Rio Grande: Burnt Water/Agua Quemada (2002 – 2008)

I’ve been invaded by a kind of lucid languor, a sense of imminence; with every moment I become increasingly aware of certain perfumes peculiar to my surroundings, certain silhouettes from a memory that formerly was revealed in brief flashes but today swells and flows with the measured vitality of a river.
Carlos Fuentes, Agua quemada, 1981¹

As a place where the cultures of the U.S. and Mexico simultaneously meet and diverge, the Rio Grande exists as a watery margin of subtle and dense histories. It is a river infused with memory, charged with the presence of past lives at every bend, and yet flowing through a complex twenty-first-century passage. As the Rio Grande runs its course from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, it traverses landscapes ranging from managed recreational forests and agricultural land, to the densely populated urban areas around the maquiladores of northern Mexico. It crosses the land of the Pueblo and Navaho Nations and passes under border bridges in south Texas. As one might imagine, to navigate the river is to steer through a host of critical contemporary concerns.

Dornith Doherty’s photographic series Burnt Water/Agua Quemada addresses the cultural landscape of the Rio Grande and reflects therein a complicated relationship between human agency and the natural environment. She began her investigations in 2002, photographing along the banks of the Rio Grande and exploring its immediate topography, from mountain source to coastal mouth. The resulting images metaphorically reveal a natural region that is being reconfigured by a host of crucial and sometimes violent forces, including environmental politics, immigration, and economic inequities. And while they exist as re-visioned landscapes, her works are in fact straight photographs—a delicious secret that Doherty skillfully masks through a studio practice that eschews traditional documentary or expeditionary modes in favor of merging fact with aesthetics in a complicit reinvention of nature.

After photographing on the Rio Grande, Doherty returned to her studio and started to project photographic images of the river landscape onto assemblages of natural history specimens and cultural artifacts collected from her onsite work. She incorporated prickly pear plants, corn husks, soil, clothing, vinyl car seats, needles, and other found objects into the still-lifes to invoke the complexity of human experiences she had witnessed along the river, as well as refer to the immediacy of her personal experience within this landscape. Doherty then rephotographed the still-lifes, illuminated by the projected imagery, using a view camera. Presented here in mural size, reflecting the large scale of the landscapes portrayed, Doherty’s photographs are exuberant, yet elegiac vignettes that trace and exhale the contemporary life of the Rio Grande, akin to the perfumed breath of memory expressed in Carlos Fuentes’s poetic vision of Burnt Water.

¹ Carlos Fuentes, Agua quemada: Cuarteto narrativo (México City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1981), page 17.

Essay by Sara-Jayne Parsons, Exhibitions Curator, Bluecoat, Liverpool, England
Published in FotoFest 2006: The Earth/Artists Responding to Violence pps104-107