Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Thames Log uses the river Thames as a place to explore ritual, history and connection. Drawing on interests that the photographer has explored in previous projects, Thames Log represents a continuation of her style, approach, research and sensibilities. While most of the time this plays well into her strengths, the images do suffer slightly from being too distant and a bit too clinical.
What Mathews does well in this book is to ground the project in the contrast between modernity and tradition, ritual and routine, natural and human made. The water itself is rarely the focus of the images, instead the Thames is a site for exploring a sense of connection to the past, connection to each other and connection to the world that relies on the river itself. For a subject that is vast and, I imagine, somewhat overwhelming, focusing on these specific juxtapositions allows for a smart exploration of space.
The book is bound in a pseudo-Japanese style and many of the images are printed across not the gutter but the fold itself, meaning one has to turn the page to see the completion of the image.This mimics some of the form of water and rivers. We only can ever see a part of the whole, but intrinsically we know there’s more. On the page, image sizing varies and often scenes are given 4-6 image spreads – a design choice that likely has its roots in Mathews’ documentary approach: showing more is potentially a way to be open, honest and representative. The images are also sequenced as a journey down the river, starting at the headwaters and finishing at the mouth, emphasising the places that are connected along its banks.
Many of the photographs look so natural in just the best way: very still, almost like a diorama, while still looking alive. The opening shots of a slightly hirsute character rowing down a quiet stretch of greeny river feels so perfect, without ever being on the wrong side of quaint. I’d group most of the photographs that allow Mathew’s sense of scale to shine into this category. She photographs small groups of people engaged in an activity or ritual and uses space and form really pristinely to respect that quiet and calm. Similarly, the landscapes throughout the book are almost romantic and, far from being snide about this, I think that’s a real strength. Exploring so much of a single river shows a lot of love, so a bit of romance feels very much a form of appreciation, rather than escapism.
The water itself is rarely the focus of the images, instead the Thames is a site for exploring a sense of connection to the past, connection to each other and connection to the world that relies on the river itself.
That the edit includes so many good landscape photos is a crucial element in the sequencing of the book. When working with so much juxtaposition, the sequence carefully circles back to the beauty of a waterway and, in doing so, returns the viewer to the essential pace of the book – distinctly moving forwards, but in no rush at all.
Mathews also has a knack (or skill!) for delving into the forms of religion and ritual. Religion, in Thames Log, often takes the form of large public gatherings, filled with iconography, whereas ritual is a broader focus, encompassing everything from Wiccan performances to a weekly reading of the newspaper. Similarly to previous projects, Mathews’ curiosity, respect and empathy really radiates in these images, especially those of smaller, more intimate rituals.
Tying all these threads together is the notion that the river matters because it connects us to our past. Even in the images of an Oxford rowing victory – awash with smartphones, backpacks, skinny jeans and youth, Mathews has decided to show the traditions: burning boats amidst Oxford’s storied architecture. As much as the Thames connects spaces physically it is also the connection to tradition and our past that seems to fascinate Matthews in this work.
Yet not all traditions appear equally at home. The coracle seems almost part of the landscape, the images of pagan dancers feel appropriate, but other traditions seem gaudy, maybe even slightly othered. For me the Morris Dancers, a set of images of old men dancing, seems to be quite awkward. Whereas the Thames is often shown in other photographs, this sequence takes place on a road and the action never quite suits the formality of Mathews’ better images. It all seems too brash, too different, too unusual to feel at home with the rest of the work – a significant departure in a book that is really about connection.
Mathews does, I believe, manage to love something without being in love with it – there’s nods to Britishness, to romance, to tradition, to reputation – all shown with care, and with a knowing smile – that is a great place from which to explore home.
And this leads me to my one gentle critique of the book: distance. So many images in this book feel too far away. The space in a lot of the composition leaves the images feeling a bit cold and removed. This is a book about connection,and yet the lack of intimacy in many of the images contradicts this important element. Even images depicting capturing moments of togetherness between people do not quite feel close at all – which is jarring. I wish there were more images that were a few meters closer to who and what was photographed because, as a viewer, I want to connect more closely with the texture of the exchange, the event, the people, the clothes, the faces, the details – a little bit less birds’ eye view and a little bit more shoulder-to-shoulder. The nearest we get to anything is to objects, discarded after use. I like these images and I wish she’d photographed her human subjects in the same way. In a sequence depicting the scattering of a loved one’s ashes, I yearned to see less of the space and more of the mood, the emotion, the connection between the people present.
There are so many subtle and well-made parts of this book. The design manages to balance so much change and juxtaposition calmly: this book could easily have felt like visual whiplash but instead really does feel like the reader is gently bobbing towards the ocean. There are even elements of humour: a large Christian ceremony solemnly taking place next to toddlers in inflatable floaties. There’s such range (in subject, scope, theme, place) in Mathews’ photographs, and I just wish that range had been explored emotionally, not just geographically.
Thames Log is an ambitious project. In trying to tackle the life and spaces along a river, Matthews has focused on the way it returns us to our past and connects us to a greater community of people across time. While, at times, the work can be a bit distant and some of the repetition wasn’t to my preference, there are many striking images and incredibly smart sequencing. When the photographs hit some surprising notes I was floored, and felt that Matthews’ commitment to her subjects is really richly imbued in the book. Mathews does, I believe, manage to love something without being in love with it – there’s nods to Britishness, to romance, to tradition, to reputation – all shown with care, and with a knowing smile – that is a great place from which to explore home. As a reader, I felt strongly the sense of warmth I imagine Matthews feels for the Thames.