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photo-eye Book Reviews - Best Books: Yangtze

Yangtze: The Long River, Photographs by Nadav Kander. 
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2010.
Yangtze: The Long River
Reviewed by Daniel W. Coburn

Nadav Kander Yangtze: The Long River
Photographs by Nadav Kander. Text by Jean-Paul Tchang, Kofi A. Annan & Nadav Kander.
Hatje Cantz, 2010. Hardbound. 160 pp., 75 color illustrations, 13-1/4x11".

Nadav Kander returned from his three year odyssey on the Yangtze River with a collection of beautifully crafted photographs depicting the monumental demolition and construction along the banks of China's most revered waterway. Its history is wrought with tales of celebration and catastrophe. Kander's photographs eloquently describe this beautiful tragedy which continues as the Chinese tow through a wake of environmental destruction in a race toward modernization. His human subjects seem minuscule and insignificant, dwarfed by the grand landscapes and man-made monstrosities that serve as their backdrop. These anonymous figures hint at mankind's role as a reckless antagonist; an egotistical being whose technological advancements have grown at a pace so rapid that he is unable to wield its destructive potential with restraint, foresight and caution. Kander depicts these figures at work and sometimes at leisure, but always as a means to an impending yet unforeseeable end. The artist has documented a fleeting moment in the history of this river, the people that inhabit its banks and the landscape that surrounds it. These images can never be made again.

Yangtze, by Nadav Kander. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2010.
 Following the river from its coastal estuary at the East China Sea to its source in the Himalayas, Kander uses the river itself as a metaphor for constant change. His human subjects linger in a state of ambivalence and isolation, seemingly unaware that they could easily be consumed at any moment by the world that surrounds them. A simple clothesline daintily swings in the breeze below a massive concrete and steel structure that looms overhead. At the turn of every page, Kander's audience must deliberately contemplate whether these structures are in a state of construction or decomposition. An anonymous woman collects recycled goods from a pile of rubble where her apartment building was demolished in Shanghai. Villagers are shown performing their daily tasks in the same manner their ancestors have done for centuries, only now they are carried out amongst ruins or in an environment that has been radically transformed over the span of a decade. One of Kander's photographs presents an elderly man in a tiny junk boat traversing the Yangtze with the massive Three Gorges Dam dominating the waterscape in the distance. This is a relatively expected but essential juxtaposition.

Yangtze, by Nadav Kander. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2010.

The photographs are stunning and executed with a technical brilliance that could only be possessed by a master photographer. Kander employs his large format camera in a way that captures tremendous detail and sharpness throughout the picture plane. He uses the thick fog and cloud of pollution settling over the river to his advantage. As a result, the photographer is able to construct a sense of atmospheric perspective that creates the illusion of deep three-dimensional space. Because of long exposure times, his human subjects are often slightly blurred, hinting at a sense of movement, which only contributes to the dynamism of the images. Kander cites celebrated painters such as John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich as points of inspiration, but simplified compositions, muted color schemes, and his use of the bird's-eye point of view hint at influences from Chinese painting. Kander's images are similar to the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner in the sense that he illustrates the folly of mankind and subtly points at his frailty in the face of nature's potential wrath.

Yangtze, by Nadav Kander. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2010.
This book is elegantly presented, printed and bound, including supplemental texts by Kofi A. Annan, Jean-Paul Tchang, and Nadav Kander. It includes a detailed map of China and the Yangtze River, which makes it easy for the reader to follow Kander's geographic location on the Yangtze. The volume contains over 180 pages of images and texts that are presented with grace and without distraction. The book is wrapped in a heavy linen textile with a beautiful color reproduction of one of Kander's images inlaid onto the cover. The book is a gem and the work is timeless, which makes it a must have for any serious photo-book collector.—Daniel W. Coburn

Daniel W. Coburn is a contemporary photographer whose visually arresting images have garnered national and international praise. Selections from his body of work have been featured in prestigious exhibitions, including Top 40 at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art and the National Competition at SOHO Photo Gallery in New York. His photographic works are held in the permanent collections of the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, the Mariana Kistler-Beach Museum of Art, the Mulvane Museum of Art and the Moraine Park Museum. Daniel has published two monographs of his work: Between Earth and Sky and Rediscovering Paradise. His most recent body of work, OBJECT:AFFECTION, represents a photographic study on the process of self-objectification. Coburn received his BFA with an emphasis in photography from Washburn University and is currently studying photography as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.