Mysterious white clouds rise from a torrent of liquid rushing over an embankment and into the Androscoggin River raging at the bottom of the frame. The precise source of the cascading liquid is obscured by utility sheds, beyond which lies the infrastructure of an industrial complex. Charles Steinhacker captured the Brown Paper Company’s discharge for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica photo project. As one of nearly a hundred freelance photographers, Steinhacker was tasked with documenting America’s environmental movement from 1972-1978. Steinhacker’s 1973 photo of the Brown Paper Company dumping into the Androscoggin River, documents industry’s ability to boldly pollute the nation’s waters before passage and enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
Steinhacker’s photograph documents a much larger ecological disaster than what was captured by his lens. There are no identifying features to the industrial facility; it could be any in the country. Underlining this fact is the obvious absence of people at the facility. But people are not necessary to tell the story in this image. Rather, the evidence of the universality of the scene is everywhere. For example, tracing the lattice tower, which borders the entire right side of the image, takes the viewer to three distinct “scenes.” In each scene the viewer sees man’s work but not man himself. Starting at the bottom of the frame, the viewer is drawn to the torrent of dark liquid splashing violently into the Androscoggin. We don’t know exactly what the fluid is, or its source, but that isn’t the point. The discharge could be dumping into any river from any factory of any industry. The story remains the same.
From the suspicious discharge, the viewer is tempted to follow the lattice tower or discharge itself upward to the second “scene.” Here, is even more blatant evidence of human presence, an embankment precisely, but roughly scraped from the Earth. Rubble left behind from the excavation forms a gulley which guides the liquid to its destination below. Yet again, that the Brown Company produced paper goods is irrelevant because all industries require reshaping nature to its purpose.
Finally, reaching the uppermost scene, again by following the tower or unseen but predictable course of the discharge, the viewer’s suspicion is confirmed by the industrial facility towering above the rest of the image. Silos, power equipment, and utilitarian structures made of corrugated metal sheets provide the unmistakable evidence of the culprit. The liquid discharge flowing freely and openly into the Androscoggin was released by industry. Despite man’s physical absence, his presence is clear.
Moreover, Steinhacker’s angle is such that a crane is just visible, alerting the viewer to industrial change. Though the purpose of the crane is unclear, its presence suggests a story still under way. Perhaps the facility is still under construction, or has recently been completed. Or, the crane could be there to make routine improvements. Regardless, the inclusion of the crane shows the environmental disaster unfolding in the frame was in flux.
Steinhacker also was careful to capture the unnatural clouds rising from the point where the company’s discharge meets the Androscoggin. Because the rest of the river, spanning from beyond either side of the image, is producing no similar clouds, the source is clearly the mysterious discharge. The viewer is almost encouraged to inquire about the cause by its centrality in the frame. Again, the exact cause of the clouds is unnecessary to highlight a matter of concern. They serve to draw the viewers’ attention to something very wrong.
In all, the photograph shows the impact industry has on the natural environment. The photograph itself is bordered on either side by industrial towers and framing. They loom over the scene and establish context, but do not dominate the picture. They appear as if they exist in the frame only out of necessity, but are not the central concern. In fact, the color of the structures are in shadow, distorting and concealing their details. The silhouette is all the viewer needs to think “industry.” Further, a maze of heavy power cables crisscross the frame in dizzying fashion. With exception to a lone transformer in the center of the frame, it is unclear exactly where the cables come from or go to, or the machinery they power. Yet again, it doesn’t matter. The facility could have been any industry. Yet, it takes one final component to illustrate the effect industry has on nature. Beyond the meeting of the discharge and river as previously discussed, the earthen embankment, torn into the ground precisely to guide the waste to its final destination. Though the amount of soil and rock removed must have been substantial based on the height of level ground above the river itself, and the manicured rubble graded precisely so it wouldn’t slide into the river below. It may be easy to miss because it is partially concealed by the lattice tower to the right and the sheds, but the embankment illustrates the sheer force industry exerts on nature.
The photograph makes clear the Brown Paper Company was able to dump waste into the Androscoggin River with relative impunity. By permitting the photograph from being taken in the first place, or at least not preventing it, the relative lack of care of company officials is evident. Additionally, the perspective of the photograph from behind industrial infrastructure, and in close proximity to the subject, evidence Steinhacker’s ability to walk through company grounds during daylight hours to secure the shot. A company fearful of retribution for dumping surely would have had security measures in place. Similarly, there is no evidence that the discharge was even attempted to be concealed. The absence of any underground plumbing, and blatantly exposed dumping into the Androscoggin show how little effort went into to hiding pollution.
In sum, the photograph, taken shortly after passage of the Clean Water Act, evidences the tall task ahead of the legislation. The Brown Paper Company blatantly dumped toxic pulping chemicals into the Androscoggin, though its effects on the entire watershed’s ecology was well documented. However, just 4 years later, the Androscoggin was clean enough to sustain life once more. After nearly a century of relentless dumping, the US Federal government demanded clean water. The Brown Company met that demand with all haste.