Curran Hatleberg, River’s Dream

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by TBW Books (here). Casebound hardcover (11.5 x 13.5 inches) with marbled paper dust jacket, printed in two initial editions, red (first) and blue (second). With 152 pages and 65 color plates. Includes essays by Joy Williams and Natasha Trethewey. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The photographs in River’s Dream are drawn from a ten year period between 2010 and 2020. For forty-year old Baltimore photographer Curran Hatleberg, that represents a quarter of a lifetime and a sizable investment of time and energy. The project’s initial working title was “Shadow Country”, and its aim was relatively open ended. Hatleberg and his camera would arrive in some corner of the U.S., settle in, and work his way behind the social veneer. “Curran Hatleberg’s Intimate Photos of Strangers Met on Road Trips Across America,” blared a 2013 Feature Shoot headline, an early description which wasn’t far from the truth. Pictures from the series continued to turn up in small batches over the next few years, on Conscientious, Aint-Bad, Huffington Post, and other sites. 

As Hatleberg’s career has accelerated, venues have gained prestige and visibility. Selections from River’s Dream were exhibited at Higher Pictures in 2017 (reviewed here ), at the Whitney Biennial in 2019 (reviewed here), and again at Higher Pictures Generation last fall (a brief selection which excised humans, reviewed here). Sandwiched amidst these snippets was Hatleberg’s related project Lost Coast (reviewed here), published as a monograph in 2016 and later excerpted in the Paul Graham curation But Still, It Turns at the ICP (reviewed here). 

Each iteration was a small glimpse of the whole series to come, tantalizing trailers to whet the appetite of photoland. But no one had yet seen the entirety. When word came last fall that River’s Dream would finally be released as a monograph, anticipation was at fever pitch. The initial run of 1000 copies sold out before publication (this was the red edition; the blue edition remains available as of this writing). 

In the face of such heavy expectations, it’s a tall order for any publisher to satisfy all. But TBW has made a valiant effort with their most ambitious tome yet. River’s Dream is an oversized magnum opus approaching the weightiest offerings of Twin Palms or Nazraeli. A marbleized dust jacket, embossed author seal, and deep crimson accents signal a book intended to lay down a marker. As for the photographs, Hatleberg has narrowed the scope from early previews. What began as a series of scattered road trips across the country has focused tightly around the Southern states, in particular northern Florida, “—the real Florida, some might say,” as described by Joy Williams in the afterword. 

Southern steaminess is a persistent sub-current in River’s Dream. “Atmospherically, it’s a wet book,” Hatleberg recently told The Guardian. “I wanted to capture that heavy feeling of intense humidity, the high point of swelter, when you start sweating as soon as you move and never dry off all day.” Photographs move from one damp scene to another. Puddles of standing water foreground a junk yard. A giant snake improbably escapes a running bathtub. Misty clouds color the sky above a fireworks celebration. The temperate spirit is reinforced with secondary motifs: bees, watermelon, tank tops, and lush vegetation . Humans animate the surroundings, but none are in much of a hurry. Instead the mood is sultry and siesta-friendly.  

The strain of humidity running through the work is self-evident. Less obvious is the almost tangible dampness of the book’s physical design. Its large glossy pages shimmer like small lakes, bound by dozens in marble swirls which echo water patterns. Hatleberg’s tonality is deep and languid, offered up leisurely one print per spread. Did I mention the book’s oceanic size? The reader feels as if they might fall right in. 

Shooting mostly during warm months, Hatleberg often encounters subjects exposed. But his instinct typically probes further. The exact details of his process are somewhat murky—Hatleberg’s internal trade secrets—but they are rooted in happenstance. “Chance and accident are the foundation of my entire practice,” says Hatleberg. One stranger might lead to another, or not. Dead ends are pursued and forgotten. Occasionally, but with regularity, Hatleberg strikes pay dirt with invitations to homes and private gatherings, where he can socialize and take pictures at a relaxed pace. “When a door opens, I go all the way in, as deep as they will allow,” he told The Guardian. “I travel with them, talk with them, have meals with them. And, from the get-go, the camera is always present, so there is no misunderstanding.” In another interview (with Paper Journal) he described surprisingly deep connections with passing subjects: “The people I spend time with and photograph are and have been family to me. I’ve lived with many of my subjects, friends, and collaborators. Eaten with them. Worked with them. Performed tasks and chores with them. In the company of people, life is better. I think the photographs are traces of something deeper and more important.”

All of this occurs behind the scenes, comprising the 99% of the iceberg which doesn’t make it into the photo. The 65 selections in this book reveal the 1% which has surfaced, the mysterious residue by which the reader must piece together backstories and puzzle through how certain pictures came to be. What exactly was Hatleberg doing, for example, near the riverfront by Ernie’s Restaurant watching a crowd of African American boys shadow boxing? Not only did he find the perfect vantage point, but the decisive moment is impeccable, catching his protagonist mid air. Sharp timing is also in evidence in a Cabbagetown family porch scene. Hatleberg has captured a dog behind a wooden chair in a split second blend of color, fidelity and ambiguity. 

The riverfront boxer has a counterpart earlier in the book, a portrait of a young toweled fighter just outside the public ring. Or so we must infer, since most of the photo’s iceberg remains hidden. In other passages more material breaks the surface. A man with bee beard, for example, is shown twice in sequence from alternate perspectives. A cluster of men playing dominoes gets the same treatment, as does the toweled fighter. Hatleberg lingers for a while near a crew digging a pit by hand in an auto yard. They make up four photos in the book, an outsized portion, and presumably important. But it’s hard to determine what fascinated Hatleberg, or even what the hole’s purpose is. Perhaps this interlude is just a resting point, a place in the book to lean against the shovel for a moment in the shade. This might be the case too with more men playing dominoes, reprised at a different table (with similar beer cans) for a short sequence. The book hovers for three photos around a woman studying a praying mantis by some beachside empties. Is this the titular river’s dream? In any case it’s the final sequence in the book, a quiet coda to a meandering stream which occasionally breaches the literary banks. 

As with its predecessor Lost Coast, River’s Dream is mainly concerned with everyday Americans—the country’s underbelly, if you will. There are few signs of luxury or high tech, no sleek buildings or advertisements. Vehicles are shown roughed up, walls with chipped paint, and humans just getting by, perhaps idling the afternoon soaking in a river, or by its side with a folding chair and card table.

Lost Coast carried similar undertones, but from a less pointed perspective. Released on the growing cusp of Trumpism it could be viewed as a national temperature check rather than regional critique. With River’s Dream the focus moves firmly south, and potentially into troubled waters. It’s one thing to offer commentary on the American zeitgeist. But a northerner portraying southern culture is a different animal entirely. Throw in a Yale MFA, scenes of social malaise, and a collectible monograph into the mix and the equation becomes fraught indeed. Natives like Eggleston and Christenberry might get away with pictures of plywood shacks, overgrown lots, and dead reptiles. But Hatleberg is an interloper. Few will doubt his skill with a camera, but he remains an outsider in a region where that trait can be definitive.       

Hatleberg seems leery of the dynamic. He’s invited two authors with southern ties —Joy Williams and Natasha Trethewey— to contribute texts. They soften the landing somewhat, while Hatleberg decries any provincial judgements. “I didn’t want the meaning of the picture, the viewer’s interpretation, to be guided by a region,” he said in the project’s early years. This might be why River’s Dream has no identifying captions, and the photos are largely stripped of vernacular specificity. With few identifying signs or landmarks, they can be hard to locate geographically. Nevertheless, at its core this monograph describes the South.

“We have so many stereotypes and preconceptions about places,” explained Hatleberg. “If it becomes too specific, there’s less room for creative imagination on the part of the viewer.” Despite his best intentions, the irony is that he may have created a book of specifics. Those seeking out regional stereotypes —conquered gators, say, or lethargic youth— may find them reinforced here, and River’s Dream will likely face headwinds in some quarters.

If the book stirs mixed reactions, it joins a long photographic tradition. One person’s throwaway is another’s mantlepiece anchor. The same ambiguity might apply to marbleized paper, spray painted polka dots, or a murky sunset photo. All can be found in River’s Dream, which remains a monumental book by any measure. In scope, design, and production, it’s among the most impressive I’ve seen. Lost Coast was also sweeping, but it’s a minor blip in comparison. Although River’s Dream takes him into precarious territory, it should serve as a career marker for Hatleberg. This reader for one is quite curious to see what lies ahead for him, and where. 

Collector’s POV: Curran Hatleberg is represented by Higher Pictures Generation in New York (here) His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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