Photograph of oil refineries along Mississippi River by AnnieLaurie Erickson

Sugar:: AnnieLaurie Erickson

Gaslight River

Afterimages have a transgressive quality. They appear most strikingly when we use our eyes in ways that we shouldn’t—by staring at something too bright or holding our gaze for too long. When I moved to Louisiana, I was struck by the appearance of oil refineries at night; they looked like strange forbidden cities starting fires in the sky. Soon after I began to document them, I was stopped by local police and told that I was not allowed to photograph these structures according to post-9/11 regulations. Keeping a low profile, I undertook a long-term project documenting petrochemical refineries in the Gulf South with my afterimaging cameras. I set out to render the man-made landscape of the fossil fuel industry as ghostly and vanishing, an unearthly forbidden city that should be perceived as a relic of our destructive past.

The initial research for my work with afterimaging began over a decade ago and involved mapping my own retina and incorporating that information into the production of an artificial retinal membrane. Utilizing a custom-built camera, I capture an image onto this membrane, which is made of light-sensitive strontium aluminate. Because these photoluminescent particles decay over time, they immediately begin to shift in color. In order to capture the degraded image before it dissipates, I expose the retinal membrane onto a sheet of large-format color film while allowing for movement and variation of time during this development to produce a variety of visual results (see for further examples).

Recently, I began to combine many pieces of large-format film into expansive panoramas. This cumulative process allows me to give a better sense of the dominance these refineries have on the landscape and environment in our region. In the fall of 2020, I undertook a river expedition with a small crew in a wooden voyager-style canoe to create afterimages of Cancer Alley. We paddled all day, set up camp before the sun went down, and took the canoe back out in the dark each night to photograph the refineries from the river. The resulting imagery uses beauty as an access point to make corporate environmental destruction visible. This site-specific iteration of Gaslight River presents a section of my larger project that sets out to capture all the visible light that the fossil fuel industry emits in Cancer Alley as a photographic afterimage, from the perspective of the Mississippi River.

AnnieLaurie Erickson is a New Orleans-based artist and educator whose work engages with social and environmental research topics through experimental lens-based production. She is an associate professor and the head of photography in the Newcomb Art Department of Tulane University. Her work has been exhibited widely in the US and abroad, including Higher Pictures, NYC; Goethe-Institut, Washington, DC; Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle, WA; Newspace Center for Photography, Portland, OR; Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, NYC; Boston Center for the Arts; and CentrePasquArt, Bienne, Switzerland. Notable press includes The New Yorker, Huffington Post, Oxford American, Washington Post, Paper Magazine, Afterimage, and Foam Magazine. She received an ATLAS grant in 2016 to develop her project Data Shadows and has been awarded residencies from Yaddo, A Studio in the Woods, and the Joan Mitchell Center. Erickson earned her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has been a part of the Antenna Collective since 2015.