Review: Carolyn Drake's "Two Rivers"

This review is written by Adam Bell, a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, and will also be published on his excellent photo book review site.

As organisms dependent on water, it seems axiomatic to highlight its importance. Rivers form the lifeblood of any region or community. Their waters are not merely a source of sustenance for the people, plants and animals, but also a vital and sustaining resource for the local culture and traditions. Once a vibrant region, nourished by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, Central Asia was dramatically transformed when the two rivers were diverted for cotton irrigation by the former Soviet Union. While some areas prospered as cotton became widespread, there were also losers in this agricultural transformation. Once lush agricultural provinces were transformed, new resources were discovered, traditional farming and fishing was increasingly marginalized, lives were irrevocably altered and the massive Aral Sea all but dried up. Carolyn Drake’s new book, Two Rivers, explores the lingering effects of empire and the persistent evolution of culture and religion in the face of these profound changes with grace and beauty.

Divided into eight sections, the book offers a broad and varied look at the region. Guided by the rivers and water, the book begins at the Aral Sea and makes it way through the landscape of Central Asia, visiting countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan among others. Vast and difficult to contain, Central Asia has a rich history, and along with Afghanistan, its southern neighbor, has not only formed a cultural bridge between Asia, the Middle East and Europe, but has also functioned as a geopolitical buffer, pawn and stage for numerous empires. Clear-cut ethnic and cultural boundaries long blurred and crossed are no less clear as the countries struggle to define themselves culturally and politically in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Syncretic religious practices thrive and coexist with institutionalized religion and porous borders leave the often-autocratic governments struggling to maintain control. Developed over the course of six years and numerous journeys to the region, the book offers a nuanced and evocative approach that eschews easy answers or trite reductions.

The book opens with taxidermy specimens from the history museum of Aralsk, a former fishing port on the Aral Sea. The solemn parade of animals, propped against walls or confined to glass cases or jars, signals an elegiac look to the landscape’s past. Displaced and set against the drab interior of a crumbling museum, the frozen and preserved animals offer an idealized capsule of nature that has likely long since disappeared from the landscape. Similarly displaced and forced to adapt to a new landscape, the people throughout the book struggle to maintain traditions that have faded or simply evolved to their new reality – new deserts, rivers diverted and cities starved of once vital natural resources. In one image a tree stands confused and defiant as a river rages around its base – forging a new path forward, racing towards something.

The region’s rich cultural traditions and complex political reality, both past and present, are skillfully presented through readily found contradictions. A ubiquitous oversized head of Lenin, buried in some backroom, is presented alongside a Mesopotamian frieze. A woman shrouded in a floral veil poses against a dramatically lit background and is juxtaposed with a headless statue whose raised arms appear to conjure an explosion of cherry blossoms – a fleeting glimpse of hope. Unlike some work in the region that seems to delight in the visuals of post-Soviet decay, Drake finds moments of levity, joy and mystery while still acknowledging the reality of her subject’s lives and surroundings. Women laugh over a bottle of vodka and young children play in an old swimming pool or by the side of a river. In another image, a young man sits in a café. Seen through a window, the fractured reflections of the chaotic city frame his quiet and pensive face. Throughout the book, Drake makes wonderful use of color and light in her images. Her carefully composed images exhibit a casual ease that belies her mastery of medium.

Designed by Syb Kuiper, the book itself is a confounding, intriguing and brilliant object. Jutting out of the slightly smaller cloth-bound cover, the pages and images seem like they can barely be contained, or as Drake notes, they end abruptly “just like the rivers themselves now end before they reach the Aral Sea.” The images also often spill over the uncut Japanese bound pages breaking up into a staccato like rhythm of color and form. Although the design frustrates any direct viewing of many of the images, it also forces you to slow down and digest the fragmented photographs – moving back and forth between individual pages. Secured to the book with a rubber band is a small pamphlet containing a short essay by the writer Elif Batuman and notes by Drake. Whereas Batuman offers a wonderful essay on the work, Drake’s notes offer unique details about each image, section and sequence. Self-published and funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, Two Rivers represents the best possibilities of self-publishing – marrying uniquely powerful and evocative work within a striking, unorthodox and beautiful form.