If a picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, the photographer and environmentalist Jeff Rich has contributed generously to the eco-activist dialogue. Since 2005, Jeff has been chronicling in haunting, large format pictures the wayward fortunes of the French Broad River watershed, drawing attention not only to the effects of industrial and agricultural waste on water and land quality but to the dedicated stewardship of those who live on or near the river and work to restore its natural balance. As many of them point out, we all live downstream.
A collection of Jeff’s photographs is on view this season at Asheville’s Pink Dog Creative in the River Arts District, in conjunction with the publication by the arts collective Photolucida of Watershed, with accompanying essays by Hartwell Carson, the French Broad’s Riverkeeper, and Rod Slemmons, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago who grew up on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which faces many of the challenges found along the French Broad. “We need to transcend the idea that rivers are barriers,” he writes in Watershed, “potentially destructive competitors that get in our way.”
In a sometimes painful juxtaposition of natural beauty and manmade intrusions, Jeff’s Watershed photographs combine the sensitivity of an artist with the unsentimental eye of a journalist. Immense pylons loom along the fragile banks and wetlands of the river; menacing clouds from the smokestacks of a paper mill are reflected in the quiet waters flowing below. There are portraits, too, of those who spend much of their time and energy using the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 as their call to arms, from riverfront property owners to recreational hikers and kayakers.
Jeff grew up in coastal Florida, in a house overlooking a saltwater canal and an uninhabited island just offshore where pelicans roosted. But the overdevelopment and degradation of the waterfront he witnessed in the ensuing years seemed to follow him to Western North Carolina and the Asheville area, where Jeff moved in 2004. “I was drawn to documenting the environmental organizations like Riverlink and the Western North Carolina Alliance, which were attempting to educate the public about the issues, as well as manage the issues of runoff and habitat loss,” Jeff recently told the online blog photo-eye. “As I learned more about watershed science and management, I became very interested in how the system works.”
Jeff began shooting in 2005, using the EPA’s official website and private sector sites like scorecard.org to locate major polluters and EPA Superfund sites along the French Broad. But the focus of the project soon shifted from the plain documentation of pollution sources to the stewardship of people like Hartwell Carson and Steve Harris, who lives on 20 acres along the Nolichucky River in east Tennessee, and who has been calling attention to the nuclear fuel storage site just downstream which contributes measurable traces of plutonium and uranium to the soil of the riverbank and adjacent wetlands. “When deciding on specific subjects, I went by three major criteria — pollution, control and stewardship,” Jeff says of Watershed’s evolution. “These three factors had to be present in every image in order for them to fit into the overall project.”
The Pink Dog show has been organized and curated by the Asheville-based photographer Ralph Burns, best known for his black-and-white photography as a social documentarian in the tradition of Walker Evans and Helen Levitt. The show is being produced and sponsored by Pink Dog’s founders Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull. “Hedy and Randy immediately understood the relevance and value of bringing Jeff’s body of work into the heart of the River Arts District,” Ralph says. “I found the pictures disconcertingly beautiful and morally challenging.” Some 20 photographs are included, although Ralph chose to focus only on the landscapes rather than including the portraiture that appears in the book. “My intentions were to stay as close to the river and its watershed as I could and, then, to allow Jeff’s vision and passion and fierce tenderness enough room to speak on their own,” he says.
As the Photolucida book appears, Jeff, who now lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia, continues to expand the watershed project, moving down the French Broad to the Tennessee River which, like its sister waterway, feeds the Mississippi River, a subject Jeff hopes to eventually include as a culminating chapter in the project. The Tennessee River section, Jeff says, will focus mainly on the Tennessee Valley Authority and its use and control of the river’s waters. “I’m interested in documenting other environmental systems throughout the world,” Jeff says. “But I have a feeling that my work will always be focused on documenting water issues.”