What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nadav Kander's "Yangtze - The Long River"

Nadav Kander, Chongqing VII, (Washing Bike), 2006 

In this week’s “Goings On About Town” (The New Yorker, November 26, 2012), there’s an interesting note about Nadav Kander’s photographic series “Yangtze – The Long River,” currently on show at New York’s Flowers Gallery. The note states:

The London-based Israeli photographer prints big, but at nearly six feet wide his largest pictures can only begin to suggest the grand scale of his subject: China’s Yangtze River and its environs. Kander documented the length of the river from 2006 to 2009, paying special attention to the people along its banks and the enormous bridges and highway overpasses that loom high above. His palette is restrained, and even the busiest images feel almost empty under a haze that makes everything appear dusty—soft and subdued, but far from romantic.

Reading this, I recalled the chapter in Peter Hessler’s great River Town (2001), in which he describes a boat trip that he and a friend took down the Yangtze from White Crane Ridge to Three Gorges. Hessler writes,

The sun glanced off the silver-brown water; hawks glided overhead. Men rode unsteady bamboo rafts along the river’s edge. Coal boats puttered past. Workers quarried limestone along the shore, the clink of their chisels echoing clear above the winter river.

That subtle silver-brown is exactly caught in Kander's exquisite photos, some of which are on display at Is it the silver-brown of stagnation? Twice, Hessler uses the word:

… the Daning was doomed to rise nearly three hundred feet, its gorges half-filled, and these rapids would run clear no more. It would be part of the new reservoir, with the same stagnant water as the Yangtze.

But to have it simply stop – to turn the river into a lake – for some reason that bothered me more than anything else. In a selfish way, I didn’t mind so much the loss of temples, or the scenery’s lessened magnificence, or even the displaced people. The part that bothered me the most was all that stagnant water; I didn’t want to see the Daning and the Xiangxi and the Yangtze slow down. I couldn’t explain it other than that they were clearly meant to rush forward; that was their essential nature. There was power and life and exuberance in those rivers, and in a decade all of that would be lost.

Kander’s infrastructure-filled photos of the Yangtze convey that same sense of loss. The anonymous writer of the New Yorker note sensed it, too: “Soft and subdued, but far from romantic.” 

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