Photographers and Water
September 23rd - December 20th
The Late Show with Steven Colbert has a questionnaire for guests where he asks a series of 15 rather random questions – some silly – some profound. One of the questions is what is your "favorite smell." It's fun to play along and my answer, after tossing out the usual popcorn and freshly baked bread, is the smell of rain.
Living in the land of little rain, it's hard to describe the primitive joy one gets walking outside and sensing the smell that lets you know water is coming; it's as if the earth is sighing in relief. I love late summer in New Mexico when the afternoon heat is broken by a soft rain that leaves the smell of warm, wet dirt and piñon pine in the air. We start our life in water and mythology tells us we cross over the river Styx when we end it.
Water is life, and this is clearly illustrated by Google Earth at Night where we see how civilization clings to the edges of the Nile River. Water is also power, or rather access to water is power - think the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Owens Valley. That power is brilliantly illustrated in journalist Mark Arax’s The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire which tells the story of how the world's richest cotton farmer started his empire by draining one of California's largest lakes in the central valley. This is the same valley which is now sinking each year due to the loss of aquifer water from the relentless growth of commercial wells that reach down thousands of feet - drying up local wells in the process. Access to water has historically played out on more intimate terms through denying use of beaches (Bryce Beach), pools and even drinking fountains. Pool: A Social History of Segregation is an interesting project which seeks to “illuminate a history of segregated swimming in America, and its connection to present-day drowning issues affecting Black communities.”
Rothstein, Arthur, FSA, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication ("CCO 1.0 Dedication")
Photographically, some of my fondest memories were spending days in the amber light of the darkroom, listening to the bubbling waterwheel of the print washer. Beyond the technical, photography has a long history of water-related projects, a great example is the FSA photographers who illustrated the effects of drought and economic depression in the 30s. In the late 40's Philippe Halsman created one of his most iconic images, Dalí Atomicus - featuring a flying Salvador Dali, three cats and a beautiful wave of water splashing through the scene - apparently it took over two dozen tries to get the right balance of mammal and water. In the 80s and into the 90s Michael Kenna’s long exposures turned the ocean into a flowing ethereal mist. Later, at the start of the 2000s, Alex Soth reinvigorated the roadtrip genre with his Sleeping by the Mississippi. More recently, we have the brilliant Water Life by Aïda Muluneh which highlights water poverty through the women of Afar in northern Ethiopia. Last year, Sebastião Salgado exhibited Aqua Mater: The Fragility of Water featuring 42 of his photographs that "remind us how subtle the balance of nature remains."
Water is a broad theme and the photographers here are good examples of looking at our relationship to water and how it transforms both our external and internal landscapes. They also explore the fight for control over access to water, how we interact with the substance, and what it means to us politically and metaphorically. Once again, many thanks to the editors at PhotoBook Journal for curating a set of very interesting books on the subject.