Arts & Culture

Review: Trinity River photographer channels artistic challenge

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art commissioned a portfolio of images about the Trinity River from photographer Terry Evans. Before the Chicago-based photographer made the first of her five trips to Fort Worth, the Carter’s senior curator of photography John Rohrbach warned her, “forget everything you know about rivers.”

It might have been better if Rohrbach were more blunt and told her the Trinity River put the “ugh” in ugly. It is a man-made watercourse whose path was determined by backhoes. It is a channel for polluted waters that runs through a city that turned its back on it for more than 150 years.

Maybe with some hard truths she would have had an inkling of how hideous most of the Trinity River is.

It only took one visit for Evans to appreciate the Trinity’s lack of allure. She was shocked, Rohrbach says, and admitted she didn’t know what to photograph. She found her entry into the project through the people who flocked to the river whether it had a verdant tree canopy or not. And this is how the exhibition that opened Labor Day weekend got its name — “Meet Me at the Trinity: Photographs by Terry Evans.”

The Trinity, with its tree-free banks, is a drawing card, even if it resembles a ditch more than a river in places.

Initially Rohrbach envisioned a small exhibit of two dozen photographs that could be contained in one gallery. Once Evans found her focus, she presented the museum with more than 40 prints that fill three galleries. The river, though, is often secondary or even nonexistent in her prints. Most of Evans’ photographs are of people. She gives us people and situations that could be Anywhere, USA.

There are head shots and squirmy family groups that spill over their blankets of demarcation waiting for fireworks on a Fourth of July. There are no photographs of gorgeous big skies reflected in the water or downtown buildings shimmering through the morning mist as it rises over the water. There is nothing for a real-estate agent or city booster to hang a sale on here.

When we do see water, it is often as graphic relief, offering some dimension to aerial photographs. The shadows under the bridges give a depth to the landscapes that would be nonexistent without the river.

The Carter commissioned this work to complement an exhibit that will open Oct. 2, “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River.” The Bingham paintings show people at water level, moving themselves or commerce across the country in the mid-1800s by way of rivers. Evans’ photos, often taken from above, are of people who have been drawn to the notion of water but remain at a distance from it.

The connection feels tenuous.

There is little to like about Evans’ views of the Trinity; she obviously found the river as pitiful as the rest of us did when we moved here from lusher lands. It is bleak, and it is brown. Yes, there are numbers of people who are drawn to the levees, who bring children, coolers, lawn chairs, fishing poles and inner tubes. But given a choice, no doubt, they would prefer a cleaner, more scenic destination.

“Meet Me at the Trinity: Photographs by Terry Evans” runs through Jan. 25. This is the first photo commission the Carter has made in more than 30 years, since the landmark “In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon,” which debuted in 1985.

That exhibit was a startling departure from what was expected, as Avedon photographed his band of misfits against a white background with little reference to anything American or Western. Over the years it moved from idiosyncratic to iconic, more on the weight of Avedon’s photographic style than because of the visages of his models.

There is little singularity to Evans’ choice of subjects, so that will not aid this collection in the future. There is just a rather bleak documentation of people who are making the best of the river with which they are dealt. For Evans, the best way to illustrate how they do this is by not revealing the river in the photograph.

This story was originally published September 7, 2014 8:06 AM.

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