Photos of the American South

From “River’s Dream,” published by TBW Books. (Curran Hatleberg)
From “River’s Dream,” published by TBW Books. (Curran Hatleberg)


When everything seems to fly at us with breakneck speed, it’s a good reminder to slow down, take our time and smell the proverbial roses. Speed isn’t always an asset, especially in photography.

Curran Hatleberg doesn’t hurry his work. I found this out on a recent trip to the Baltimore studio space he shares with his partner, artist Cynthia Daignault. We spent a couple of hours chatting about his latest book, “River’s Dream” (TBW Books, 2022). Hatleberg is generous, humble and easy to chat with.

I have no doubt that Hatleberg’s approachability contributes to his way of working. He likes to wander until he finds a spot he feels comfortable with and then dig in. As he told me as I sat on a couch in his studio, “Once I meet someone with mutual curiosity, I say yes to everything.”

Experience is the key with Hatleberg’s work. Things are working their best when the camera feels like it disappears and whatever encounter he finds himself in takes over. The camera becomes secondary as experience becomes primary: “ “The photo never quite lives up to the experience of being there,” Hatleberg told me.

He usually waits until he has exposed hundreds of rolls of film before he begins the process of editing. The exposed rolls of film are filled with his encounters, and he waits to develop them to create a sense of objective distance. Once the film is developed, those encounters are then strung together to create a story.

This is how “River’s Dream” came to be. Hatleberg wandered through Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio and Maryland while making the images that would end up in the book. But the book isn’t so much about a specific place as it is about trying to locate and capture an atmosphere.

The atmosphere in “River’s Dream” is one of summer heat and humidity. This isn’t something I initially grasped when I first flipped through the book. I was more preoccupied with sussing out its influences and divining what it had to say to me. But once I read another review that brought it up, and after chatting with Hatleberg, it became inescapable: Suddenly, every photo spoke to that heavy, warm atmosphere.

Hatleberg told me that he wanted the book to be suffused with a sense of sultriness. He even went so far as to pick paper stock for the book that felt slippery, reminiscent of the dampness of a Southern summer. As we chatted away in Baltimore, he told me, “I wanted it to feel like summer — like it was about to rain.” And there are plenty of visual cues that pop up throughout his book.

For example, there’s a group of people taking refuge in the shade of a porch, men gathered around a table wearing tank tops playing dominoes, a group of people at an outdoor picnic, a person dipping their hand into a clump of cool ice in a cooler. Throughout the book, people and places are continually bathed in the golden hues of late summer.

Above all, “River’s Dream” is about the primacy of experience. The book’s photographs are kind of secondary. They are really a byproduct of Hatleberg’s insatiable curiosity and desire to meet people where they are. As he told me up in Baltimore, he’s interested in engaging with the world rather than imposing anything on it and he believes that making oneself vulnerable to experience is one of the keys to making the work that drives him.

As for photographic influences, Hatleberg’s is a continuation of a time-honored tradition in American photography established by the likes of William Eggleston and Walker Evans. You’ll see hints of both in “River’s Dream.”

Eggleston and Evans are chroniclers of the American experience. Eggleston elevated the banality of small-town life (yes, Southern!) into art. Evans recorded the details and particulars of the old clashing with the new but also made himself open and vulnerable to the experience of “ordinary” Americans. You’ll see strong echoes of each in “River’s Dream.”

The release of “River’s Dream” has been so highly anticipated that the first edition of the book sold out before it even hit shelves. Some of the work in the book was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial in 2019 and is only now available in book form. There is no doubt in my mind that it will become a revered classic. It kind of already is.

The book is now available in a second edition that will probably sell out as well, so if you want to grab a copy, now is the time to do it.

You can find out more about Hatleberg and his work on his website, here. And you can buy the book on the publisher’s website, here.

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