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Rivers run through us

Jepson Center exhibits two bodies of work about our watersheds

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ART HAS the power to change perspectives. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Currently, the Jepson Center is exhibiting two awe-inspiring, thought-provoking photographic exhibitions on rivers that use beauty to urge preservation.

“Take Me to the River” by Maine photographer Michael Kolster is a collection of ambrotype photographs of four American rivers: Androscoggin, Schuylkill, James, and Savannah.

Savannah’s own Ansley West Rivers’ “Source to Sea,” in the #art912 gallery, includes photographs from seven American rivers: Colorado, Missouri/Mississippi, Columbia, Rio Grande, Tuolumne, Altamaha and Hudson.

Revelstoke Town Park, British Columbia, 2018 by Ansley West Rivers.
  • Revelstoke Town Park, British Columbia, 2018 by Ansley West Rivers.

“There are a few interesting connections between them,” says Assistant Curator at Telfair Museums Erin Dunn. “Ansley is showing these bigger, majestic rivers through this large-scale digital print, and then Mike is showing them through these very unique ambrotype that are small-scale and intimate. They’re both inviting us to think about it, but through beauty and magic.”

Kolster had never seen an ambrotype until he wanted to make them, but once he learned of them, he was obsessed.

“After having made a couple thousand of them, I still look at them and am amazed by them,” he says. “They’re a strange, beautiful, mysterious object. They also, I think, put a lot of our assumptions of what the photograph is on their heads.”

An ambrotype is made on a glass plate and coated with collodion, then dipped in silver nitrate, creating a negative image that has to be set against a dark background to be seen. As Kolster explains, in other photography forms, a lighter tone indicates less of that substance, whether pigment or silver, but ambrotype is the exact opposite.

“When you see dark areas, there’s nothing on the plate, and you’re seeing the black of the background,” he says. “When you see highlights or things that are sort of mid-tones or lighter, it’s the presence of silver or substance that allows you to see that tone. It’s a complete reversal—it’s bizarre and the thing that’s weird about it is that the plate itself is actually a negative.”

The long process means that Kolster has to use a longer exposure when shooting.

“The exposures that I take the pictures with are very different from what we think of as conventional photographic exposure. These are long; a lot of my exposures are 15 seconds to a minute and a half,” explains Kolster. “That’s kind of strange when you look at the pictures—you’re actually looking at the accumulation of time, really more so than we’re used to in pictures that we typically take, because those are a fraction of a second.”

In her process, Rivers manipulates the image in the camera.

“I build up compositions; I create landscapes that don’t necessarily exist,” she explains. “Nothing is double exposed, but I mask off certain areas through a layering process of my negatives. There are usually several shots on one piece of film. Because of my large format carrier, I put a piece of tape and I write heavy notes. The back of my camera is gridded, so I’ll write, ‘I exposed 4 up, 4 over.’ Everything is done in-camera—nothing is done in Photoshop.”

The antiquated forms of photography represent a simpler time.

“The invention of photography and the use of the wet plate collodion process came at a point in the 19th century which was almost exactly synchronized or in coincidence with the industrialization of our rivers and their adulteration,” says Kolster. “Photography and the changes in the landscape kind of happened at the same time.”

Fishing at McQueen’s Island, Savannah, Georgia, 2014 by Michael Kolster.
  • Fishing at McQueen’s Island, Savannah, Georgia, 2014 by Michael Kolster.

Kolster’s inspiration came, literally, from his own backyard: his former studio overlooked the Androscoggin River, which has the distinction of being an inspiration for the Clean Water Act of 1970.

“In 1970, a biologist did a water quality sampling in the lower stretches and he said it was biologically dead,” says Kolster. “Buildings near the river would turn black—it was a bad scene. Then Edmund Muskie, a senator from Maine who grew up along the banks of the Androscoggin, authored the Clean Water Act. Forty years later, here we are and we’ve got a river that has vestiges of its industrial history all over the place, but it also has bald eagles and fish in it. The transformation of the river was one that I couldn’t even get my mind around. Most of the people that live around here still think about the river as being utterly filthy, but I’m floating down it and pulling these really beautiful fish out of it. I was intrigued by the idea of the reality of it.”

In a way, Kolster’s photographs comment on the necessity of preserving these rivers and the beauty of these bodies of water, which is what Rivers does as well.

“I want to bring the viewer into the image by using beauty as a tool,” she explains. “I want you to fall in love with these watersheds. I chose not to go in a more documentarian way because I feel like we’re so inundated by those images. Unfortunately, the environmental conversation has become political, so people can turn off. The environment supports all of us and we should be coming at it together. I wanted not to show the everyday norm with a documentarian or journalistic way of showing a landscape.”

“These rivers will never be restored to pre-Columbian purity. Even though there are people advocating for it, it’s not going to happen,” says Kolster. “I think that’s doing a disservice to reality. It’s an instance where we have something that is not pure nature or not purely ruined. It’s a vibrant, interesting, beautiful resource that is a combination of adulteration and loving care—it’s both. We’ve got to find new ways of seeing something that has changed to such an extent that we don’t necessarily have the language or an understanding of how to think about it.”

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