt at