©2010 Phillip Nesmith

I have always had an interest in the behind the scenes of things.  This can be how something is made, what happens to something once it is no longer useful, how many people it takes to accomplish something, or what an artist’s studio looks like, etc.  Well, this curiosity has played a part in the events I have personally explored, such as the so-called “Global War on Terror”, the border issue, and most recently with the financial support of about 70 private individuals, the Deepwater Horizon blowout response.  Because of my interest in the back story of the things that I see, I often like to provide the details that surround, but remain hidden from view in my images.

The man pictured in the above 7×5″ wet collodion ambrotype is Eugene.  I met him during my second week in south Louisiana while I was making this image from the only bridge to Grand Isle.  Next to the bridgehead was a small area that had been cleared in the weeks prior so oil response crews could access the water.  It was in this small area that I parked my rented war-wagon loaded down with all of my supplies and darkbox.  With all of the doors open, each small area with its own specialized purpose, such as the rear passenger side area being the chemical mixing area I normally drew plenty of attention.  The darkbox and shroud hung out the back of the Ford Explorer like some antique torture device, and with me walking around with rubber gloves, apron, and red headlamp it was very obvious that I was up to something and Eugene had to see what was going on.

Eugene, the driver/operator of a large vacuum tanker rig, saw me from the other side of the road where the Coast Guard had set up an oil recovery operation which was centered around the vacuum and storage capacity of his truck.  As activity at the moment was pretty slow, Eugene was seeking shade and cool air in the cab of his rig when he saw me working away at something strange.  He crossed the road and came up to me as I was mixing a new batch of developer.  Stirring the solution with a glass rod, he asked if I was working on a new dispersant.  Laughing, I said no and explained what I was doing.  He then told me that a few days before a pair of guys had in fact been at that same location testing new dispersant, and they too had lots of labware and other strange things.

Eugene was very enthusiastic about what I was doing and so amazed by the process, as many are, but he instantly recognized why the oil disaster matched what I was doing.  He commented on how simple, yet complex it all seemed, and of course the time involved in trying to get the image that I wanted matched the slow forward progress of the spreading oil.  His cell phone rang, his wife calling the check on him, and he enthusiastically spent the first 15 minutes describing the crazy artist he was watching work.

After his call I asked him about what he was doing there and he pointed to the rig across the way and said he was a truck driver, and that he had been at that spot for 36 days.  He pointed to oily hand prints on the underside of the bridge and said “those are mine, there was a major battle here with the earl a few weeks ago”.  “Thats one of my hoses there” he said pointing out an oil covered pipe drapped across the contaminated rocks at the waters edge.  Eugene’s truck looked like a tanker, but it was fitted with a huge pump that allowed him to suck oil directly from the water.  The area where La. Hwy 1 crosses the water to Grand Isle was a location that the current and tide naturally carried large amounts of oil and the Coast Guard had set up booms to funnel the oil directly to the area we now stood so that it could be collected.  Eugene described the battle with the oil and it sounded like so many of the stories I heared solders tell in Iraq.  Not exactlly the details, but the spirit of the story.  He was proud of what he was doing, I don’t know how many times he pointed to the houses and docks along the water on both sides of the bridge and said “I have been helping these people”.  I could not help but feel that I was photographing the place of this man’s finest hours.

How could I not ask Eugene If I could make an image of him?  So many before him were not interested, could not because of something BP scared them with, or just did not have the time.  But this man on the other hand was eager and was excited when I asked.  We tried a few exposures, but none of them worked out and after being in the blazing sun and humidity for about 5 hours at that point I could not go on, I needed a break.  The image above was made in the early afternoon of the next day as a tropical thunderstorm rolled in over the water.  It was a situation in which there was one chance.  As the plate was pulled from the camera, which was about 30 feet from the vehicle and darkbox, the flood arrived.  I threw a plastic bag over the camera, leaving it in place and ran for the darkbox with the plate holder.  Eugene ran for cover in his rig.  Rain poured into the open doors of the Explorer before I would close them.  To late to worry about getting wet, I walked to my darkbox, which was somewhat shielded by the open hatchback, it;s black shroud hanging down into the pooling water and sand.  In the darkness, standing in two-inch deep water with lightning striking all around I worked to process the plate, hoping that I got the image.

Soaked, yet cooled by the rain I stood looking at the results.  Smiling, the rain pouring down my face I looked across the highway at Eugene sitting in the cab of his rig and gave him a thumbs up, and he smiled back.  I did not know it at the time, but this was the last time I would see Eugene.  After the plate was processed I loaded up my water-logged gear and person into the truck and left to find someplace dry to rest and regroup.  I would leave Grand Isle a couple of days later, and I had planned to stop at the bridge to talk with Eugene one last time.  On that day, he was not there.  The trailer was there, but his truck was gone.  He had probably gone for a crawfish lunch which he said he liked to have, but I had a date with a helicopter flying out to one of the relief wells so I could not wait.

See plates from my expedition to south Louisiana at Irvine Contemporary in Washington D.C. during the solo exhibition Flow.


~ by Phil Nesmith on August 7, 2010.

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