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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review River's Dream Photographs by Curran Hatleberg Reviewed by Brian Arnold "I think most readers associate novelist Cormac McCarthy with his renditions of the American West, found in his iconic novels All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. Fewer know that McCarthy’s early works were all set in the American South, and create a vision much more akin to William Faulkner, including novels Child of God, Outer Dark and Suttree..."

River's Dream By Curran Hatleberg.
River's Dream
Photographs by Curran Hatleberg

TBW Books, Oakland, USA, 2022. 152 pp., 65 color plates, 11.5x13.5″".

I think most readers associate novelist Cormac McCarthy with his renditions of the American West, found in his iconic novels All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. Fewer know that McCarthy’s early works were all set in the American South, and create a vision much more akin to William Faulkner, including novels Child of God, Outer Dark and Suttree. Many critics and devotes of McCarthy cite the latter, Suttree, as the writer’s greatest work. Interpreted as an autobiographical story set in rural Tennessee, the book is about a man named Suttree, an outcast who lives along the margins of society in a houseboat on the Tennessee River. Estranged from his mother named Grace, Suttree’s life is told in a dream-like narrative of Biblical proportions. The twists and turns of the Tennessee River offer a metaphorical and allegorical backdrop for the story. The surface of the water and flow of the river perfectly mimick his life, steadily moving forward, but no two ripples exactly the same. Through the course of the novel, Suttree is revealed as the best kind of antihero, equally driven by compassion, wisdom, estrangement and anger.

Suttree is also Curran Hatleberg’s Instagram handle (@_suttree_), and as such provides an interesting entry point for understanding the photographs in Curran Hatleberg’s book River’s Dream, published by TBW Books. Photographed in the deep south, largely in northern Florida, River’s Dream depicts communities on the edge of civilization, places along the water where alligators and water snakes have as much say over the land as any human. And similar to Suttree, Hatleberg repeats specific Biblical themes; for McCarthy it was the mother Grace, for Hatleberg, the serpent that tempted our fall.

The sequencing of the book is lovely. The opening picture, quite literally, invites the reader through the doorway of a local home, into the private worlds of the people Hatleberg photographs (albeit we are greeted by a dog’s behind). Using different sequencing strategies, from formal juxtapositions to film-like sequences, in which we watch a scene unfold over several page spreads, the narrative leads us into a community characterized by rich social connections, racial divides, broken homes, simple pleasures, environmental trauma, and the lives of people who experience more poverty than opportunity. The final picture closes the narrative as clearly as the doorway opened it, depicting a still and stagnant marshland (we see a picture of this same marsh earlier in the book with a photograph of an alligator scurrying away from the photographer, deeper into the water), a body of water as murky as it is foreboding.

Serpents — whether water snakes or alligators — are abundant in Hatleberg’s book, grounding the entire narrative in the temptation that led to our ruin. Throughout River’s Dream, we see serpents handled lovingly like pets, gutted and crammed into a meat freezer, their shed skins collected as trophies, hiding in the grass waiting for unsuspecting prey and slithering around the family swimming pool or bathtub. It’s hard to find one clear idea behind these pictures, as the serpent is depicted as both predator and prey, an adored pet and keeper of our fears, but collectively they pose interesting questions about our temptations and fall from grace.

The book includes two essays, one by novelist Joy Williams, a part-time resident of northern Florida, and the other by Natasha Trethewey, two-term poet laureate of the United States (2012-2014). William’s essay is well-written but unsurprising. However Trethewey’s essay “Love, Illuminating,” provides some interesting ideas about the languages of dreams and poetry, and how these can help us to better understand photographs. Trethewey notes unique attributes of poetry, specifically the sort of wordplay often used to make meaning by comparing like sounds or word roots, and the arcane pictorial landscape of dreams, often obscure but rich with meaning and insight. She suggests these two languages can converge in a photograph, that like poetic language, photographs forms can suggest associations that surprise us, and like dreams, the pictures can be as literal or associative as we let them be.

By any measure, the book is an exquisite production. The dust jacket is marbled, appearing both liquid and dreamy, printed on a fine matte paper that is pleasing to touch. The pictures are large format and rendered on a coated paper with rich and full colors. Printed one-picture-per-page-spread, with plenty of surrounding white space, River’s Dream invites a patient engagement, asking the reader to pause with each picture and digest the great clarity and emotional complexity it presents. Hatleberg employs color quite effectively in his compositions, never falling for the trap of making color itself the subject of the picture but rather using it to ground and complete the frames, even creating new ideas by repeating colors in individual frames or across the page spreads.

If you compare River’s Dream with Hatleberg’s first book, Lost Coast, a book documenting the landscape, people, and industry of Eureka, California, more comparisons to Cormac McCarthy arise. With his two books, Hatleberg looks to both the West and the South as McCarthy does, and he embraces similar mythologies, using our expectations of these places to shape our reactions and illuminate their tragedies. Nevertheless, in both Lost Coast and River's Dream he offers striking photographs of American communities living along the edges. Following Szarkowski’s theory that photographs are both windows and mirrors, we can use these to better understand who we are today.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.