A photo book chronicling the artist's six-year obsession with two Central Asian rivers, on a journey from the Aral Sea to western China
In this project, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – two rivers – become guides on a journey through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
These often overlooked countries exist in the spaces between some of the nations we see most frequently in today’s headlines: China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran. The stories I found there defied many of my assumptions about the world. Stories about the diversity of Islam, intersecting languages, legendary empires, warlords, and poets; about contested borders, smuggling, energy surpluses and shortages, and political oppression.
The rivers tie these stories together in the most literal, spatial sense, but also on a more abstract level, raising universal questions about the fragility and resilience of life, and the limits of human power.
Early Islamic writings call the Amu and Syr Darya two of the four rivers of Paradise.Their water has sustained human life for forty thousand years, providing pastures for nomadic herders and irrigation for farmers, enabling the development of culture, trade, language, literature—and, in parallel, motivating a centuries-long succession of wars and imperial conquests. Turkic, Mongol, Hun, and Wu Hu nomadic warriors from the mountains fought settled farmers in the valleys and desert oases until the sixteenth century, before the conquests of the Qing dynasty and the British and Russian empires.
When the Soviet government officially incorporated Central Asia in 1917, it carved the land up into independent republics and transformed its rivers into a web of irrigation canals, turning the region into a gigantic cotton farm. Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, began to disappear, replaced by salt and dust storms. When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations were left behind, burdened with struggling economies, artificial borders, and a growing environmental crisis.
Despite the divisions that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two rivers still run through these countries, binding them inextricably. This project follows the rivers from beginning to end, crossing into the lives of people and the layers of history that they intersect along the way.
The book begins at the dried Aral Sea – the ends of the rivers – and moves upstream through five countries, ending at their source. The innovative design by Sybren Kuiper features a Japanese binding with each picture wrapped over the edge of the next page, challenging the viewer to read the images more closely, and to relate them to one another. The reader’s [viewer’s] experience is continuous, but has its own special rhythm, always changing, like the flow of the rivers. The hard cover is wrapped in an earthy linen, with the title graphic etched in black, and it is shorter than the book's pages, ending abruptly, just as the rivers themselves now end before they reach the Aral Sea. The book will be printed at Spruijt in Amsterdam in a small edition of 750 copies. Sample spreads:
Text by Elif Batuman
The book comes with an introductory essay and a separately bound companion textual guide by Elif Batuman, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Possessed. Batuman's text brings another level of meaning to the images, while telling its own parallel story.
From the Introduction:
"I decided that the text shouldn’t pretend to be invisible, or to identify with the author of the photographs. Rather, it should be another of its mediating guides—another character in the book, along the lines of Dante’s Virgil, or the commentator in Pale Fire. For a while, I thought it would be funny to write the comments in the form of a letter to his attorney by a man who has murdered his wife. I left in some of the clues."
From the companion text:
"This hide once belonged to a saiga antelope. Tens of thousands of them roamed the earth during the Ice Age. Today 85,000 remain, most in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, for them, their horns are highly valued in Chinese medicine for their power of draining excess heat from the liver. You might find it odd, my addressing you in this way. The fact is, I could think of no better way to communicate to you the facts of my case than through the captions in a photography book."
"Carolyn is accompanied by a Turkmenistan-born Russian, specializing in adventure tours. No student of human nature, he prefers racing through the desert with his four-wheel drive. In a town called Mary, Carolyn prevails upon him to stop at a public pool. He won’t help her talk to the swimmers, who are jumping and flipping into the pools from all directions. The swimmers’ faces speak volumes, but what they speak of is mostly other faces. Scythian, Tokharian, Sassanid, Sogdian, Parthian, Alexandrian, Avar, Hsiung-nu, Juan-juan, Khitan, Timurid, Oyrat, Ghaznavid, Karakhanid, Seljuk, Uighur, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazak."
"In the morning, Carolyn asks the hotel receptionist if she knows any hunters. In the afternoon, there’s a dead duck on the lobby floor. A hunter dropped it off for the receptionist to pluck. The wild duck, laid rather theatrically on the white floor, reminds me of “The Seagull”; also, of course, of “The Wild Duck.” Ibsen and Chekhov well knew that, if a bird appears in the first act, it must be shot by the fifth."
The book will be an independent production, self published, hand-packaged, and mailed to you with gratitude directly from the artist. Discounts may be available for those wishing to purchase multiple prints. If you have questions about the rewards, or if you have a specific request that is not listed, please don't hesitate to contact me directly or connect with me on Facebook.
Praise for Two Rivers
Carolyn Drake's photography is exquisitely balanced between form and content, and characterised by a superb sense of colour. It is also filled with a deep respect for her subjects, and curiosity for cultures not her own. –William Ewing, Curator and Author
Drake's images of Central Asia are striking, and the project as a whole is extremely multi-faceted. The metaphor of the river, as well as the physical pursuit of traveling along the rivers, offers fruitful ground for these explorations. The pictures stand out from other photographic explorations of place and culture. –Karen Irvine, Curator & Associate Director, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago
Carolyn Drake's strange and evocative pictures ... are compelling ... a glimpse of another kind of street culture that is strange yet oddly familiar. –Sean O'Hagan, photo critic, The Guardian
Drake constructs a photographic vision of Central Asia that is intense and unexpected, and rich with startling encounters. Two Rivers is extraordinary. –Charlotte Cotton, Curator
The book looks fantastic... I look forward to holding a copy in my hands and feeling the cinema-like flow of images as I flip the pages. –Alec Soth, photographer
About Carolyn Drake
Links to the project:
- Orion Magazine: Return to the Center of the World
- The New York Times Lens Blog: Astonishing Confluences in Central Asia
- The New Yorker Photo Booth: Postcard from Central Asia
- Open Society Institute, Moving Walls exhibition: Paradise Rivers
- The Third Floor Gallery: Paradise Rivers Interview
- POYi: Paradise Rivers, Preserved
- Women in Photography, LACMA presents Paradise Rivers
- Carolyn's web site: www.carolyndrake.com
Awards and Grants:
- Guggenheim Fellowship 2010
- Santa Fe Prize Finalist 2009
- Pulitzer Center Grant 2009
- Lange-Taylor Prize 2008
- World Press Photo 2008
- Fulbright Fellowship 2006
Thanks to Valeria Cardi and Anna Stevens at Panos Pictures for guidance with post-production.
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