Dirty photos! Shutterbug makes himself sick shooting artsy Canal waste

Brooklyn Paper
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Photo gallery

Toxic shot: Shutterbug Steven Hirsch shot oily formations on the Gowanus Canal.
Beautiful but dangerous: Hirsch contracted rashes laying on his stomach over the canal to capture the perfect shot.
Can-dinsky: Hirsch often shot his photos after rain storms — when Lavender Lake is at its most pungent.
Chemical balance: Hirsch caught amazing petrochemical reactions on the surface of the water.
Risky business: Photographer Steven Hirsch says he got sick from shooting his new book “Gowanus Waters,” which features colorful photos of the toxic canal.

Talk about suffering for your art.

A daring photographer endured nausea and mysterious rashes while capturing artsy shots of industrial waste on the noxious waters of the Gowanus Canal.

“It was so foul that it literally made you sick,” said shutterbug Steven Hirsch, who was born in Williamsburg but lives now in Manhattan, a neighboring borough. “It felt like inhaling multiple gas station smells on their worst days times 10.”

Hirsch has been endangering his wellbeing via proximity to Brooklyn’s Nautical Purgatory since 2010, when he first noticed crazy colors erupting from what he thinks was a broken oil pipe leaking into the water. He began snapping vibrant digital portraits of the swirling petrochemicals floating on the surface and has just released the toxic oil paintings in a book called “Gowanus Waters.”

The Feds claim just breathing in the fumes poses no significant health risk to the casual passerby, but Hirsch says he was no effluent dilettante — he would often lay on his stomach hanging over the gonorrhea-infected waterway to get the perfect shot.

He’s healthy as a horse now, but after the shoots, he sometimes felt like there was a chemical reaction boiling in his chest, and was often broke out in an itchy rashes.

He tried wearing a mask, but says it got in the way of the camera, so he just had to endure the offensive scents by the lungful. To make matters worse, Hirsch shot most of his photos after rain storms — when the Canal is flooded with raw sewage and at its most colorful, but also its most pungent.

“The noxious fumes would kind of rise right into you,” he said. “The smell and the air, it just felt like you were in a chemical plant.”

The Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal a federal Superfund cleanup site in 2010, though Hirsch says he hasn’t noticed much change in the intervening years. The leaking oil pipe that first piqued his interest has since been fixed, though.

“I think it’s better in certain areas, but when you go back and see it in all its glory, you think it hasn’t changed that much,” he said.

Hirsch will launch his book at the Gowanus Souvenir Shop later this month, where he will also exhibit photos until April.

“Gowanus Waters” launch at Gowanus Souvenir Shop [543 Union St. at Nevins Street in Gowanus, (424) 888–2869,]. March 19 at 3 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Jon from Windsor Terrace says:
Is Williamsburg now a borough? Are they toxic oil paintings or photographs?
March 8, 2016, 11:52 am
Soured from Red Hook says:
Water seeks its own level.
March 9, 2016, 11:02 am
Joe from Greenpoint says:
Must be tough competition in the BK art world.
March 10, 2016, 9:50 pm

Comments closed.

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