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Photographing the Gulf of Mexico: Before and after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill

One way to cope with a catastrophe involving nature is to try to make sense of it. That’s what photographer Michel Varisco did. She lives and works in New Orleans, in my old neighborhood, and after Hurricane Katrina, she started looking at the engineered landscape, and the Mississippi River, “to learn about this river that I loved, that's in my backyard practically, that's this incredible epic thing,” she says. The result is an exhibit called “Shifting,” on view now at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and coming soon in book form.

While I was in Louisiana last month, I visited the Ogden, where the exhibit’s curator showed me Varisco’s large-scale photographs, hung in a second-floor gallery with walls the color of the big muddy itself.

In boats, she went all the way to the mouth, photographing along the way the diversion projects and marsh terracing that now shape the landscape, and the remnant traces of oil exploration of decades past, “these alien, weird formations in the waters and the lands,” she says. She talked to scientists, and to people who work and live on the river’s banks. But she said she really couldn’t grasp the scale of the land and water she was observing. So she took a different tack not long before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The images are massive — some of them are 40 by 60 inches. (Click through the slideshow at the top of the page to get a sense of the room.) One photo of probably 100 oil rigs, the smallest the size of my fingernail, was particularly beautiful and made me think of all the Louisianans who work on those rigs. I walked among some silk panels (Sumrall, the curator, called them “scrims”) hung from the ceiling and the effect was haunting, the silk undulating around me, the colors of oil and the chemicals used to clean it up undulating, too. The three images above made a room around me. Finally, at one end of the gallery, six silk panels, long and skinny, made up the image of Lake Borgne (below), a lake that’s no longer a lake, because eroded land has made it part of the Gulf of Mexico.