Curran Hatleberg’s River’s Dream (TBW, 2022) is a personal exploration of the American South. The book – an eagerly awaited, critically acclaimed, and exquisitely printed object with plenty of good pictures – didn’t resonate with me as much as I wanted. It all starts with how Hatleberg posits the sequence as a journey into a dream world, but the analogy is too vague to work as a narrative structure, which shifts our attention to his compositional skill and poetic use of light. There’s nothing wrong with such a formalist approach, except that the book’s subject matter and design betray higher ambitions. Its enormous size (11.5 x 13.5 in) and traditional ‘portfolio’ layout – an image per page throughout – make it seem like River’s Dream was unduly influenced by the expectations of the art world. The chief overindulgence is the thick marbled paper of the dust jacket, an odd choice given Hatleberg’s attempt to instill his images with authenticity.
Hatleberg posits the sequence as a journey into a dream world, but the analogy is too vague to work as a narrative structure, which shifts our attention to his compositional skill and poetic use of light.
“At its core,” Hatleberg has stated, “the work that I am interested in making is about understanding what family and community mean.” Strangely, the more evocative photographs in the book, like the woman in a summer dress walking on a dirt road or a man floating in a river, are of solitary figures in the landscape. The myth of summer, the book’s more discernible topic, is encapsulated in a picture of great beauty and probably the envy of Jeff Wall: two youngsters fight in front of a restaurant, perhaps mockingly, surrounded by an expectant crowd. The suburban setting intensifies the drama, giving the scene the appearance of a film still in a narrative that explores the ups and downs of these people’s lives. Unfortunately, the bulk of the book is not as enigmatic as this image, prompting the eternal question of whether a plethora of well-composed images is enough to represent a place fairly.
Alligators, watermelons, bees, and snakes are leitmotifs that establish a visual flow and convey geographic contiguity. A consistent ambiance is essential since we don’t know how extensive the documented area is. However, the repetition of this iconography comes at a cost. Rather than challenging our associations with the region, the imagery aligns closely with its cliches. Perhaps this same iconography would have registered differently if Hatleberg had incorporated other elements that broadened or complicated the socioeconomic subtext of the pictures, a hurdle that written narratives about places, like Harry Crew’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, can tackle with more subtlety through description and dialogue.
Rather than challenging our associations with the region, the imagery aligns closely with its cliches.
A different aesthetic problem is posed by the photographs of the same scene taken a few seconds apart or from slightly different angles, a cinematic convention used here stylistically rather than semantically. The first of these sets, focusing on an apiarist, work best because their variation is suggestive: in the first one, he’s standing up, and the bees form a kind of beard, while in the second one, he’s sitting down with eyes closed and the bees cover most of his face. The minor distinctions between the two pictures expand our interpretation of the man’s character and way of life, but the rest of the sets feel artificial and, to some extent, pointless. Hatleberg excels at capturing spontaneous scenes, such as a family having a picnic or a group of black men playing dominoes outdoors. His candid approach is refreshing, breaking away from the stilted posing that has dominated contemporary photography for the past two decades. Most of those portrayed seem to be struggling economically and give an impression of hopelessness, yet another way the book reinforces longstanding preconceptions of the South. An image of a black kid looking up as if waiting for a ball to drop, finding the bright side of life in a scrapyard, offers one of the few moments of joy.
Most of those portrayed seem to be struggling economically and give an impression of hopelessness, yet another way the book reinforces longstanding preconceptions of the South.
Hatleberg uses the word ‘dream’ in the title as a generic shorthand for photography’s poetic qualities, which results in a formalist fantasy that exploits the medium’s ability to evoke a sense of place but eschews a concrete political reflection. This is why Hatleberg seems more interested in the psychological study of people on the fringes of society, for which he goes to great lengths to gain their trust, instead of constructing a multifaceted sociological portrait of a region frequently reduced to its lowest common denominators (evident by the decision to leave the places depicted undisclosed).
Hatleberg uses the word ‘dream’ in the title as a generic shorthand for photography’s poetic qualities, which results in a formalist fantasy that exploits the medium’s ability to evoke a sense of place but eschews a concrete political reflection.
River’s Dream took ten years to make, a piece of information unceremoniously mentioned in the colophon, but which is critical to know if we are to appreciate how the sequence is meant to appear as if it happened over one long (almost interminable) summer. The book’s most significant contribution, the way it gives visual form to the feeling of the relativity of time, only highlights Hatleberg’s desire to untangle politics from personal experience. The problem is that the sociopolitical issues of a region, particularly one with marked historical inequalities like the American South, are not just visual seasonings that increase the ambiguity of an image. More than likely, they are the main reason why Hatleberg felt compelled to photograph there in the first place.