September 21, 2017

Photographing Slow Disaster: Zoe Strauss’s Grand Isle Beach by Ellen Stroud

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Extract

The shock of orange shouts a warning: Danger. Pay Attention. You might miss it, so be careful and Look. Grand Isle Beach by photographer Zoe Strauss is a brown and gray beach scene, cut sharply by an orange gash (figure 1). What are those bright, odd, out-of-place plastic tubes running parallel to the waves? Are they pipes, carrying something foul or expensive across the sand? Are they a barrier, keeping poison away from water? Barring a toxin from reaching land? Would the beach be beautiful without them, or bland? Are they temporary, or are they now a fixture in this place?

The ambiguous orange stripe and the distant horizon between sea and sky trisect this photograph into a series of tidy strips: the solid land on which the viewer stands, perhaps on the side of safety, or possibly amid disaster; a chaotic middle stripe, with the orange plastic barrier, sand being lapped by waves, and bubbling water that may be dangerous, or is perhaps being shielded from harm; and then sky. Wherever it is that the danger lies, we are on the sandy side of the barrier, the place that has no water and no sky, and something troubling is happening in that middle band, just beyond our reach.

Strauss made this image along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the summer of 2010. On that same trip, she photographed flames in the water, oil speckling the beach, and …

by Ellen Stroud

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