Curran Hatleberg, River’s Dream – Collector Daily

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by TBW Books (here). Hardcover (11.5 x 13.5 inches) with marbled paper dust jacket, printed in two initial editions, red (first) and blue (second). With 152 pages and 65 color plates. Includes essays by Joy Williams and Natasha Trethewey. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: The photographs in river dream are drawn from a ten-year period between 2010 and 2020. For forty-year-old Baltimore photographer Curran Hatleberg, this represents a quarter of a lifetime and a considerable investment of time and energy. The project’s original working title was “Shadow Country”, and its focus was relatively open. Hatleberg and his camera would arrive in a corner of the United States, settle in, and make their way behind the social veneer. “Curran Hatleberg’s intimate photos of strangers he met on road trips across America,” said a 2013 Feature shoot title, a first description that was not far from the truth. Images for the series continued to appear in small batches over the following years, on Conscientious, Saint-Bad, Huffington Postand other sites.

As Hatleberg’s career accelerated, the venues gained prestige and visibility. Selections from river dream were exhibited at Higher Pictures in 2017 (reviewed here), the Whitney Biennale in 2019 (reviewed here), and again at Higher Pictures Generation last fall (a brief selection that excised humans, reviewed here). Sandwiched in the middle of these snippets was Hatleberg’s related project lost coast (review here), published as a monograph in 2016 and later excerpted in the Paul Graham curation But still, it turns at ICP (reviewed here).

Each iteration was a small preview of the entire series to come, tantalizing trailers to whet photoland’s appetite. But no one had seen it all yet. When we learned last fall that river dream was finally going to come out in the form of a monograph, the wait was at its peak. The first printing of 1000 copies sold out before publication (it was the red editing; the blue the edition remains available to this day).

Faced with such expectations, it is a major challenge for any publisher to satisfy everyone. But TBW has put in a valiant effort with its most ambitious tome yet. river dream is an oversized magnum opus approaching the heaviest offerings of Twin Palms or Nazraeli. A marbled dust jacket, embossed author’s seal, and deep crimson accents signal a book destined to put a marker down. As for the photographs, Hatleberg reduced the scope of early previews. What began as a series of road trips scattered across the country focused narrowly on the southern states, particularly North Florida, “the real Florida, some would say,” as Joy Williams describes it in the afterword.

Southern steam is a persistent undercurrent in river dream. “In the atmosphere, it’s a wet book,” Hatleberg said recently. The guardnm “I wanted to capture that heavy feeling of intense wetness, the climax of suffocation, when you start sweating as soon as you move and never dry out all day.” The photographs move from one wet scene to another. Puddles of standing water in the foreground of a scrap yard. A giant snake improbably escapes from a leaking bathtub. Misty clouds color the sky above fireworks. The temperate spirit is reinforced by secondary motifs: bees, watermelon, tank tops and lush vegetation. Humans enliven the surroundings, but none are really in a rush. Instead, the vibe is sultry and snooze-friendly.

The pressure of humidity running through the work is evident. Less obvious is the almost tangible dampness of the book’s physical design. Its large icy pages shimmer like little lakes, linked by the dozens in swirls of marble that echo the patterns of water. Hatleberg’s tone is deep and languorous, offered quietly one print per page. Did I mention the ocean size of the book? The reader has the impression that he could fall into it.

Filming primarily in the warm months, Hatleberg often encounters exposed subjects. But his instinct usually goes further. The exact details of his process are somewhat obscure – Hatleberg’s internal trade secrets – but they are rooted in chance. “Chance and accident are the basis of all my practice,” says Hatleberg. A stranger may or may not lead another. Impasses are pursued and forgotten. Occasionally, but with regularity, Hatleberg strikes pay the dirt with invitations to homes and private gatherings, where he can socialize and take pictures at a relaxed pace. “When a door opens, I go all the way in, as deep as they allow,” he said. The Guardian. “I travel with them, I talk to them, I have meals with them. And, from the start, the camera is always present, so there is no misunderstanding. In another interview (with paper diary) he described surprisingly deep connections to passing subjects: “The people I spend time with and photograph are and have been my family. I lived with many of my subjects, friends and collaborators. ate with them. Worked with them. Perform tasks and chores with them. In the company of people, life is better. I think the photographs are traces of something deeper and more important.

This all happens behind the scenes, including the 99% of the iceberg that doesn’t appear in the photo. The 65 selections in this book reveal the 1% that has surfaced, the mysterious residue through which the reader must piece together stories and understand how certain images came to be. What exactly was Hatleberg doing, for example, near the edge of the river near Ernie’s restaurant watching a crowd of African-American boys doing shadow boxing? Not only did he find the perfect vantage point, but the climactic moment is flawless, catching its protagonist in the air. Accurate timing is also evident in a Cabbagetown family porch scene. Hatleberg captured a dog behind a wooden chair in a mix of color, fidelity and ambiguity in a split second.

The riverside boxer has a counterpart earlier in the book, a portrait of a young fighter in a towel just outside the public ring. Or so we have to deduce, since most of the iceberg in the photo remains hidden. In other passages, more material breaks the surface. A bee-bearded man, for example, is shown twice in a row from alternate angles. A group of men playing dominoes gets the same treatment, as does the towel fighter. Hatleberg lingers for a moment near a crew digging a pit by hand at a car yard. They make up four photos in the book, an inordinate and presumably large portion. But it’s hard to pinpoint what fascinated Hatleberg, or even what the purpose of the hole is. Perhaps this interlude is just a resting place, a place in the book to lean against the shovel for a moment in the shade. It could also be the case with more men playing dominoes, taken to a different table (with similar beer cans) for a short sequence. The book hovers in three photos around a woman studying a praying mantis near some voids at the edge of the beach. Is this the dream of the titular river? In any case, it’s the final sequence of the book, a quiet coda to a meandering flow that sometimes breaks literary banks.

Like its predecessor lost coast, river dream mainly concerns ordinary Americans – the underbelly of the country, if you will. There are few signs of luxury or high tech, no fancy buildings or advertisements. Vehicles are shown rough, walls with peeling paint, and humans coping, perhaps lazy in the afternoon soaking in a river, or alongside it with a folding chair and chart table .

lost coast wore similar shades, but from a less sharp point of view. Released at the dawn of Trumpism, it could be seen as a national climate check rather than a regional critique. With river dream the focus is moving firmly south, and potentially into troubled waters. It’s one thing to comment on the American zeitgeist. But a northerner portraying southern culture is a completely different animal. Add to that a Yale MFA, scenes of social unrest and a collectible monograph and the equation becomes really difficult. Natives like Eggleston and Christenberry could get away with photos of plywood shacks, overgrown terrain, and dead reptiles. But Hatleberg is an intruder. Few will doubt his skill with a camera, but he remains an underdog in a region where that trait may be definitive.

Hatleberg seems wary of the dynamic. He invited two writers with southern ties—Joy Williams and Natasha Trethewey—to contribute material. They somewhat soften the landing, while Hatleberg denounces any provincial judgment. “I didn’t want the meaning of the image, the viewer’s interpretation, to be guided by a region,” he says in the early years of the project. Maybe that’s why river dream has no identifying captions and the photos are largely devoid of vernacular specificity. With few identifying signs or landmarks, they can be difficult to locate geographically. Nevertheless, at its core, this monograph describes the South.

“We have so many stereotypes and preconceptions about places,” Hatleberg explained. “If it gets too specific, there’s less room for creative imagination on the viewer’s part.” Despite his best intentions, the irony is that he may have created a book of details. Those looking for regional stereotypes – conquered alligators, say, or lethargic youngsters – may find them reinforced here, and river dream will likely face headwinds in some quarters.

If the book arouses mixed reactions, it is part of a long photographic tradition. One person’s throwaway is another’s fireplace anchor. The same ambiguity can apply to marbled paper, spray-painted polka dots, or a hazy sunset photo. Everything is in river dream, which remains a monumental book from all points of view. In terms of scope, design and production, it’s among the most impressive I’ve seen. lost coast also swept, but that’s a minor blip in comparison. Although river dream takes him into shaky territory, that should serve as a career marker for Hatleberg. This reader is quite curious to see what awaits him and where.

Collector’s point of view: Curran Hatleberg is represented by Higher Pictures Generation in New York (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for interested collectors to follow.

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