Michael Kolster, associate professor of art at Bowdoin, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his photographic project “Take Me to the River,” a collection of unique glass plate photographs that depict American rivers as amalgams of human and natural forces. The award was announced today in The New York Times.
It all started in 2008 when Kolster began photographing the local Androscoggin River of Maine, delving into its rich history (which includes former status as one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the country) in collaboration with associate professor of history and environmental studies Matthew Klingle. Kolster later expanded the project to the James River in Virginia and the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.
With funding from the Guggenheim Foundation he now plans to bring the project west, to the Teton River in Idaho and the Los Angeles River in southern California. “I’m interested in rivers that have a little bit of a lower profile, that people can think of as being related to the rivers that might be in their own backyards,” Kolster said.
Kolster embarks on a shoot not knowing where the day will take him or what he will photograph; it’s a personal exploration as well as a historical, environmental, and artistic one. “I’ve got factories, I’ve got dams, I’ve got bridges, and I also have these sections of the river that seem like they could have been pre-Columbian,” Kolster said. “It really is meant to be, more than anything else, a record of how I respond to the place, rather than too much of an imposed, preconceived agenda.”
To capture the images, Kolster uses a 19th-century “wet plate” technique that results in an ambrotype, a glass plate best viewed against a backdrop of black velvet. The plates have to be developed on site at the river’s edge, which means carting all of the equipment and supplies—including a homemade portable darkroom—to each site. “It’s a minivan full of stuff,” Kolster said. Spending all day in one spot, he completes about ten ambrotypes after a full day’s work. (Watch a 30-second or 8-minute video of how Kolster makes an ambrotype in the studio.)
This technique may be time-consuming and expensive, but Kolster has good reasons for using it. “The river is a constantly moving, changing entity,” Kolster said. “How do you begin to reference that in a still photograph?” Wet plate photography gives him a way to do just that. Liquid chemicals flow and interact on the surface of the glass plate during the exposure and development process, which lends the image a sense of fluidity and unpredictability that evokes the river itself. “It’s uncanny in the way that it complements the subject,” Kolster said.
There’s also a historical layer of connection between medium and subject. A relic of the 1850s when photography was a new technology, the ambrotype has a distinctive look that reminds the viewer of the mid to late nineteenth century—the same era that rivers first started experiencing the effects of industrialization. Today, four decades after the 1972 Clean Water Act, Kolster is interested in harnessing that association to help portray the complex history of rivers and open up questions about their future.
Kolster has already been displaying his growing collection of river photographs in solo exhibitions across the eastern United States, including an installation in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art last summer. When not toting his wet plate supplies to riverbanks all over the country, Kolster teaches photography at Bowdoin and is involved in an array of projects including The Daily Post, where he has posted a new photograph every day since 2002.
The Guggenheim Foundation considers 3,500-4,000 applicants for the fellowship annually, awarding only 200 winners each year with funds averaging $40,000 per honoree.