Since the 1st Century BC, when it formed the border of the Roman Empire, the Rhine River has been a vital waterway that allows for the transport of goods in and out of much of landlocked Europe. It’s a region deeply scarred by disagreement, conflict, industry, and war. Currently, it’s home to the largest inland port in the world, and a dense industrial network of manufacturing. BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, built its fortune on the synthesis of indigo dye in the 1800's. The company is headquartered in its original location of Ludwigshafen, on the banks of the Rhine.
The Rhine is also the subject of one of the most expensive photographs ever sold. That photograph, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, was also formative for me as a younger photographer. It’s a minimal (but heavily retouched) composition that speaks to the dark imprint humans are leaving on the environment. I remember seeing the print in person at the SFMOMA. I was awed by the crispness of its lines, the cleanliness of the composition, and the general sense of sterile emptiness. It looked like an image that should be devoid of meaning, but somehow it still managed to get lodged in the front of my mind. Something mysterious in that image spoke to me.
In commenting on Rhein II, Gursky states, “I wasn’t interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it. Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ; a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river…In the end I decided to digitalise the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me.” He did, however, decide to leave the sidewalk in the foreground. Apparently it didn’t bother him enough.
In May, I boarded a river boat in Basel, Switzerland, that would take a week to float downstream to Amsterdam. Having studied the complex history of the area, the ideas of conflict, civilization, and consumption were on my mind as I floated and photographed my way toward the Atlantic, descending through a series of heavily engineered locks. We passed old crumbling castles, gleaming new power plants, steeply terraced hillsides, and sprawling chemical factories, (many of which were owned by BASF).
The Rhine is locked in an ongoing battle with the humans that build on its banks, sculpt the surrounding hillsides, pollute its waters, and motor heavy barges loaded with industrial goods up and down stream. It may take a really (really) long time, but the outcome of this battle will ultimately be decided by the laws of nature. Which means that man will eventually lose. But for now, and until humans are extinct, the Rhine will continue to exist in a dark place.
Using photographs I shot between Basel and Amsterdam, I made five images about a river in conflict, starting with an image of a BASF factory, and the color indigo.