Yangtze Remembered

Linda Butler, Limestone Precipice, Qingshi, 2001

Limestone Precipice, Qingshi, 2001

These boaters went swimming in the crystal clear waters of a tributary before they steered their boat downstream towards the Yangtze River. Fifty yards ahead of them the stream’s pure water joined the sandy Yangtze. The wooden boat with its square ends and flat bottom is typical of the region.

I grew up in a house full of books, among them a few photobooks. I have childhood memories of flipping through the books and looking at photos. I only remember two books distinctly* though. One was Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man.** The other was Eliot Porter’s Down the Colorado.

*The rest I probably absorbed unconsciously. I should look to see if this is where I picked up my appreciation of Weston.

**Surprise surprise. 

Down the Colorado made a bigger impression on me. I remember realizing more and more levels of the narrative at play in it each time I flipped through the book. At first it was just about the pretty pictures. Then I started to realize that we had destroyed everything pictured and began to understand the environmental aspect of the piece. Then I figured out the John Wesley Powell portion and realized that it’s not just about the immediate environmental changes but that the whole history of discovery, exploration, exploitation, and settlement of the West is tied up in our usage of the river and the landscape.

When I saw Linda Butler’s Yangtze Remembered at my local library a decade ago, I checked it out and looked through it with Eliot Porter in the back of my mind. I’ve seen and thought a lot more about photography since then and when I came across the book again* I realized that it was one I wanted on my shelf.

*$10 at an overstock sale!

Looking through it again, it’s even better than I remembered. The parallels with Down the Colorado are uncanny. The nature of the heavily silted river. The way gorges and natural beauty will be submersed. The method of piggybacking the photography narrative along a 19th-century travelog from an early western explorer.

Linda Butler, Yangtze Overlook, Xiling Gorge 2000

Yangtze Overlook, Xiling Gorge 2000

Xiling Gorge is 47 miles long and includes the new Three Gorges Dam near the eastern end. A hundred years ago, it was known for its treacherous rapids. This upstream view of the gorge includes a farmhouse with a satellite dish—a luxury that was rarely seen in rural areas before 2000.

This is pre-ruin porn—photographs made knowing that the area is about to be destroyed. One last quest to capture what will disappear. And a quest back in time capturing unspoiled—or minimally spoiled—landscapes and people practicing an ancient way of life. Only it’s not really porn. It’s a documentation of modernization which asks us, in a similar way that Richard Misrach’s or Robert Adams’s photos do, “is it worth it?”

The landscapes are beautiful in an other-worldly way. The mountains are huge. The gorges are deep. The pollution brings a level of mist and haze which adds to the mystery.* Human activity is present, but often minimal or in concert with nature. Trees have overgrown walls, steps have been worn into rock trails. There’s a quiet stability to much of the life even though it’s obviously extremely hard living.

*Ansel used a red filter to blacken his skies. Butler uses one to cut through the haze.

At the same time, the terrain is tough and inaccessible. Ironically, while the reservoir will destroy what it covers, the lake will also allow more people to see what’s left—in many ways, the destruction dramatically increases access for people to enjoy the remaining beauty. Is it worth it? Hard to say. Some of the rock formations took centuries to sculpt. Others, like the natural bridge in Wanxian, were unique, distinctive, and already easy to access. Those are the ones I think I’m most upset to see disappear.

Linda Butler, Dachang Overview, Dachang, 2002

Dachang Overview, Dachang, 2002

For hundreds of years Dachang has been the administrative center of the Daning River tributary; its buildings are considered to be the best-preserved historical structures in the region. On a Sunday morning, two young girls are playing badminton in the historic center. About thirty of the best-preserved homes will be dismantled and rebuilt as part of an historic village.

Many of the photos of the residents who will be displaced by the reservoir show people who are working in 19th-century conditions. The photo captions detail how they’re getting pushed around and the kinds of hardships they’re undergoing. At the same time, their current way of life isn’t that easy and it’s easy to see why modernization is desirable.

It’s easy to decry the destruction. It’s something else entirely to say that people shouldn’t be able to get reliable electrical power and jobs which won’t maim them.

As much as the natural destruction troubles me, it’s really the destruction and relocation of the cities which I find most troubling. Beside my not understanding or accepting the way that the government can just compel entire cities to move, the willful destruction of personal and communal history is almost inhumane. Destroying homes and lands that multiple generations of a family have lived in and worked on obliterates history and culture. Saving and preserving a few model homes to be moved to historic villages is the kind of thing colonial powers do. I can’t fathom a country inflicting itself with this destruction of its past.

Linda Butler, Wanxian Old Town, Wanxian, 2001, composite Linda Butler, Old Town Destroyed, Wanxian, 2003, composite Linda Butler, New Port, Wanxian, 2003, composite

Top to bottom:
Wanxian, 2001.
Old Town Destroyed, Wanxian, 2003.
New Port, Wanxian, 2003

In fall 2001 the schools and neighborhoods of old Wanxian were still intact, although the hospital (lower right) was being dismantled. Over the next eighteen months much of the old town was demolished. 60,000 people were relocated; many received only a fraction of the money they had been promised.

The government ordered the demolition of every building in the path of the reservoir. In just eighteen months, the old town section of Wanxian went from being a vital city (previous slide) to a pile of rubble.

When the reservoir reached the shores of Wanxian in June 2003 there was still much work to do on the new port. Workmen were laying stone slabs into place to secure the landfill embankment and create a quay. Many of the remaining buildings will be torn down before 2009 to prepare for a new business district at the wharf’s edge. In comparing this and the previous two slides, the distant mountain is the only common feature in all three.

Butler’s pictures of the transformation are especially fantastic. It’s difficult to  get a sense of the scale of the effort and what it means to move entire cities until you actually see it in action. The speed of the effort is also impressive. We’re used to photos like these covering decades as a city grows and evolves. For the same sequence to cover only a couple years is not the normal rate of change.

And there is something fascinating about seeing the huge reservoir filling the gorges. It’s difficult to understand how much new reservoir will change the landscape until you see the before and after images. Some of the before images have high-water-mark signs which indicate where the lake will end up. But even then it’s hard to imagine exactly how much will be submerged.

For all the photos, the dominant theme is scale. The mountains are huge, the river is huge, the lake is huge, the government is huge. People are tiny. There’s a slight bias toward “ain’t it awful” when discussing the changes. But progress is also inevitable and brings with it many good things.


Linda Butler, Temple and New Bridge, Da Fosi, 2002

Temple and New Bridge, Da Fosi, 2002

This temple is named “Da Fosi” for the three giant Buddhas carved from the stone cliff inside of the temple. The three Buddhas in the interior were damaged during the Cultural Revolution by gangs of Red Guards. In recent years, an attempt was made to bring back their original grandeur. The suspension bridge in the background, completed in 2001, is one of thirteen new bridges that spans the Yangtze.

Aside from the photos, it’s extremely interesting to read about Butler’s technique. While she’s photographing a transition between old and new, Butler’s process straddles a similar transition in photoworld in that her photos are taken and processed in a hybrid workflow. Most of the images are shot with a 4×5 view camera (or Mamiya 7). Some used a 3.3megapixel digital camera. All were scanned and processed digitally. This is for a project that was pretty early in the digital camera and digital darkroom revolution.

Butler’s notes include how the digital processing helps her manage the negatives. She details how many of the images are in fact digital composites (noted as such in the text). She tells stories about how the digital camera served as an icebreaker for talking with and gaining the trust of the locals. None of the experiences seem especially profound now. But it’s interesting to see her discovering the advantages of both worlds at a time when most people were zealously film-only or digital-only.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

5 thoughts on “Yangtze Remembered”

  1. Pingback: Pairings | n j w v

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