Empire of Thirst

Robert Dawson’s Photographs of Water in the West

Photography exhibition in the Jewett Gallery, San Francisco Main Library On view June 26 through Aug. 1

In numerous projects over the past 30 years documenting the west, photographer Robert Dawson has found inspiration in water. He sees water as the most compelling metaphor and prescient symbol for the attitudes that have shaped the landscape of the American West. The San Francisco Public Library is hosting a special exhibition this summer that combines images from several of Dawson’s photography projects in Empire of Thirst - Robert Dawson’s Photographs of Water in the West, in the Jewett Gallery, Main Library, on view June 26 through Aug. 1.

The full range of our nation's regard for the natural world has manifested itself in western water history. Dawson’s photography examines these cultural values and attitudes—from loving stewardship and respect to outrageous abuse and plunder—that have brought us to this critical point with the natural world. While the water crisis is global, Dawson has chosen to focus on the American West. It is here that the impact of rapid development of arid lands is immediately visible for all to see.

“Growing up in California I was always aware of the importance of water. I can still remember the panic of my parents in 1956 when California’s intricate levee system almost broke after an enormous rain and threatened to flood all of Sacramento. The urgency of our six-year drought in the 1980s focused my thinking about water in the West,” explains Dawson.

Included in the exhibition are both color and black and white photographs that address the issue of water. Some of Dawson’s work looks at our culture's desire to possess, control and shape the land and water to our needs, other photographs document the misuse of water and still others examine a complex, evolving relationship to water that Dawson hopes to influence with his work.

The exhibition draws from five separate photographic projects including The Great Central Valley Project which examines California’s agricultural heartland and the reshaping of that intensively farmed valley. The Water in the West Project looks at attitudes toward agriculture, mining, resource development, recreation, Native Americans, growth and environmental controversy. The Truckee River-Pyramid Lake Project explores one western water system and the conflict over its water by the Paiute Indians, the ranchers of western Nevada and the city of Reno. The Farewell, Promised Land Project examines California’s environment and its history. The fifth project is the result of his recent work as the first Photographer-in-Residence for the City of San Jose’s Cultural Affairs Office and its Environmental Services Department. He has been photographing the city’s wastewater treatment facility, examining how our culture deals with wastewater.

As Dawson explains, “…photography has taken me through several projects on various subjects. But I always seem to find water wherever my work takes me. Throughout this journey I have always tried to stay close to the essential nature of water. Water is life and for me a never-ending source of inspiration.”

A related exhibit, California Delta: Rural Charms and Natural Beauty - Photos by Rich Turner, will be on view July 10 through Oct. 7, in the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center at the Main Library. Turner’s photographs, in both color and black and white, memorialize the diversity of the Delta region in all its breathtaking beauty.

All programs at the Library are Free. For more information, please call (415) 557-4277.

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