In the darkness, the golden glow of streetlights bounces off the newly laid asphalt. The goose-stepping soldiers march with rifles shooting straight as arrows up into the sky. The final soldier shares the following page with a student of Astronomy, whose textbook sits, gripped between her woollen sweater and floral-print trousers of turquoise, lilac and crimson. Resting on a traditional carpet are her feet, kept warm by elaborately patterned knitted socks. The wool of her sweater flows into the following image, showing the blood streaked, matted coat of a dead sheep.
The subject of Carolyn Drake’s book, Two Rivers – The Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers – have long held sway over Central Asia. Their sources touch the Chinese borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, flowing west towards - but no longer reaching - what is left of the Aral Sea(s). Early Muslims believed the rivers to be two of the four that would lead them into paradise.
As Elif Batuman points out in the book’s introduction, “The two rivers run through Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, the Indian epic Raghuvamsa, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, the Hadith of Abu Hurairah, the journals of Marco Polo, and the Stalinist songs of bard Dzhambul. In a certain respect, all the stories still exist at once.”
The trials and tribulations of this great region are scored into the growing and shrinking waterways of the two Daryas, that ebb and flow across arbitrary national borders. Histories seem to be piled high, layer upon layer. Traditions and folk stories blur into religion, legend and myth; told by Zoroastrians, shamans and Sufis. Carolyn Drake’s images share this dense, multi-layered historiography. They are opaque and mysterious, and this beautiful self-published book – funded through Kickstarter – rightly made it onto scores of ‘end of year’ lists for best photobook 2013.
“I started photographing in Central Asia in 2007” recalls Carolyn over email. “I had an idea it would be interesting to follow the full path of the rivers before my first trip there, but didn’t realise until a few years later that that was actually what I was doing on all the journeys I took there.”
But as with so many projects of this nature, that begin as an idea about one thing but end up being about something else, or something more, they tend to grow organically. “It wasn’t until I was able to write out the ideas I had about this place in a grant proposal in 2009/10 that it started coming together. After that it was easier to identify what I needed to still shoot. Most of the work was shot independently (self funded and with grant money) but there were a couple of short assignments from the New York Times that ended up in the book and a piece of a National Geographic story.”
Seven chapters carry the reader slowly east, beginning in the haunting and somewhat bizarre natural history museum in Aralsk on the Aral Sea. Taxidermy specimens of ducks, geese, badgers and saigas (a rare species of antelope) set the tone for what becomes an immersive and intoxicating photographic journey through the layered past of a complicated land. Every sequence, every image, is considered.
Carolyn told me, “While trying to make the image sequence myself, I realised it needed to feel like it was flowing, river-like, but I was undecided about how tethered to real geography it should be, besides moving between the sea and the source. I wanted it to speak metaphorically, not just a literal map of the region, but to ask broader and more ambiguous questions about cycles of life and history, beginnings and ends, where life comes from…”
The work of designer Sybren Kuiper (SYB) was vital in bringing these ideas and desires into focus in the physical book. Using the folded Japanese-binding method, images flow over pages. They talk directly to one another as they cross the page, whilst moods and thoughts are planted through partial display before they are fully revealed. This has the affect of propelling the viewer along as if traveling down a river. Often, only with the physical turning of the page, is the image fully revealed.
“Folding over the pages and [the] short cover were Syb's idea. I had made a dummy in which the images in the book filled the entire spread, all the same size, trying to make it flow continuously, but at some point it became clear that the sizes and position of the images needed to change. It was too monotonous for every spread to be laid out the same way, and I really didn’t feel like that was territory I was capable of delving into.
“He changed it up way more than I expected, but it all made sense. Every chapter is a little different, so it’s always changing, like rivers do. We had a lot of back and forth after the first draft he sent me because there were some images I really wanted to include that weren't in and some that I really wanted to take out. There were places where the grid structure needed to be adjusted, or where I didn’t think it flowed quite right. That was really hard because when you change one thing there's a ripple effect on the rest of the chapter and the rest of the book. A couple of the chapters didn’t change at all from his first draft, and there a couple that we worked on for a long time, right up until the end.”
Elif Batuman’s captions, which are included in a separate three-hole-sewn booklet, add a further layer to Two Rivers. “The photographs are Drake’s story, and the text is my story about her story.” Writes Batuman. The words have their own flowing poetry. Marrying text and image in a photo book is a tricky thing. You don’t want to be distracted by text, yet at the same time things need to be (quite literally) contextualised. Two Rivers physically separates image and text allowing the reader to either merge the two together of to enjoy each in isolation.
Carolyn emphasises the importance of this partnership. “I think both with the design and the text it was an exercise in collaboration, in selecting the right partners and then stepping back to see how they might expand the underlying ideas of the project.. This was not a self-made artist book, it was really a three way collaboration.”