Curated by Sarah Bay Williams
Carolyn Drake’s photos catch the late afternoon light that lingers in piercing clarity before the day goes dark. Her subjects, when not in a state of waiting repose, are seen caught between moments—documented in the midst of action. The photos shown here, part of an ongoing project titled Paradise Rivers, illustrate in light and form the uncertain futures of the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, independent nations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Drake has been photographing this part of Central Asia and its relationship to the land and water with a traveler’s curiosity and a keen eye that expresses how these countries are coping with vibrant histories, economic and ecological distress, and political uncertainty.
Artist Statement | Carolyn Drake
Medieval Islamic writings call the Sayhoun and Jayhoun rivers two of the four rivers of Paradise. The water they yield has sustained human life for 40,000 years, providing pastures for nomadic herders, irrigation for farmers, and enabling the development of culture, trade, language, literature, and in parallel, a succession of wars and imperial conquests from east and west over the centuries.
After incorporating the region into its empire in 1917, the Soviet government began transforming the rivers into a web of irrigation canals that brought cotton production to the area on a massive scale. Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, began to disappear, leaving salt and dust storms in its place. When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations appeared, burdened with plunging economies, artificial borders, and a growing environmental crisis.
This project follows the rivers from their source in the Pamir and Tien Shen mountains, downstream, and across borders to their dwindling ends at the Aral Sea basin, crossing into the lives of people and layers of history that they intersect along the way. The journey reveals Central Asia as a place where the connection between the earth and human life is at once plainly visible and complex, where human yearning and time come together, and progress is not bound to a linear path.
Carolyn Drake was born in California, USA in 1971. She studied history and media/culture at Brown University, graduating in 1994, and later learned photography at ICP and Ohio University. Her photo career began at the age of 30, when she decided to leave her multimedia job in New York to learn about the world through personal experience. She currently lives in Istanbul and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Ukraine, a World Press Photo award, the Lange Taylor Prize, and a Santa Fe prize finalist. carolyndrake.com.
Sarah Bay Williams is the Ralph M. Parsons Fellow in the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where she served as picture editor for the virtual exhibition and print-on-demand book, Celebrating Urban Light. She is the author of The Digital Shoebox: How to Organize, Find and Share Your Digital Photos (2009). Previously, Sarah was head of the communications photography department at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Wallis Annenberg Photography Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, founded in 1984 through an endowment by the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, has a collection of approximately twelve thousand works. The collection maintains a primary emphasis on work produced internationally since 1940. In keeping with the encyclopedic nature of the museum, however, the department’s holdings include examples of photographic art from the medium’s invention in 1839 to the present. With the groundbreaking gift from the Wallis Annenberg Foundation in 2008, the museum acquired the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, a group of over 3500 prints that forms one of the finest histories of photography and collections of masterworks from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. lacma.org.