Forty years ago this week, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire when oil-soaked debris floating on its surface was ignited by sparks from a train passing on a bridge overhead. The fire became a turning point for the rising environmental movement and eventually led to the formation of the EPA and passage of the Clean Water Act.
The past few days there's been much hoopla around town, celebrations, back-patting, etc., and some good news/bad news from that very same EPA: while praising the progress Cleveland has made in cleaning up the river, the EPA in the same breath stated that the river will remain on its dubious list of polluted North American waterways, much to the surprise and chagrin of local officials here.
I started working on a personal project about the river in the fall of 2007; it has proceeded in fits and starts since then, and is by no means anywhere near being congruous or complete at this point. But at this juncture I figured what the hell I'll put some of it out there for examination.
Let me be clear though that I'm not necessarily trying to photograph the river from an environmental perspective or make comment about its ecological condition -- so in a sense the "timeliness" of this week's anniversary is somewhat irrelevant to my work and any perceived overlaps in the imagery are likely coincidental (as will hopefully be made clear further on in the text).
Rather, I've been exploring the river more as a greater existential symbol of time and experience (both collective and personal) and its symbiosis with the cities and towns through which it flows. The Cuyahoga, as any other river, has historically served many functions for its surrounding lands in terms of ecology, industry, commerce, recreation and more.
My parents and their parents and further generations past grew up in various towns along the river's meandering path from rural Geauga County south to Akron and back north to Cleveland where it empties into Lake Erie (the word Cuyahoga literally means "crooked river" in the Iroquois language).
The river has been a physical and spatial link between different periods of our lives, so for me it is also as much about certain aspects of personal journey. And I wonder to what extent (if any) this can be extrapolated to parallel larger, more universal, human experiences manifested throughout time in the people and places seen here.