Flash Point: Mark Schacter captures Cuyahoga River ruin and redemption

We asked Great Lakes photographers to send us favorite challenging Great Lakes shots and the story behind making them. Mark Schacter sent this photo and story.

My challenge: how to capture in a single photograph a story of environmental ruin and redemption on Lake Erie? The subject was the Cuyahoga River, which rises in the northeast corner of Ohio and follows a 140 km U-shaped path before emptying into Lake Erie at Cleveland. One day in 1969 an oil slick on its surface caught fire in Cleveland. Although this was not the first time the filthy Cuyahoga had burned, Time magazine seized on the 1969 fire as emblematic of the devastating effects of water pollution in the US.

But there was a silver lining. The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire together with outbreaks of smelly algal blooms on Lake Erie spawned a wave of public disgust that thrust environmentalism into the mainstream. Governments felt compelled to act. In January 1970 the National Environmental Protection Act became law. The Clean Water Act followed in 1977. Similar laws were passed in Canada; all this legal and regulatory activity led to encouraging signs of progress regarding toxic and organic pollutants in the Lakes.

So as I travelled around the Great Lakes in 2011 gathering material for my forthcoming book of photographs, Great Lakes Portraits, I was intent on including a shot of the Cuyahoga in Cleveland. I first read about the famous fire as 12-year-old; the memory still resonated. And the Cuyahoga’s significance as a touchstone for the then fledgling environnental movement demanded that I include it in the book.

I drove through the industrial section of Cleveland that surrounds the meanders of the Cuyahoga just south of Lake Erie. I parked, walked halfway across the River Street bridge and pointed my camera downstream. I heard a rhythmic splashing sound approaching from behind and below. A four-person racing shell appeared beneath my feet. Blind luck! In a flash I knew I had a photograph I could never have planned for, but which was also the perfect way to tell the story of the Cuyahoga River. The industrial setting, the cloudy water, the floating debris: all reminders of the once dire state of the river, and of how much work remains to be done to protect the environment of the Great Lakes. On the other hand, the presence of the racing shell – an impossibility on the Cuyahoga of 40 years ago – a startling sign of progress in reducing toxic and organic  pollution.

So how did I meet my photographic challenge? Simple answer: I put myself in the right place at the right time!

(Great Lakes Portraits, published by Fifth House, will be released in Canada in October 2012 and in the US in April 2013. Mark Schacter is currently working on his next book of photographs, Houses of Worship, to be published in 2013. He lives in Ottawa, Canada. His work can be seen at www.luxetveritas.net)

  • Anonymous

    Three centuries of industral and consumer pollution will need more than 30 odd years to reverse the River’s condition. Having lived near the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie for over 60 years I have seen both in the worst condition and now I believe we have turned the corner to cleaner water. Let’s hope those having an impact on our rivers and lakes continue to stay focused.

  • Mark

    Thanks Mike for the correction I’ll be sure to include it in the book.

  • Mike

    Great photo. The condition of the river shows we have a long way to go. I hope we don’t start going backward, with all this talk about the elimination of government regulations. By the way, the CWA was first adopted in 1972, not 1977. Major amendments were added in 1977. 40 years ago this coming October 18 it became law. We should have a big birthday party.