Take Me to the River

Photographs of Atlantic Rivers

Michael Kolster

In the spirit of nineteenth-century photographers such as Timothy O'Sullivan, Michael Kolster uses the old collodion process to reveal anew four Atlantic rivers, from source to sea.
Date Published :
December 2016
Publisher :
George F Thompson Publishing
Contributor(s) :
Alison Nordström, Matthew Klingle
Illustration :
185 ambrotype plates (including 10 foldouts), 2 duotones, and 2 color photographs by the author, 4 historic photographs, and 4 black-and-white maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding : Hardback
ISBN : 9781938086427
Pages : 240
Dimensions : 11.875 X 11.5 inches
Stock Status : In stock


"Take Me to the River" explores four post-industrial rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean—the Androscoggin (Maine/New Hampshire), Schuylkill (Pennsylvania), James (Virginia), and Savannah (Georgia/South Carolina)—as they emerge from two centuries of use and neglect. With vastly improved water quality in each river since enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act, public affection has gradually increased as memories of foul smells and fetid water fade. Today, these rivers still carry the legacies of longstanding pollution in their currents and sediments, yet they have become waterways, renewed and rediscovered, that our grandparents never could have envisioned.

"Take Me to the River" comprises four portfolios of ambrotypes of these rivers, from source to sea. Three extensive essays offer different perspectives on ways of seeing and thinking about these places: one by the photographer on the collodion process; a historical view by Alison Nordström, the former Senior Curator of Photography at the George Eastman House, on the importance of Kolster’s work; and an environmental history of Atlantic rivers by the noted historian Matthew Klingle.

Kolster’s dramatic yet understated photographs were made in a portable darkroom set up along the banks of the rivers with the wet-plate photographic process, a nineteenth-century method famously used to document the battlefields of the Civil War and the great vistas of the far American West. The chemical slurries that develop and fix the image on the glass plate mimic the movements of a river’s current, and the idiosyncratic qualities of the ambrotypes reference the historical coincidence of the dawn of photography and the industrialization of Europe and America.

With consensus building about our changing climate and the extent humans are responsible, these four Atlantic rivers challenge us to set aside our usual blinders of seeing the landscape as either pure or despoiled. As the boundaries between the human and the natural are increasingly entangled, these rivers suggest how we might embrace, even cherish, places once degraded and ignored.

About The Author

Michael Kolster is a photographer and associate professor of art at Bowdoin College who, in 2013, was a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow in Photography. His photographs have been featured in Loupe, the Journal of the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, Memorious, and Consilience—The Journal of Sustainability, and they are in the collections of the Capital One Financial Corporation, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, and Polaroid Corporation, among others. Kolster has numerous solo and two-person exhibitions, including those at Gallery 263 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Page Bond Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, SRO Gallery at Texas Tech University, Schroeder Romero and Shredder Gallery in New York City, and 621 Gallery in Tallahassee, Florida.

Alison Nordström is an independent scholar, writer, and curator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1991 to 2002, she was Founding Director and Senior Curator of the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach Florida, and, from 2004 to 2013, was Senior Curator of Photographs at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. She is currently Curator for International Programs at the Griffin Museum of Photography, Artistic Director of the Lodz (Poland) Fotofestiwal, and a Scholar-in-Residence in the Graduate Department of Photography at Lesley University. She has curated more than 100 exhibitions of photography, including major surveys of landscape, portraiture, travel photographs, and journalism.

Matthew Klingle is an associate professor of history and environmental studies at Bowdoin College and the author of Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (Yale University Press, 2007), which received the biennial 2009 Ray Allen Billington Prize from the Organization of American Historians. Klingle has received awards, fellowships, and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, American Society for Environmental History, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, Organization of American Historians, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Urban History Association, and Western History Association.


"Kolster’s photographs are magical. To see them is to slip in time between past and present, to know rivers as products of natural and cultural forces, to reflect on the place of rivers in American culture, and to appreciate how photographs can transform understanding. Take Me to the River is required reading for all who care about photography, landscape, and the presence of history."

- Anne Whiston Spirn, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT and author of The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery and The Language of Landscape

"Kolster's ambrotype photos are like rivers. They testify to the past, present, and future—here, a couple centuries of industrial history and the twenty-first century efforts to clean it all up—while remaining irresistibly beautiful."

- Jenny Price, author of Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America

"The medium is perfectly suited to the message in this beautiful and thought-provoking book. The light-sensitive emulsions flowing over the polished glass of Kolster’s gorgeous ambrotype plates evoke the river water he stops dead still with his camera. Images and rivers, both, possess a serenity that belies their complex industrial histories. By using a slow and laborious nineteenth-century process, Kolster makes us pause to wonder how we can find unexpected glimpses of beauty in our own lives and to think hard about historical change, never a one-way street."

- Martha A. Sandweiss, Professor of History at Princeton University and author of Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace and Print the Legend: Photography and the American West

"Michael Kolster’s book is one of beautifully realized images and great writing by the artist, curator Alison Nordström, and historian Matthew Klingle. It is an unforgettable collection of downstream images, memories, and aspirations where the river will always be saved."

- Christopher James, author of The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes

“Due to the long exposures necessary to capture an ambrotype, Kolster has created a juxtaposition between solid elements — bridges, trees and factories — and the soft fluidity of rivers, always moving and changing. This book is a magical representation of how something thought lost or ruined can be renewed, how even flaws and rough edges can be beautiful.”

- Photographer's Forum

“Although the ambrotype process results in black and white images, there is a perceived lushness within these landscapes photographs. His subjects capture not only the beauty of “nature” inherent in these river pathways, but includes a mash-up of the man-built urban landscape that is representative of the early settlements adjacent to most of these vital water ways… this book is a story about environmental hope.”

- The PhotoBook Journal

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