A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin (ME) River in Time and Place
Photographs by Michael Kolsterwritings by Matthew Klingle with oral histories recorded in collaboration
Previously labeled as one of nation's most polluted rivers, the Androscoggin River has slowly, if incompletely, recovered over time. Yet the river that allegedly inspired the 1972 Clean Water Act remains veiled in stereotype and ignored by thousands who live along it.
"A River Lost and Found" explores the hidden past and neglected present of this important New England waterway in a collaborative project combining photography, oral history, archival research, and creative non-fiction writing. Here we present a selection of the photographs from the project. We ask how an injured river might reveal an ethic of place that embraces the complexities of human and natural history together. Our answers suggest how Americans can embrace the middle ground between the pristine and the ruined typical of the places many call home.
“A River Lost and Found: The Androscoggin River in Time and Place” anticipates the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in 2012, and draws attention to the current transformation of America’s rivers at this important juncture.. An outgrowth of the project is a comparative study of the Androscoggin and the James River in Virginia, being undertaken in conversation with Erling Sjovold, a painter and University of Richmond professor who has been painting from the James’ riverbanks for a while now.
Photographs in the project employ various processes and approaches as a means to reflect the dynamic, ever-shifting qualities of the river and its boundaries. These include the layering of multiple digital exposures, scanning and digitally hand-coloring the structures located near the river from large format B+W film negatives, printing images directly from scanned film, making multiple images of a scene and arranging them in a grid to provide a larger, slightly overlapping view, and using the antiquated, antebellum wet-plate collodion process to make unique positive ambrotypes on glass at rivers edge.
Collectively the suite of images is meant to heighten an awareness for the paradox the ever-shifting flow the river presents - as much as one attempts move toward an understanding of its nature, its flow resists definitive depiction. The river becomes an embodiment of the ever-shifting nature of our attachments in the flow of time defining our days.
As the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying, “One can never step into the same river twice,” forcing us to acknowledge that our industrial rivers will not return to an imagined Pre-Columbian purity. While they have recently experienced 40 years of cleaner waters resulting in a resurgence of life within and along their banks, America’s rivers will most likely always remain compromised, ever-shifting affairs reflecting the dynamic nature of human and natural demands.