Alabama has 77,000 miles of streams and rivers that are distinguished by a greater diversity of plant and animal life than those of any other state. So what’s the bad news? According to the Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA) web site, Alabama has one of the highest rates of species extinction in North America, with many of those lost species having once lived in those waterways.
According to the ARA, the loss is due to a variety of factors, including lax enforcement of environmental regulations and poorly planned development. Whatever the causes, the problem can’t be ignored, according to ARA executive director Cindy Lowry. “Alabama’s rivers are the lifeblood of our state and are among the most important water resources in the entire world,” she says. “The protection of our precious water resources is essential to our public health, our economies and our ecosystems.”
So what can one person — or artist — do?
Photographer David Young, a Birmingham native based in New York who has spent the last three years taking pictures of streams from Alabama to Maine, decided to use his art to make a statement about the beauty of the rivers in his home state and to raise money to help protect them.
Young — with the tremendous encouragement and curatorial assistance of Beth Stewart, a photographer and executive director of the Cahaba River Society (CRS), and acclaimed nature photographer Beth Maynor Young — has produced an exhibit to accomplish those purposes. “Alabama Waterways: A Photographic Celebration” opens June 11 at the Lite Box Gallery in Lakeview’s Pepper Place.
In addition to David Young, Beth Maynor Young (no relation) and Stewart, seven other artists have contributed their work to the exhibition to benefit the ARA, an advocacy group supported by numerous Alabama watershed protection organizations, including the CRS and Black Warrior Riverkeeper. The ARA will receive a portion of all sale proceeds. According to David Young, the Lite Box Galley is also waiving its usual commission. The exhibit was shown for the first time – with eight photographers – at the ARA’s annual Watershed Leadership Conference in March.
Stewart believes that “Alabama Waterways” can help create public awareness of Alabama’s natural treasures. “I think that a lot of people enjoy playing in our rivers in Alabama, but they probably don’t know how amazing they are,” she says. “Part of the significance of this show is to learn what a treasure we have to protect and enjoy.”
Diversity is the watchword for the “Alabama Waterways” exhibit. First, the curators tried to include photos that show as much of the state as possible. “With this show we tried to get as many different rivers and creeks represented as we could,” David says. “We have images from Pisgah Gorge in northeast Alabama all the way to Mobile Bay.”
Second, the artists represented are an interesting mix. There are professional nature photographers. For example, Beth has a new book, Headwaters: A Journey on Alabama Rivers, with text by John C. Hall, that has been published by the University of Alabama Press. Charles Seifried has spent the past year navigating Alabama’s rivers in a kayak and documenting his travels with photographs for an upcoming book. According to Young, Seifried has also assisted the ARA in the past by donating many of his images for their use.
There are also watershed activists who have used photography primarily to document pollution and other affronts to the rivers and streams in their care. “The one thing that unites everyone is their dedication to protecting and preserving Alabama’s waterways,” according to David.
The activists are represented by Stewart; Nelson Brooke, executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper; Paul L. Freeman, an aquatic ecologist with The Nature Conservancy; and Hunter Nichols, a student at Auburn University who made a documentary film called The Alabama Water Agenda while working as an intern at ARA.
The exhibition is marked by what Young calls an “unusually intimate connection between photographer and subject,” particularly in the work of David Patterson. A retired biology teacher who has devoted himself to photography in recent years, Patterson lives in a log cabin on the rim of Pisgah Gorge and takes many photos in that area. The signature image for the exhibition is a photo Patterson took of his nephew John and John’s retriever Butter at the falls near Patterson’s home.
Patterson has been a self-described “river addict” since the fourth grade, when the Royal Ambassadors leader at Pisgah Baptist Church took him and some friends to the Second Falls at Pisgah Gorge, about a half mile from where he now lives. “It had a dramatic effect on my life,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that anything like that existed on this planet this close to home.”
Two artists whose work has been added to the exhibit since its appearance at Camp McDowell are Emily Horton and Weekly contributing writer Stephen Humphreys. Horton is based in Mobile and is collaborating with an environmental non-profit organization in Paraguay to produce a book of photographs of a large freshwater wetland. Humphreys, a Birmingham native, is a photographer, art dealer and curator and intellectual property attorney. He began his photographic career while working in Cuba and Vietnam.
The show is also marked by a diversity of artistic approach, according to Young and Humphreys. “A lot of the images are more traditional conservation photography, and some are more fine art, while some tread the line between the two,” Young says. “Everybody has their own approach,” Humphreys says. “There’s something there for everybody, from a pretty postcard view to a more cutting edge, artistic perspective.”
In fact, Young and Humphreys both tend toward the abstract, though their ultimate aim — to help viewers better appreciate the beauty of Alabama’s waterways — is the same as that of the other artists.
"As with every photo, I want people to see familiar things in a new way," Humphreys says. "Water is an abundant thing, especially in Alabama with all these rivers. I want people to appreciate the water in Alabama for the amazing, God-given thing it is. The chemical and physical properties that make it what it is are really very magical and mysterious and metaphysical."
Young doesn’t disdain scenic shots of things like waterfalls and rapids, but he wants to show more than just the lovely surface. “I try to document what’s really happening in that picture postcard. I try to capture the reflection on the surface of the water, the movement of the current and the stream bed itself. It’s these hidden worlds that are right in front of us.”
For Beth Stewart, taking and exhibiting photos is a marvelous opportunity for professional conservationists, such as she and Nelson Brooke, to use photography in more than just a utilitarian way. “A lot of the people in the show are working every day to protect our rivers and drinking water,” she says. “They try to capture not just the things gone wrong with the rivers, but also the beauty, the stuff that’s spiritually sustaining. We try to show that the rivers are not just refreshing to the body but to the spirit, too.”
Stewart credits Beth with helping to encourage the professional conservationists to take their photography seriously. "She’s been a mentor, and has encouraged us to see our work as art and to pursue it with tie time and dedication it takes," Stewart says. "She's been so generous with her training and time."
Stewart also hopes that visual images can be a powerful way to communicate the ARA’s message. “I give a lot of power point presentations, and I use photographs,” she says. “People are not getting outdoors enough. We’re not connecting enough with the beauty of nature, the values that nature gives us. Photos are a way to bring these values to people in their busy lives. Hopefully they are encouraged to spend more times outdoors. It’s through this personal connection that they develop the desire to be good stewards of our waterways.”
Lowry hopes that those who see these photos will be moved to action. “I want everyone to take away from this exhibit a desire to do something, whether it’s visiting a local river, joining a river conservation group or simply becoming more aware of the value that rivers provide,” she says.
"Alabama Waterways: A Photographic Celebration" begins with a reception, Thursday, June 11, 5:30-8:30 p.m., at the Lite Box Gallery, Pepper Place, 2825 Second Ave. South. The show runs June 11 - July 18. Lite Box is open Tues-Fri, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The gallery will also be open on Saturdays, 8 a.m.-noon, during the Pepper Place Farmer’s Market.
To see more photos from the "Alabama Waterways" exhibit, visit the Birmingham Weekly Flickr stream.