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How Do We See Rivers? “River Reveal” Offers New Perspectives

“How do we see rivers” is one of these deceptive questions: seemingly simple, bound up in cultural traditions and threads that we may be unaware of (depending on who we mean by “we”), but actually much more complicated than it appears.

Figures 1 and 2, taken in the Twin Cities nearly a decade apart, show the “classic landscape” approach to photographing rivers.  The vantage point is from a high point, looking down and across a mid ground that is interesting, and often contains the river object of the photograph.  In the background, or across the river, is some other element of interest, whether an actual distinct object, a distinctive shape/landform, or an attractive vegetation layer, color palette, or built environment.  Historians of landscape architecture trace this style of view to the late 18th/early 19th century in Europe, when travelers began to seek overlooks and vantage points that conformed to ideals of landscape beauty that were emerging in painting.  Anyone who has stopped at a “scenic overlook” is participating in this tradition.

Figure 1: Upstream from Ford Parkway Bridge, August 2005.

Figure 2: Harriet Island as seen from the balcony overlook at the Science Museum of Minnesota, October 2013.

But surely there are other ways to see landscapes and rivers.  Here, a wonderful recent publication created by the St. Paul Great River Passage initiative offers much.  “River Reveal” showcases the work of three St. Paul photographers, each of whom takes a decidedly different perspective and approach to capturing the many moods of the Mississippi River in St. Paul.  These are amazing, engaging photographs—take your time looking through them in the digital version of the publication.  Angie Tillges, the Great River Passage Fellow who has coordinated River Reveal, wrote an article last summer about the project for the digital journal Open Rivers: Rethinking Water Place, and Community.

If you feel inspired to go out and capture your own river photographs, American Rivers has posted a blog from a well-known river journalist on how you might improve your images.

Now that winter has broken its frozen grip on the Twin Cities, it’s time to go see the Mississippi!

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