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Review: Jeff Rich’s “Watershed,” at Jennifer Schwartz, explores horror and beauty of pollution

Foam from Pollution (2007)

We all live downstream. This is the working motto of many watershed protection projects. Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into U.S. waterways in order to maintain quality standards. But with weak enforcement of many of these regulatory mandates, the maintenance of water health has been a constant battle waged on many fronts.

These are the bare-bones facts, the nuts and bolts of it. What environmental photographer Jeff Rich brings to the discussion is the poetry of this ongoing struggle. His work documents the effects of development, exploitation and abuse amid rich Southern landscapes, beautifully exposing the devastating toll of environmental degradation.

Rich’s “Watershed,” at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery through March 17, comprises large-format digital photographs from the first two chapters of a long-term study of the Mississippi River watershed that he began in 2005. His images of the French Broad River and Tennessee River basins offer a compelling narrative about environmental stress. They depict dramatic and often ill-conceived attempts to contain and control the landscape: deforestation, the diversion of natural waterways, the erection of anti-erosion banks, the scarring of the earth.

Rich’s deliberate juxtaposition of the natural beauty of the land and rivers and the harsh intrusion of the man-made elements elicits a visceral response. It pulls us into the environment and compels us to engage with it on an emotionally charged level.

At first glance, “Foam From Pollution” appears to be a lovely, timeless image of a section of the Pigeon River, which flows from North Carolina to Tennessee. But, as the title and the back story that Rich provides reveal, the highlights on the softly rippling water’s surface are effluvia from a paper mill upstream.

Similarly, “Blue Ridge Paper Mill” is a beautiful study of the effects of pollution; clouds of iridescent smoke billow upward from a mill nestled in a green valley. In both pictures, Rich allows the play of light to seduce the eye, creating subtly iconic imagery. This is the true strength of his artistic documentation: the images capture the imagination and compel the viewer to learn more, to really see what’s in the frame beyond a beautiful image.

The photographer also depicts some of the people he has met along the way, from riverkeepers to cleanup volunteers to those who merely live alongside these troubled waters. Their care-worn faces tell the story of their personal investment, and sometimes their loss.

Jeff Rich: "Steve Harris"

“Steve Harris” introduces a man who bought riverside property in Erwin, Tennessee, to become an organic farmer, only to later learn that he and the land were exposed to extreme levels of nuclear radiation from a reactor nearby. Rich’s depiction of Harris is compelling, but, as with the rest of the series, the real-life stories behind the images add interest and provide a deeper level of meaning. He is literally “putting a face” on the issues.

Like other contemporary environmental photographers such as Edward Burtynsky, Colin Finlay and Richard Misrach, Rich’s work engages an array of complex issues: the natural vs. the man-made, purity vs. contamination, private rights vs. public use, progress vs. sustainability, and so on. Ultimately, he is asking us to see with fresh eyes the things that we take for granted as the byproducts of progress: the intrusion of pollution, power plants, sewage and industrial waste, the reshaping of the landscape to suit commercial purposes. In so doing, he asks us to reassess our priorities and consider the demands and payoffs of real sustainability.

This is thought-provoking stuff. Rich’s ability to create such lushly atmospheric photography while bolstering this narrative thread suggests that we’ll be seeing more from this compelling young photographer in the years ahead. I look forward to the next images from his “Watershed” project.

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