Photos of Polluted Scenery–Tainted with the Same Pollutants
Brandon Seidler’s landscape photos look downright apocalyptic. But the trippy shades of red, green and purple aren’t made with expired film or Photoshop. Instead, Seidler uses chemical pollutants to manipulate his images.
He takes photos of historically contaminated sites, then bathes the film in the same chemicals that poisoned the land. Seidler finds it the perfect way to not just talk about pollution, but show it. “I want my work to make people think,” he says. “If this is the effect of these chemicals on a plastic piece of film, what is it doing to the environment we are polluting?”
Seidler got the idea in 2014 during his senior year at Rampo College in New Jersey. While researching chemicals for a photo class, he learned about a toxic spill that occurred nearby 15 years earlier. He’d already been experimenting with alternative film processes, and wondered what would happen if he took pictures of the area and introduced the negatives to the nasty chemicals once spilled there. The results were stunning, creating wild colors and textures that look like an alien landscape.
Since then, he’s documented a handful of locations in New Jersey and New York that have been affected by pollution. Sites include a forest in Ringwood, New Jersey where the Ford Motor Company dumped sludge in the ’60s and a stretch of the Hudson River near New York City, where General Electric flushed toxic polychlorinated biphenyls for nearly 30 years. Seidler finds incidents almost everywhere he looks—even where he lives in Barnegat Bay. “I never personally realized how common spills were until I started to Google them,” he says.
Seidler shoots the landscapes on a Nikon F100, develops the film normally and then contaminates the negatives with various pollutants. He tries to use the exact chemicals that were spilled at each site, but some aren’t easy to get a hold of. So Seidler relies on approximations instead. To replicate polychlorinated biphenyl, for instance, he mixes chlorine with car lubricant. He also uses household items like Drano, paint thinner and hydrogen peroxide. Some produce gorgeous colors while others create fascinating textures.
The way Seidler applies the chemicals change the look too – he’s sprayed and painted on negatives, submerged them in liquid, and shaken them up like a martini in a sealed container. After they dry, Seidler scans them into a computer to make the final print.
Complicated process aside, Seidler hopes the photos are more than just strange, pretty pictures. Some people haven’t even heard of the environmental incidents he references, and he wants the images serve as a reminder. “I think we tend to forget about the harm we are doing or we try not to think about it,” he says. “These pictures tell us about things we don’t necessarily want to know.”
Seidler’s ongoing project, Impure, will be released as a photo book in November 2015.