For many years, the main photographic event in Bristol was the annual BBC Wildlife Photographic Prize. Apart from that, Britain’s fifth-largest city had a photographic culture that was kept alive by fringe organisations like IC Visual Labs and associated events such as the Bristol Photobook Festival. In terms of public or even private galleries, there were no major photography exhibitions. Ever!
How things have changed. Walk into Bristol gentrified Paintworks Development and you are in the heart of the UK’s photographic establishment. On one side is the Royal Photographic Society (currently showing “In Progress” as part of the Bristol Photography Festival). On the other side is the Martin Parr Foundation.
Dedicated to British photography, it houses the archive of Martin Parr’s prolific output, and a library of British photobooks and prints that provides an overview of postwar British documentary photography.
It’s an archive that is in a state of continuous growth and the latest exhibition (also part of the Bristol Photography Festival), Chloe Dewe Mathews’ “Thames Log”, is part of that process. Chloe Dewe Mathews grew up near the Thames. She walked over it on her way to school, she remembers its tidal rhythms. The river was part of her everyday life, a river with an emotional range that could be as light and floral as a summer meadow, or as dank and bitter as a Siberian winter.
Later in life, she returned to photograph the river, and that is what this exhibition is about. It goes in geographical order, the first image showing a man rowing a coracle near its pastoral source, the final image showing old sea forts rising above the open waters of the North Sea.
Fifteen of the images are framed behind glass and presented with additional information on the bottom border; the title of the picture, the date and time, the tidal times, the coordinates, and details of the event taking place in the picture.
This information is presented in a grid-like form that is almost meteorological in feeling. It’s a format that connects to the technicalities of tide charts that come in an accompanying vitrine of ephemera that sits across the centre of the exhibition space.
The images are not geographical or environmental in nature however. While many British projects based around water (Steven Butter’s series around the Wash, Paul Hart’s work on the Fens, or Tessa Bunney’s explorations of the sands of Morecambe Bay) have an immersive view of the landscape as a presence in its own right, that is not what is happening here. Here the time scale is shifted from the natural ebb and flow of the Thames, to the human behaviours that are created by the river. In “Thames Log”, the river acts as a backdrop.
It’s an observational documentary at work, a documentary that shows the rituals and histories of the river and frames them through the ever-changing demographics of the people who live around it.
We see religious activities – Hindus worshipping in a river that has holy status, we see Pentecostal Christians being baptized, we see Muslims praying, and we see pagans dancing. There are Morris Dancers, treasure hunters, ship spotters and commuters crossing London Bridge to get to work in the morning. Within these images, the river has multiple functions. It shifts from the physical to the spiritual, it’s a rite of passage, an inconvenience, something to be conquered, or a servant to capitalist endeavour.
“Thames Log” is a wonderful series of images, one that fits neatly into a broader photographic tradition (that goes back to Sir Benjamin Stone) that views British society, landscape, and culture through rituals and traditions that are as fluid as the waters of the river around which they are performed.
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.