February 10, 2006

Photographer Shows Yangtze

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When Linda Butler first visited China on a sightseeing tour, she was not thrilled about spending four days along the Yangtze River. Quickly enamored by the landscape, she returned eight times between 2000 and 2003 to memorialize a river and a way of life endangered by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and the vast reservoir it will form.

A well-respected professional photographer for over 25 years, Butler presented slides from her new book, “Yangtze Remembered – Beneath the Lake,” to an overflow audience at the Johnson Museum of Art last evening.

By 2009, when the dam is scheduled for completion, it will have destroyed 13 cities and 1500 towns. 1.7 million people will be forced to relocate.

When Butler began the daunting project of photographing the stretch of the Yangtze to be affected, she “wanted to give the sense of common life as well as of the river landscape.”

Her pictures are part of a well-balanced collection of images she captured both before the reservoir began to fill and after the water began rising. One of the ‘before’ pictures depicts a huge limestone rock where a tributary mixes with the Yangtze. The clear water of the tributary, coming in contact with the much darker and sandy waters of the Yangtze, provides a texture that evokes the serenity and peacefulness of the area.

With all of her exhibition photos shot in black and white, Butler explained that she chose the medium because she was capturing something “drab, something basic – a landscape.”

Butler said her favorite photo was taken from the top of an old stone bridge that rested between two steep slopes. After scaling the bridge, using notches cut from rock by trackers who used to pull boats up the river, she was able to capture “how much the river rose and fell,” which she explained could be as much as 80 feet.

Because of the political sensitivity of the dam project, not many photographers were able to gain access to the river valley, and especially the dam. Butler needed to penetrate fortification-like structures protecting the construction project from the local population.

Although her project was not overtly political, Butler did discuss both the positive and negative aspects of creating a structure that, when complete, will dramatically alter the environment.

“In a number of ways,” Butler told the audience, “the project is quite tragic.” Although she acknowledged that a steady supply of power, better shipping channels and better control of seasonal flooding would help the country, she pointed out that “120 million people live in the affected region, and [that] there are many people worried about possible pollution, as lax environmental laws might not protect the reservoir from filling up with waste.”

Although Butler addressed the economic needs for the construction, she closed emphasizing that “these changes are far more amazing than the structure of the dam itself