Río: A Photographic Journey down the Old Río Grande ed. by Melissa Savage
In this volume of striking photographs and short essays, editor Melissa Savage argues that a place can make a person and that human culture is embedded in its place. Inspired by the 1940s photographs of Laura Gilpin along with a wide range of images from various university archives—the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and U.S. Geological Surveys—Savage presents a strong case, both visually and rhetorically, for the importance of the Rio Grande in historical memory. The goal of the collection, according to Savage, is to "tell the story of how the river was woven into each of the successive cultures that inhabited the valley" (xi).
William deBuys opens the work with an introduction that underscores the importance of the river to the land and its people by dubbing it "the first truly modern river of the American West" (2). As deBuys points out, the advent of photography in the region coincided with the period of tremendous industrial growth during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The selected photographs provide an excellent way to map the transitions within the land and cultures over a century-long period. The work is divided thematically by "photographic bundles" which include the seven themes of Crossings, Trade, Cultivation, Flooding, Los Insurrectos, Big Bend, and River's End. Each of the seven sections is preceded by an essay authored by experts on the river, history, and culture of the region. According to Savage, "the diversity of voices in these essays embodies the enduring nature of the diverse cultures of the Río Grande Valley" (xiv). [End Page 332]
A major strength of the work is the combination of writing and images, as the shorter length of the essays allows the photographs to remain the focal point within each section. From Estella Leopold's description of the cottonwoods along the floodplains to Jan Reid's telling of Robert T. Hill mapping 350 miles along Big Bend in 1899, each author uses eloquent prose that links the images' visual representation to the history of the Rio Grande. In addition to the preface, introduction, and essays, most of the writing appears in the form of captions, which provide information ranging from tales of gold prospectors to ballads memorializing the town of San Marcial. The author could have more clearly noted whether the information accompanying the images was provided in original captions within each archive or why the images were arranged in a particular manner, but generally Savage has done an impeccable job keeping the captions factual and interesting without adding unnecessary text.
A significant visual archive of the historical landscape, Río stands as an important contribution to the fields of geography, history, and photography. Texas historians will find it particularly useful, as the images document a wide range of people and technologies representative of local, regional, and transnational events throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Describing the Rio Grande as "second only to the Colorado as the greatest river of the American Southwest," Dan Flores closes the collection by emphasizing its importance in documenting the river itself, its surrounding geography, and the people whose lives have been shaped by its influence. Journey down the Old Río Grande is an engaging visual history that leaves readers pondering the power of nature and its ability to shape human experience.