An exhibition and conversation series about our changing relationship with the river as it was, as it is, and as it could be


The River as it Is

An investigation of contemporary perspectives, informed by the work of Geoffrey James and Michael Kolster

Fields of Knowledge
  • Artistic legacies
  • Design
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Memory
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Slought, City Parks Association

Contributing Institutions

Philadelphia Water Department, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities


Deenah Loeb, Aaron Levy, Alma Siualgi, Nick Yu

Process initiated


Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Along the Schuylkill River Pennsylvania


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought and City Parks Association are pleased to announce "The River as it Is," the second part of an exhibition and public programming series from May 19th through August 2015 investigating our changing relationships with the Schuylkill River.

The Schuylkill and its functionality has changed since the time when John Frederick Lewis wrote The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill (1924), seeking to document the river as it was. At that time, the river transported products and waste downstream. In the years that followed, the coal that was sent from the river's headwaters began to be replaced by gas and electricity. Conveyance pipes and culverts were installed to carry waste and to manage stormwater, alleviating the risk of water-born disease. These improvements to the overall water management impacted daily civic life, though the river continued to remain inaccessible and thus invisible to Philadelphia's residents. Fewer people were now coming to the riverfront for work, and new highways, constructed along the riverbanks, further separated the waters from its residents.

In the last decade, tremendous changes to the Schuylkill have transformed Philadelphia's relationship to the river that runs through it. Through citywide programs, new systems have been installed to better manage stormwater runoff and to reclaim access to the riverbanks. Lewis would probably be pleased with the improvements, though the river's image is slow to change and continues to be overshadowed by a complex historical and socio-economic narrative. During storms, for instance, waters still overwhelm the barriers, flooding low-lying sections of the city. And though it no longer smells of industrial waste, the waters continue to carry much more than sediment downstream. Its existence, for many residents, still has little connection to daily life.

Recognizing the capacity artists have to reimagine our complex relationship to the river, we have invited Geoffrey James and Michael Kolster to investigate this dynamic urban landscape. Their particular explorations enable us to expand our understanding and connection to the river, the communities that live and work alongside it, and ourselves.

read more

"Water plays an essential part in the making of photographs," Jeff Wall writes in his seminal essay Photography and Liquid Intelligence (1984), "but it has to be controlled exactly and cannot be permitted to spill over the spaces and moments mapped out for it in the process, or the picture is ruined."

Consistent with Wall's conception of the relationship between water and photography, this exhibition features a series of wet plates made by Michael Kolster for his "Rivers" project, which are inspired by the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Clean Water Act and chronicle the re-emergence of American industrial rivers. Kolster's nineteenth-century technique parallels the rise of industrialization and degradation of our rivers, and an experience of seeing that dates back to the 1850s, long before the digital era.

The exhibition also includes a newly commissioned series of dry, or digital, photographs by artist Geoffrey James entitled "Further Redemption: The Lower Schuylkill Now." James' series is the culmination of a Spring 2015 seminar in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania exploring aesthetic and ethical considerations in the environmental humanities. As part of the course, and in preparation for the installation, James walked the banks of the Schuylkill, exploring his personal narrative in relation to historical texts and the urban fabric of the city.

These two collections of work involve different technologies of image production. While Kolster's approach is historically inflected and involves water-based ambrotypes, James' approach is contemporary and involves digital media. Our curatorial premise is informed by Jeff Wall's distinction between wet and dry optical technologies, or the fluidity and dryness of technological advancement. Together, Kolster's wet and James' dry optical technologies present two distinct ways of seeing the river.

Here, photographer is neither documentarian nor archivist, neither photojournalist nor eulogist. He is simply a visitor who is passing through. Meandering along the banks of the river, the person behind the viewfinder acknowledges the presence of the water, understanding water as a vehicle of collective memory and relations. As we study and record the Schuylkill, perhaps it also studies us.

"In Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris, some scientists are studying an oceanic planet. Their techniques are typically scientific. But the ocean is itself an intelligence which is studying them in turn.

It experiments on the experimenters by returning their own memories to them in the form of hallucinations, perfect in every detail, in which people from their pasts appear in the present and must be related to once again, maybe in a new way. I think this was a very precise metaphor for, among many other things, the interrelation between liquid intelligence and optical intelligence in photography, or in technology as a whole. In photography, the liquids study us, even from a great distance."

-- Jeff Wall, "Photography and Liquid Intelligence," 1989