The Amon Carter Museum of American Art recently opened an exhibition of George Caleb Bingham’s paintings of scenes along the Missouri River. To complement Bingham’s 19th-century depictions of river life, the curators invited photographer Terry Evans to create a portfolio of images of the Trinity River, which runs through the museum’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
John Rohrbach, the museum’s senior curator of photography, warned Evans that the Trinity is a heavily engineered waterway, controlled and bounded by levees and steep banks, bisected by roads and rail lines, and burdened with past neglect. But he also explained that the river has lately been embraced by the city, with greenways, bike paths, and community events that draw people to its banks.
We are pleased to present a selection of Evans’s photographs of the Trinity — some are from the exhibition Meet Me at the Trinity, and some appear here for the first time — and a conversation between Evans and Rohrbach.
Embracing a River
John Rohrbach: Seeing a place online and encountering it in person are very different experiences. What did you expect of the Trinity River when you arrived?
Terry Evans: It was hard to get a good sense of the Trinity from my online research and even from maps — and I’ll confess that when I first saw the river as I was driving in from the airport, my heart sank. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to sustain a project with enough variety. It was early July, the sun was heartless and the temperature was 98 Fahrenheit, and I saw a river that was channeled and engineered. Where was the natural river? But the next day I went to the Trinity. It was the Fourth of July and I found tens of thousands of people sitting on picnic blankets, strolling along the banks, floating on inner tubes. Everyone seemed relaxed, happy, and comfortable. I began to understand the connection of Fort Worth to the Trinity River.
John Rohrbach: We Texans have learned to accept the summer heat! Do you think it’s the river itself that draws people, or opportunities for entertainment and recreation?
Terry Evans: Surely it’s both. You’ve told me about bringing your son to explore the river when he was very young; you said it was the water that attracted him, that he liked to find rocks and feel the wetness — a different experience from a trip to a playground. The city has stocked the river for fishing, developed hiking and biking paths, and organized festivals. But it’s the river that infuses all these with meaning.
John Rohrbach: I have fond memories of searching for minnows and frogs in a brook near my childhood home in Connecticut — I wanted my son to have that kind of experience. One challenge of the Trinity is that it can be hard to get to the water itself, largely because of the high levees that bound it on both sides. As a result it’s more typical for residents to be looking down at the river from twenty or thirty feet above. I sometimes wonder whether the sight of the river is enough to satisfy.
Terry Evans: Yes, I was frustrated at first because I couldn’t get close to the river’s edge — especially in the most natural looking places, access is blocked by private residences or made difficult by steep and overgrown embankments. But in other places, it is easily accessible, and you see people fishing, playing, walking dogs.
John Rohrbach: One distinction between your photographs and Bingham’s paintings is that Bingham positions us at water level, looking out and up at the riverboat men who are his subjects. You often pointed your camera down toward the water and the people. Is this a function of the Trinity’s terrain or your differing interests?
Terry Evans: I did take some photos from water level, but they did not survive my editing. I’m deeply interested in the aerial vantage point — as you can tell from my work over the past decade. The aerial view seems to me to provide an ecological structure for the picture. There is no receding linear one-point perspective, rather we have a vantage point that gives more or less equal weight to everything in the frame. In this case, I was experimenting with the possibility of moving in close to people, but still looking down. I wanted to make aerial pictures from a more intimate distance rather than from airplane altitude, as in earlier work. In Fort Worth I was aided by a footbridge right above a grass area popular with picnickers.
John Rohrbach: Your response is fascinating because it suggests your absorption of the modernist attachment to foregrounding the assembly of the picture. In contrast Bingham worked to naturalize the construction of his pictures, even as he made the river a mere frame for his focus on the boatmen.
Terry Evans: The integration of strong formal concerns with the subject is of primary importance to me. Form conveys the subject, but if the picture becomes about form alone, then it fails for me.
John Rohrbach: Even your photographs that offer a more standard perspectival view often give equal weight to everything they portray. Bingham’s paintings work differently, usually presenting a subject set against a background. His works are largely constructions of the mind, with figures drawn in the studio and then inserted onto the canvas to build ordered compositions. His main interest is the boatmen, their poses, and their positions in relation to each other. The scenes portray the Missouri River, but they are so generalized that we cannot connect them to any specific locations. Yet for you, specificity of location and even date is key. Why?
Terry Evans: For me, place is as important as the people in it. They are woven together. One thing that worried me before I saw the Trinity is that it is usually impossible to show the specificity of any river in a particular landscape. There is a lot of homogeneity in rivers and riverbanks, at least in the Midwest, and my pictures of rivers often look generic. Perhaps this was Bingham’s challenge too. In the case of the Trinity, the channeling makes it visually unique and easier to identify as a specific landscape. This specificity is important to me because the unique relationships of people to their home landscapes matters, and I want to tell those stories. The dates matter because the landscape changes with time just like a human face.
John Rohrbach: I agree. This specificity helps to locate these photographs in the here and now. But it’s also created unexpected surprises. In fact these images are so immediate, their contents so recognizable, that they reveal aspects of our local landscape and culture that some people find disturbing. For example, you didn’t retouch the images to remove the cups and cans scattered along the riverbank. Rather than frame the river as “beautiful” in a generic sense — or as in a public relations campaign— you show it for what it is. But in a city that has invested so much in cleaning up the river and making it a destination, this can feel unsettling. Were you surprised that some were angered by your photos?
Terry Evans: Yes. Actually, I had decided that I would not deliberately focus on trash; so the trash that’s there in some pictures is not the main point. It was just part of the whole.
John Rohrbach: Some of the anger can also be explained by what I would call Fort Worth’s booster mentality. People want to see the city’s relationship to the river not merely celebrated, but romanticized. This attitude is not unique to Fort Worth, of course.
What strikes and delights me is your focus on the people drawn to the Trinity’s banks; that is the real story, not the compromised character of the river. For despite its faults, the river is now essential to the well-being of the city. Not only do your images underscore that fact; they also made me realize how important the river is for people who can’t typically travel to, say, the mountains during the hot summer months or to resorts in the Caribbean.
Terry Evans: I remain surprised by the local anger. The Trinity impressed me as a very democratic gathering place. I photographed people running and biking in expensive gear, I photographed people fishing with simple equipment, I photographed people at festivals, children running, a lone homeless man, and a mother with an eight-day-old baby. It was a joy to see so many kinds of people using this river that is certainly not beautiful in any conventional sense.
I was also thinking about Bingham and his ways of representing people in his paintings of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
John Rohrbach: One of Bingham’s goals was to show Midwestern citizens, and in particular the riverboat men, as clean-cut, appealing types — to counter stereotypes of Midwesterners as ruffians who couldn’t make it on the Eastern Seaboard. Your photographs, on the other hand, show the wide range of class and ethnicity found along the river.
But I want to get back to the issue of the importance of nature to urban communities. This was an idea Frederick Law Olmsted recognized in the mid 19th century, and which seemed to have gotten lost in the mid-20th century. Many cities were founded and prospered largely because of their close proximity to rivers. Yet postwar urban renewal promoted the construction of highways that often separated the downtown from the water. Now cities are revisiting — and reversing — those decisions. Has your work in Fort Worth and at the Trinity made you reconsider the relationship of Chicago to its river?
Terry Evans: In Chicago the river is not much of a draw. But people flock to the shoreline of Lake Michigan. It’s the allure of nature, especially the water — a lakefront as much as a riverfront.
What role do you think beauty plays and how would we define beauty in this context?
John Rohrbach: Good question! The Trinity River is not beautiful in its passage through Fort Worth, at least in the classical sense. The allure is not beauty, but rather nature and space. People come to the river because Fort Worth has created a greenway along its banks — a relatively safe public space. Along the riverbank, we can look longer distances, without having to leave the city; we can walk and ride for miles on one direction; we can see the shape of the city. Your panoramas show that beautifully. For many people — all except those who swim or fish — the water is merely the backdrop, a raison d’être for the greenway. People clearly have a visceral need for connection to nature, even if that connection is controlled. For city dwellers, nature is a kind of respite.
One last thing I would like to point out about your photographs — something that’s surprised me — is how much they invite viewers into their spaces. Even the photos that show people sitting out on the grass on that sweltering Fourth of July. I feel like I’m being invited to walk up and engage with the people. Maybe it’s because you are showing our town. The places are familiar to me. But is eliciting this feeling of connection intentional for you?
Terry Evans: Thank you for that response! I’d not thought of it that way, but I do feel happy about photographically entering the spaces of the people I photograph because for those few moments, I’m in a relationship with them. I don’t mean to be presumptuous: my time with them is often only a few minutes. But there is a connection.