Kristine Potter, Dark Waters

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Aperture (here). Hardcover (10.25 x 11.5 inches), 136 pages, with 115 black and white photographs. Includes a short story by Rebecca Bengal. Design by Julia Schäfer. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Kristine Potter’s work investigates “masculine archetypes, the American landscape, and cultural tendencies toward mythologizing the past.” Currently based in Nashville, Tennessee, she is a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an assistant professor of photography at Middle Tennessee State University.

In her earlier photobook Manifest, Potter considered the consequences of Manifest Destiny, challenging the mythology of man’s place in the American West. Her second monograph titled Dark Waters continues that exploration, but with a slightly different emphasis, using the folk tradition of the “murder ballad” as a framework for the series. In these songs, girls and women are the victims of jealous male partners and often murdered by a river or a roadside, an archetypal story that is still surprisingly present in contemporary culture. Potter juxtaposes these ballads with her own black and white photographs set in the gothic South, revealing how the region has been marked by violence, both historical and mythologized. She says of the project, “we can no longer tell whether it is our cultural ideas that make us see the landscape in a certain way, or whether the history of a place (felt or learned) creates a context for how we express ideas about it.”

Potter made the series in the past several years while on various extended road trips through the South, photographing forested or isolated bodies of water. She made images in these places during the summertime, emphasizing their lush and overgrown quality. Her black and white photographs of the land, deeply dark and richly detailed, match the ominous mood of the subject she set out to explore. 

Dark Waters has a thoughtful design, and some of its elements evoke performative settings, starting with the cover, which features a photograph of heavy dark green velvet curtains, like those found in a theater. The title is placed in the center in silver letters in a dramatic all capitals Didon font, and the artist’s name is underneath, in all capitals as well. Texts and song lyrics appear throughout the book on dark green pages, matching the cover and the endpapers. Potter’s black and white photographs vary in size and usually appear one per spread with generous white space around them. A short story titled “Blood Harmony” by Rebecca Bengal ends the book, and the book easily lays flat, making the reading interaction enjoyable. It is also worth noting that an all female team worked on this photobook.

Dark Waters opens with a striking portrait of a young woman with the forest in the background, her eyes closed and her long hair enveloping her body. The image is titled “The Medium” and it immediately pulls us into Potter’s visual narrative. Amplifying the theatrical motif, the book continues with a portrait of a balladeer standing against the green curtain, followed by a photograph of a gravel road leading into deep dense forest, with a twisting snake on the road. As we turn the page, we’re met by the hauntingly named Troublesome Creek, and many of the other places that Potter has photographed have even more sordid names, including as Hangman’s Curve, Murder Creek 1, Bloody Fork, and Blackwater Swamp. These landscapes are consistently deserted and ominous, reinforcing the dark and moody atmosphere. 

Song lyrics from the murder ballads are printed on interleaved deep green pages and feature songs like “Delia’s Gone” and “Down in the Willow Garden”. On these pages, Potter has crossed out the lines that describe the act of murder, a simple yet powerful act of reconstructing the narrative. In “Banks of the Ohio”, one part reads: I held a knife against her breast, // As into my arms she pressed, // She cried, “my love, don’t murder me, // I’m not prepared for eternity!”.

The deserted landscapes and the lyrics of the songs are then interspersed with portraits of reimagined victims. Potter took portraits of women in a studio setting, and many look like they have just been pulled out of the water. The women in these pictures are named after the victims mentioned in the murder ballads, but Potter’s portraits try to disengage them from that history. In a photograph titled “Knoxville Girl”, a young woman in a white antique blouse wrings out her wet hair with both hands, as she gazes intently at the camera, an encounter that is both striking and mysterious. Potter is particularly concerned about the gestures and expressions of her sitters, and in these portraits, women are often photographed in awkward poses, their facial expressions alert or suspicious.

There are also a few portraits of men. One of them shows a shirtless man walking down a road, and another portrays a bold man with a long beard, his intense gaze and slightly raised arms perhaps threatening. And a couple of pages later, a staged Jeff Wall-like photo depicts a man punching another one by the water, evoking the lyrics of one of the songs. As the book ends, another balladeer appears in front of the green curtain with a final song, closing the circle. The right side of this final spread is the beginning of Bengal’s story, which complements Potter’s photographs. 

As an artistic project, Dark Waters is both lyrically beautiful and ominously dark. Its smartly constructed layered narrative looks at how people relate to place and space, and exposes how a threatening landscape can stir up a culture of violence, and vice versa. By bringing her landscapes into conversation with her studio portraits, Potter builds visual energy with a growing sense of inescapable momentum. Dark Waters brings attention to the sense of threat that women often deal with, giving voice to forces that are both haunting and empowering. 

Collector’s POV: Kristine Potter is represented by Sasha Wolf Projects (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Kristine Potter, Aperture

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Emin Özmen, Olay

Emin Özmen, Olay

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter