Joselyn Whitney Takacs, University of Southern California, USA.


In photography and documentary film, what is the beholder’s relationality to a contaminated landscape? I apply Jennifer Peebles’ concept, toxic sublimity[i], to two visual works which portray the on-going environmental degradation wrought by the petrochemical industry in Louisiana: Richard Misrach’s landscape photography in Petrochemical America (2012) and Alexander Glustrom’s documentary film Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (2019). I argue that these artists paradoxically cast an uncanny, supernatural aura around the petroleum industry, the “toxic sublime,” in order to demystify the tangible processes at work in these regions and internationally. Much like the art historical theory of the sublime in landscape painting, in which the beholder experiences a pleasurable physiological response upon viewing danger from a safe remove, the “toxic sublime” offers a contaminated beauty to the beholder though troubled with a lack of agency in the human-altered landscape. Misrach and Glustrom render the Louisiana petroleum industry and petroleum itself as supernatural as a powerful rhetorical strategy to advocate for environmental justice on behalf of ecosystems and public health. [i] Peeples, Jennifer. “Toxic Sublime: Imaging Contaminated Landscapes.” Environmental Communication 5.4 (2011): 373-92.

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