Steven Hirsch, Photographs of the Contemporary Sublime

(Note: For clarity and focus of the photographs described, and at the request of the photographer, we refer you to his website and the individual links to see images for this piece:

The Gowanus Canal

The recent exhibit Gowanus: Off the Water’s Surface of Steven Hirsch’s photographs, at Lilac Gallery in New York City, reminded me of Edmund Burke’s famous definition of the sublime in the 18th century:

The passions which belong to self-preservation turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call ‘sublime’.

Hirsch was drawn to the extraordinary combination of colors that shifted constantly over time with the movement of water, shifting winds and effects of rain when he photographed the surface of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. He printed the photos on metallic paper for a beautiful metal-like sheen and overlaid them with a thin layer of acrylic to emphasize the contrast of the bright colors against the black/green of the water—not to change the colors or shapes but to intensify our visual experience. These are gorgeous images that one could imagine were composed by a master colorist/painter. The gallery’s handout informs us that these colors are actually a combination of toxic chemicals in one of America’s most polluted waterways. In a conversation with Hirsch, he emphasized that he did not intend this project to be a statement about pollution but saw the images clearly as artistic and not about the horrific conditions of the Gowanus but understood why attention had shifted to environmental issues.

I never saw it that way—jaded as we are and used to the desecration of the earth. To be in the city, this is normal and sad and we don’t wince when we see this. This is a bizarre statement on the tragedy of what we have learned to accept. Our senses are so dulled to what we see we are not even shocked by it. This is it—what we have brought upon ourselves.

When one looks at Hirsch’s website after viewing the Gowanus photos, at first there is a sense of disconnect. How does one understand the earlier work taken by the photographer of exquisite beauty? But, like the canal photos, another meaning lies beneath the façade that we might prefer to overlook.

Love Thy Neighbor

 “Actual Sexual Contact More Than Once With A Known Female Under 12 Years Old Sentenced To 10 Years Probation

The photo of a modest house in the suburbs with a school bus in front has the quote above and pictures the American middle-class ideal of “home” and “family”. It belongs to Hirsch’s series Love Thy Neighbor, his stark observation of  the exteriors of the homes of sex offenders.


I got a hundred dollars from Denzel Washington in Venice Beach, California. In my first month traveling. It was really cool. Like the day before these kids jumped me. Kicked me in my face. Took all my money. So that sucks man. Actually he was really cool. Pounded knuckles with him and stuff. Talk for like five or ten minutes. He was really nice. I don’t know what these cops are doing. Fuckingassholes. I’ve met cool cops, I mean. A good majority that I met do suck but there’s a lot of cool cops. I can’t hate on them.  . . .

The young man, Trash Can, wearing torn khaki-colored clothes and leaning against a tree with his dog resting beneath his feet is from another series titled the Crustypunks by Hirsch, who photographed the homeless kids who crashed, during the day, in Tompkins Square Park near his neighborhood in 2010. In the series of homeless individuals each photo is accompanied by the words of the subject, quoted at length. Hirsch observed that even though they don’t belong anywhere and are “off the political map”, they pride themselves on their individuality. But they have a “look” in their similar torn, patched, khaki or black clothing, piercings and tattoos—not too dissimilar from the idea of a “Gap” look. Even to be an outcast, one has to fit in. He purposely photographed them as if for a catalogue to glamorize their look in candid poses like models and placed them in an idealized setting, like the photograph of Trash Can. These are not meant to be journalistic images—but a catalogue of what they look like on the surface. He respected them and they liked the fact that he cared what they had to say. In spite of some of the bravado of their talk, their lives are sad and in some cases end violently. They are a sign of the decay of the family—from that ideal American suburban “home”. The undercurrent, undertow (or Under Toad for Garp readers) suggested by Hirsch in these photographs is our contemporary sublime—the potential for horror beneath the surface of our collective mythology.

I grew up on a lovely, picturesque, middle class tree-lined street in Sacramento full of kids who played together outside in the warm summer months until the sun set. The boy who lived next door was my good friend. But he was not able to learn like everyone else (before learning disabilities were recognized) and the only role he could play was the class clown and he tried very hard to entertain. After high school this no longer worked for him and he drifted from job to job for a few years until one day he didn’t return home. I had already left Sacramento and I was shocked to find out later that his parents never reported him missing or looked for him—they were too embarrassed. I still think about Jimmy Wood from 7th Avenue.

— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Managing Editor

To read more about the conditions of the Gowanus Canal and Hirsch’s photographs, see the article in the New York Review of Books.



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