The River’s Green Margins
The River’s Green Margins is a phrase from the traditional song “Sweet Sunny South” as sung by John Hartford.
In 1955 my family rode the steamboat Avalon in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Avalon (built as the Idlewild 1914) was purchased by the city of Louisville and Jefferson County in 1963 and renamed the Belle of Louisville.
In the spring of 1975 I drove along the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans and then to Louisville, Kentucky. This simple act of revisiting a childhood memory would evolve to a twenty year observation of a river and its tributaries. This work is but a small segment of over 150 years of images recording the consequences of a river.
Twenty years later, I was on the same cobblestone landing and photographed the same boat. In the photo below by my father, one of the two men on the roof is Clarke ‘Doc’ Hawley who began his 60 year river career as a calliope player and popcorn popper. I first met Doc in 1975, the Master of the newly built Natchez IX in New Orleans. He is one of many people I met and with whom I have formed lasting friendships and whose generosity expanded the scope of this project. They appreciated the work I was doing, shared an interest in history, and helped shape this work by providing information, opportunity and access.
I lived in New Orleans from 1976 to 1979 and rode the Steamers Natchez and President often, photographing the New Orleans harbor. I found the view from the middle of the river to be incomparable, but not an unknown idea. Long before me, Claude Monet was painting from his Studio Boat. The ever changing weather, light and position of other vessels made the harbor tour new every time.
Traveling along the levees, bayous and canals, I photographed industry and landscape along the river banks. The 8×20 inch format, while obviously suitable for wide subjects, could also create an unfolding narrative from side to side.
“Allen’s pictures can certainly hold their own as singular images, their rational pictorial structure and intellectual content tautly contained by the frame. But each image in the series is also a tributary, amplifying the notion of something larger, more complex, and moving that idea farther. In the end, these photographs describe not a river, but the idea of a river, a worthy pursuit of this image-maker.” —John H. Lawrence, Director of Museum Programs emeritus, The Historic New Orleans Collection
Drought and Floods
In 1940 Fred Hess asked Annabelle Graham for a date, which to her surprise was flying over Cincinnati, Ohio to view the flood. He worked with machines, liked the machines of his youth, had a boat that became an antique, liked planes and made movies. This was my childhood.
In 1988 a drought in the Mississippi Valley watershed and the resulting low water level of the Mississippi River stranded towboats and revealed relics usually hidden underwater. I flew to St. Louis and photographed the river from there to Cairo, Illinois. My return flight flew over the area that I had photographed that morning. It was amazing. This was my next step. I needed to photograph the river from the air. That opportunity came in February 1989.
In the summer of 1993, an unusual weather pattern occurred over the upper Mississippi River valley. Instead of receding in a matter of days, the flooding lasted for weeks, inundating 15,600 square miles in three states. Access by driving was difficult due to road closures. From the air was the only way to show the widespread destruction. I revisited locations in 1994, some showing signs of recovery, and others none at all.
The river has served the uses of man for hundreds of years and for almost as long, man has tried to make the river do his bidding. My twenty year documentation shows it is the river that defines the activity on it, or next to it, or even imagined about it. The river is the entity which continues.