WATERWAYS are often taken for granted. So often, we hear about dredging, pollution, and harbor deepening in our own Savannah River.
Photographer Ansley West Rivers shows the beauty and necessity of our waterways in “Seven Rivers,” up now at Laney Contemporary Fine Art.
“Seven Rivers” consists of seven large-format photographs of rivers. The project began five years ago, when Rivers traveled across the country to photograph the Colorado, Missouri/Mississippi, Columbia, Rio Grande, Tuolumne, Altamaha, and Hudson Rivers.
“I chose these certain rivers because they’re responsible for the major communities or cities that defined the United States,” Rivers explains. “People in these towns sprung up around the rivers because of commerce and irrigation, and it’s interesting how it shaped our map.”
Rivers points out the Hudson, which runs through New York City, as being a major influence.
“I love history, so all those early American Dutch settlements all were on the Hudson, and what made New York City was the Hudson,” she says. “A lot of the Revolutionary War was fought on the Hudson. All those big land owners were all around the Hudson, probably for irrigation but also for transport with commerce. It was interesting for me to see on that river how that had all disappeared and you saw all these old wealthy towns.”
Rivers met her husband, Rafe, in San Francisco and moved to Darien to start Canewater Farm. That connection to farming strengthened her fascination with waterways.
“When I was living in California, I was thinking about how we were in a major drought, and since Rafe is farming I always think about irrigation,” she notes.
“Where are we getting our water in the Bay Area? It comes from Yosemite, so 375 miles away. Just the disconnect with water and growing up in the South, I never thought about it as much.”
Rivers is a history buff, so she researched each river before starting.
“I started this project after I spent 25 days on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon,” Rivers recalls. “I was reading John Wesley Powell’s book—he was the first white man down that part of the river. I was seeing how different the river was for him versus when I was going down the river, which was just a hundred years difference.”
Rivers used a large-format camera to create the haunting look of her photos.
“I’ve built a series of tools that I use in front of my camera that I can make different compositions by masking out certain areas,” she explains. “I’m never double exposing any piece, but there’s usually two or three shots on each negative. Before I go to each river, I take a lot of time in the studio really researching and thinking about what I want to say. A lot of times I sketch out an image I want to make, but a lot of times I’m just inspired. Sometimes it might take me a week to finish one shot. With a large format, you have a grid system, so I grid things out.”
Rivers chose not to approach the project in a documentarian way to preserve the beauty of our water.
“In our culture now, we are so inundated by photographs,” she says. “Being a photographer, I feel like it’s a good thing because it really pushes us to make better photographs. I think it has really pushed fine art photography. Some people may argue that they don’t like that, but I think it’s pushed me as a photographer to make stronger photographs.
“So, because of that, when we talk about environmental issues we get immediately turned off. We see really horrific things all the time, so we put our blinders on. We just want to go home and eat with our family. With my project, I really wanted to use beauty as a tool to seduce the viewer into the image, but also make you think a little bit about what’s happening in each image. One thing might just be awry or challenge you a bit more.”
The river closest to home in “Seven Rivers” is the Altamaha, which runs through Darien.
“The Altamaha is the second largest watershed in the Southeast, and it’s one of the only undammed rivers in the Southeast because the TVA dammed everything so many times,” she enthuses.
“It’s a cool river because it protects itself. There’s no gradient to it and it is completely surrounded by swamp, so it’s difficult to access.”
Ultimately, Rivers wants to show the importance and the beauty of our waterways, and her fine photography is the way to do it.
“I think art plays such an important role in all societies as a communication tool because it’s something you live with and you go to see,” she explains. “You’re making the choice rather than just turning on the radio. That’s why it’s important that art joins in all these conversations.”