Robbie Lawrence, Blackwater River

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover, 104 pages, with 39 color and 11 monochrome reproductions, 12.13×9.65 inches. Includes an essay by Sala Elise Patterson. Designed by The Entente. (Cover and spread shots below).

Comments/Context: In the autumn of 2017, photographer Robbie Lawrence and writer Sala Elise Patterson embarked on a two-week journey to the Low Country – the coastal region in the southeastern US, where the states of Georgia and South Carolina meet. With the intention to document America’s social and political divisions, a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, through a lens focused on a single place, the pair were interested in providing a more nuanced and domestic portrayal, as opposed to the polarizing media-coverage they knew. Introduced by a producer who thought that the Scottish photographer and African-American writer would make a promising creative team, Lawrence and Patterson set out for the swampy lands sprawling along the final stretch of the Ogeechee River, one of Georgia’s main waterways, also known as the Blackwater River.

As Lawrence and Patterson were strangers to the area, conducting extensive preliminary research felt mandatory. Acquainting themselves with the region’s natural beauty and touristic lures including beaches and creeks, oak trees and Spanish moss; its cultural richness and complex past enmeshed in slavery, battles, and epidemics; as well as its residents’ defining mentality, merging politeness and patriotism with independence and religious faith – they inevitably stumbled upon the area’s present-day struggles. It is a long and disheartening list that involves industrial pollution, disenfranchising development, and climate change, as well as absent economic opportunity, poor public education, and systemic racism. While locals attribute some of these factors to the persistent presence of social inequality and gun violence, it is their totality that contributes to the slow yet steady decline of the Ogeechee area and its river.

This atmosphere of descent permeates Blackwater River, Lawrence’s first photobook, albeit with a less immediate and disconcerting gravity than you might expect. Structured around two evocative sequences, which are divided by Patterson’s affective and factually grounded essay, his photographs shimmer as alluringly as a thread of loosely strung pearls. Shot both in color and black-and-white, we see images of sun-dimpled swamp-scapes populated by marsh grass and boney trees; the river, or rather, patches of its coffee-colored water speckled with drying leaves and reflecting branches; and bushes of withering roses. This flora is joined by empty playgrounds and wooden facades of urban dwellings, as well as their dimly lit interiors. They are silent and melancholic images that insinuate desolation, instead of demonstrating it.

A similar sense of secrecy pervades the book’s other significant set of photographs depicting local residents, who Lawrence and Patterson met over the course of their trip. Close to, but not quite fitting the notion of portraiture, most of Lawrence’s subjects are somehow obscured. They are shrouded by darkness or mantled in shadows; their faces turn away or merge with abstracting reflections. And as we search their profiles, postures, and gestures for clues and meaning, all we find is mystery – be it in a pair of loosely clasping hands, the nails slightly too long, the fingers’ suspended movement suggesting doubt or confession; or in the bleeding ink of a tattooed swallow commemorating the youth of an old man’s arm. Lawrence has an astute eye for telling details, recalling photographs of William Eggleston or Stephen Shore, and masters the emotional effect of color and light, like Saul Leiter. Unlike the iconic work of these photographers, however, the images of Blackwater River do not invoke intimacy, but ascertain distant connections – they don’t reveal characters, but observe their appearances. This is perhaps most beautifully captured in the photograph of an elderly African-American woman, sitting silently and alone on the pew of a darkening church, as if contemplating something as intangible as the light falling through the stained-glass windows.

It is Patterson’s text, merging her own observations with the stories and voices of the people she spoke to, that lets us assume that this woman is Vernia Lanson – a congregation member of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in the hamlet of Burroughs, Georgia. The last standing chapel of the Ogeechee River Mission, the church was built by slaves in 1896, and whose congregation once numbered 20,000 (mostly African-American slaves, as Patterson writes, but also including white residents), but has been in increasing decline since the 1950s, leading to the services being held only twice a month. “Other people are coming in, trying to take Burroughs off the map,” we read Lanson say. “We are fighting hard not to let that happen. We don’t want a big corporation coming in and taking this away. We just pray that we could stay the way we are, or we could grow.”

What makes Patterson’s essay so moving and essential is the space it dedicates to the first-person narratives of the local people – voices that provide context and inform the way in which we look at and understand Lawrence’s photographs. For instance, the story of Wynn, a fifth-generation shrimper whose livelihood is increasingly diminished by pollution, development, and falling prices – and how this awareness alters the sight of a man sitting in a truck in front of a barn stating “Seafood”.

We also learn about a spoken-word artist, a born-again Christian, fighting gun-violence by educating Savannah’s youth; about Dr. Najmah Thomas, a professor and member of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (the latter likely giving the Ogeechee river its name), descendants of a group of African-American slaves who merged West African traditions with those of the local Native tribes; or, more surprisingly, about Larry Lucas, a flag-waving veteran who, along with his patriotic convictions, is also skeptical about the government and deeply cares about the Ogeechee River and its communities. Striking in all of these stories is the peoples’ strong connection to the land and its river, and their willingness to protect it, despite the different backgrounds they come from.

It is easy to like Blackwater River, even more so when you consider its well-thought-out design, including the sensuously lush reproductions of its photographs, the tactility of its pages, the reoccurring earthy tinges, and other details such as the mirrored text on its cover and endpapers, as if recreating the reflection of the river.

The more time I spend with this book, however, and the more I look at Lawrence’s photographs themselves, something keeps pinching me. Initially, I thought it is because I cannot see signs of the heightened social and political divisions increasingly surfacing because of Trump’s corrosive presidency (as opposed to how they had manifested before). Or perhaps it is Patterson’s, at first almost apologetic sounding, statement that the book, like their investigation, “yield[s] an impression rather than a deep understanding of the place. Each moment is individually significant while collectively hinting at larger, more elusive truths.”

Ultimately, though, I don’t mind either aspect – most projects take different turns once you immerse yourself in them, and it is only respectful, and due diligence, to admit that a two-weeks stay won’t allow one to profoundly connect with a place in the same way as lived experience does.

What keeps pinching me instead, is something within the attempt at finding beauty in decline and deterioration, and the photographs such attempts produce. It is an undertaking that can be as noble as it can be complicated, and therefore inevitably raises questions, such as: How do we distinguish a gaze from being well intentioned and, perhaps, romanticizing, from being indulgent or distorting – especially when the images it creates are as seductive as Lawrence’s? And how do we determine agency? That is, who is allowed to look and why, and whether the images are brought back to the community they were taken from and are supposed to serve? These are issues that visual journalism and conflict photography continuously struggle with – and that I feel we don’t address enough when it comes to photobooks, often because answers don’t come easily.

Blackwater River is clearly not a work of journalism; neither is it my intention to diminish the ethical and moral integrity of Lawrence’s and Patterson’s project. Yet I still wonder about the photographs’ relationship with their accompanying text – and, consequently, the photographs’ quintessential character. Are they substantial in their own right, because they are supported by writing, or because they back it up? Lawrence’s images, as a whole and individually, do not tell a specific story, they don’t narrate, but collect appearances from a place most of us don’t know. In doing so, they strongly depend on the insights Patterson provides. Without her words, this place, its people, and their stories would remain an enigma, beautiful to observe, but an enigma nevertheless – one that closely relates to the title itself. A blackwater river is a type of river found in forested swamps and wetlands. It gains its color from the leaves and other vegetation slowly decaying in its slow moving waters. Waters you can navigate, but that you can’t see through.

Collector’s POV: Robbie Lawrence is represented by Webber Represents in London and New York (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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