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Robbie Lawrence: Blackwater River

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the photography books and other items on my shelves here. This time it’s . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

I like Robbie Lawrence. I've never met the guy but I get the feeling he'd be a good person to sit down with for a beer. I have another book of his, 'A Voice Above The Linn', which is really beautiful but I'll talk about that one another time.

Blackwater River was published in 2021 and follows a road trip in the low swamp lands of Georgia, USA, along the Ogeechee River, or Blackwater River as it is known locally due to dark reflection of its slow-running waters. In fact the book follows the theme of reflection throughout, not only in the reversed typeface on the cover and some other pages inside the book but also in the photographs themselves which are both literally and symbolically reflective.


The project was researched and produced in collaboration with the American writer Sala Elise Patterson and there is a short essay by her in the middle of the book together with excerpts from interviews she made with local fishermen, church-goers and war veterans living along the river. What emerges is a landscape and a community that are undergoing a period of erosion. Factors including climate change, pollution, gentrification and large industry are putting pressure on the environment and on the traditional ways of life of the people there.

In many ways, Blackwater River describes the decline and polarisation in some parts of the United States that is documented in projects like Mark Power's series, 'Good Morning America' (another book I'll talk about in future). Mark Power and Robbie Lawrence may have very different approaches to their photography: one more encompassing, detached and analytical, one more close, intimate and poetic, but I find their work to be somehow connected.

The photographs in the book flow slowly, like the river itself. Portraits, gently observed, are interspersed with exquisite details of local flora and landscape. There's a lot of darkness and things emerging from darkness. Robbie Lawrence is good at describing the essence of a place through his images, mixing colour and black and white while always maintaining a quiet and reflective quality to his work. As Sala Elise Pattersen says in her text, the photographs "..yield an impression rather than a deep understanding of the place. Each moment is individually significant while collectively hinting at larger, more elusive truths."

That's probably the only misgiving I have about the book. I'm reminded of my old tutor at university, Ken Grant, who would often look at students work and say, "it's great but I want to see more." I feel the same way here, like there are characters to develop and important stories to tell along the Blackwater River that are only touched upon in the book. And that's a shame.

Robbie Lawrence, Blackwater River. Published by Stanley/Barker, 2021


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