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photo-eye Book Reviews: Watershed

Watershed. By Jeff Rich.
Published by photolucida, 2012.
Reviewed by Antone Dolezal
Jeff Rich Watershed
Photographs by Jeff Rich
photolucida, 2012. Hardbound. 108 pp., 40 color illustrations, 10-1/2x8-3/4".

It was refreshing to see Photolucida’s coveted Critical Mass Book Award go to only one recipient in 2010. Jeff Rich certainly deserved it. His poignantly important body of work Watershed is presented in a simple format with a design both elegant and appropriate. Complete with stunning printing, Rich's work is allowed to be seen for its full significance. The wisdom of Photolucida's conclusion to publish one book for this year can be seen in the quality of Watershed as an object, and for this decision my hat goes off to them.

As Hartwell Carson states in his essay, "The geographic term 'watershed,' or 'river basin' as it is sometimes called, is often misunderstood. A watershed consists of not only the springs, creeks, brooks, rivers, ponds and lakes, but also the land surrounding these water bodies. The reason this concept is so important is that most of the pollution that impacts our waterways occurs on land." This quotation highlights an important element in understanding the staggering scope of Rich's project. Flowing through several states, the French Broad River was the life-blood of past communities inhabiting the river's banks and surrounding landscape. This geographical area has such a deep and involved history with the river that it’s hard to imagine how the photographer was able to focus on compiling a complex social, geographical and environmental narrative with only the 40 photographs presented in this book. But Rich has laid out a sequence touching on both the complicated nature of land use as a recreation space, as well as for industrial business and its unfortunate byproducts, tying a delicate thread between the people who live on the French Broad River and the unsustainable industry that has at times been seemingly exempt from environmental responsibility.

Watershed, by Jeff Rich. Published by photolucida, 2012.
Watershed, by Jeff Rich. Published by photolucida, 2012.
Rich's photographs evoke the notion of a timeless struggle between lone individuals and a larger-than-life entity. The few people present throughout the pages of Watershed are often those who use the river as a life source. Rafting guides, fishermen and secluded landowners are pulled out of obscurity and given a face. What remain faceless are the monstrous symbols of industrialized power. Power plants, paper mills and sewer lines loom over the riverbanks, casting a gloomy shadow over the landscape and creating an unavoidable realization that these waters are not ideal for sustainable living.

Watershed, by Jeff Rich. Published by photolucida, 2012.
And while Rich's project focuses on the French Broad River, his story alludes to a larger problem that exists in a nation that places industry ahead of people. An example of this is the photographer's focus on a lone man, Steve Harris. Harris resides on 20-acres of land along the Nolichucky River, less than a mile downstream from a company called Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee. Recent testing has found water and soil contaminated with uranium and plutonium as far as 50 miles away from NFS. Harris' land -- a once thriving artist community -- now sits almost vacant, existing as an unfortunate consequence of NFS's neglect, while Harris himself has been trapped in an unfortunate cycle of legal and medical bills. The photographs documenting Harris' life on the river are at once sad, thoughtful and shocking. And while you can view the full series on Rich's website, this book contains only a few glimpses of Harris' story, giving the viewer an idea of the dense scale of the photographer's project.

Watershed, by Jeff Rich. Published by photolucida, 2012.
Watershed, by Jeff Rich. Published by photolucida, 2012.
Due to their complex content, the fine quality of Rich's photographs tends to be overlooked in lieu of putting the images in some form of historical and environmental context, as seen in the essays included in Watershed. While informative and at times personally insightful, for me the essays fall short in filling in the contextual gap that is often unavoidable with a visual documentary project. Including the thoughts of a fellow artist would have balanced the photographer's aesthetic intent with the importance of the project's historical and environmental background. That being said, Rich has weaved together a staggering series of seductive photographs teetering between evocative ambience and straight documentation. The photographer's use of atmospheric lighting often gives a sense of a land caught in an ephemeral state, damaged by past neglect, but hopeful for enlightened intervention. Here the viewer is challenged to ponder questions of the captivating landscape Rich has yielded, the photographs providing answers both disquieting and contemplative.

ANTONE DOLEZAL is a New Mexico based photographer and writer. He is a member of the media collective Finite Foto and his writing has appeared in photo-eye Magazine and Fraction Magazine. For more on Antone, please visit his site at