–Article by Arshia Simkin
Holden Richards’ new book of photography—Riverwalk: A Decade Along the Eno—begins with an epigraph from Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Richards, who echoes this philosophy, said of photographing the river: “It’s constantly fresh because every time you go something is a little different; the light is a little different.”
Richards is especially attuned to minute changes in the river because he has been taking pictures of the Eno River for more than a decade. Now, he’s curated and selected sixty such photos to feature in Riverwalk. The book contains black and white images of river, trees, rocks, and plant life that surround it. It shows the river in various weather conditions: snowcapped; crackling with ice; shrouded in fog; blooming with algae; at times placid, at times rushing with flood waters. Some of the most striking pictures feature astonishingly intricate and surprisingly large exposed root structures; others contain delicate, fern-like flora, reflections of the sky or branches in pooled water, or the river clotted with leaves.
Richards, a Raleigh native who now lives in Hillsborough, said, “My appreciation of living here runs very deep.” He was not always a photographer; he studied history in college, then went on to a career as a computer programmer. But after he moved to Hillsborough, where the river was “literally a half a mile from my house,” Richards began to visit it daily.
For Richards the Eno’s history and legacy is as much a draw as its aesthetic beauty: “The river is so central to the fact that Hillsborough is even here, for starters. The old trading path runs by and on the river through to Hillsborough. There are indigenous settlements that are almost 3,000 years old along the river that have been archeologically explored. It’s a very old place and there have been people living on, in, around, and near the river for thousands of years, so it’s got its own sort of energy and it’s very inspiring all by itself even before I started to make photographs of it.”
Riverwalk is unique not only because of the intense focus on a single subject, but because of the cameras used to produce the photographs: the pictures were taken using at least six different camera formats and many of the cameras are over a hundred years old. In addition, Richards uses a traditional wet darkroom to develop his pictures. As Richard’s fascination with photography grew, so did his interest in old camera technologies: “I started taking photographs with a little digital camera and then I bought a film camera. The first thing I wanted to photograph was the river. I learned to make my own film and part of that journey involved interfacing the generation of North Carolina photographers that was way before me, basically the best photographers, essentially that were 10 or 15 years older than me when I started.” At the time Holden became interested in film, the photography world was going in the opposite direction: “everything was becoming digital, people were all about digital and I didn’t really know much about analogue except for what I could read on the internet, which wasn’t much, and it was almost becoming a lost art in a way. And in order to learn about it or know about it, you had to work to do it.”
Richards also credits the Penland School of Craft, located in Bakersfield, North Carolina, where he took a class in photography, for helping him to refine his skills—especially with older cameras. Richards uses large format cameras, one of which was made in 1885. “When you move to a larger camera with the big film, it’s a different discipline.” Because the camera Richards uses is so large and requires so much work to set up, there is a certain intentionality to the work, requiring building the camera, putting the film holder in, exposing the film, and metering the scene. “Nothing about it is automatic,” Richards said. As such, each photograph in Riverwalk feels carefully considered and rendered.
Because his images are black and white, Richards is especially drawn to how different types of light affect a composition. He points out two photographs where you can see the difference in light: “This is a winter light and the light changes seasonally and you can see how sort of harsh and cold this light looks. And this is summer time and you can totally tell that this is a different type of light—it’s a lot warmer.” Richards is drawn to interesting weather. Of one of the images in Riverwalk, a photograph of the partially frozen river, featuring large black rocks encased in white sheets of ice which splinter into clear filigreed edges, Richards says, “I remember taking this photograph a couple of winters ago, when it got so bitter cold the river froze over completely in some places. It’s really quite amazing. This was the day before the river froze over completely and I gotta say this picture is ten times more interesting than the photograph I made with the river completely frozen over because you can’t really tell there is a river under it. So sometimes [it’s] just being lucky, and showing up on the right day.”
When asked about his artistic philosophy Richards said that because the river is always changing, taking photographs “teaches you to value the moment.” He added: “The river itself is very ephemeral [and] transitory. There are some things that manage to endure, but for the most part, they’re the rocks. You can’t really fall in love with any trees for too long, because they might be there for 10 or 15 years and that’s it.” He notes that if you look carefully, you can notice the effects of climate change and erosion—especially in places where large root structures are exposed. When asked how he chooses when to stop and take a picture, Richards says, “I think you stop for whatever you’re attuned to, for what you think is unusual or beautiful for the most part, but you also have to practice that the same way you would practice guitar: you have to learn to recognize.” When choosing what to photograph, Richards himself is drawn to light and contrasts. Indeed, the photographs in Riverwalk are a study in contrasts: the reflective river foregrounded by dense tree trunks and shaded foliage; the white froth of the water against dark stones; the white of the clouds and sky and ice against inky branches, shadows, and dark swaths of water.
For aspiring photographers or those who’ve hit a slump, Richards advised: “Every artist feels uninspired. Everybody runs out of gas at some point. The only solution to that is to keep working. If you’re creatively empty, sometimes that’s okay. Just pick up the guitar, or paintbrush, or camera, or whatever, and use it. Just continue to have a dialogue with the art and eventually it will start speaking back again. And in the meantime, you’re getting some good practice in.”
Although Richards doesn’t try to evoke a particular mood in his photographs—he simply wants the viewer to see what he has seen while on the river—the pictures are nonetheless moody; by turns stark, atmospheric, tranquil, energetic, and haunting. Each photograph encourages the viewer to linger in the scene, to trace the shadows and the light, the branching roots, and rushing water. In his photographer’s note at the end of Riverwalk, Richards said, “The collection is a portrait of a subject that won’t sit still.”
A selection of the photographs from Riverwalk will be exhibited at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens during January and February 2022. You can also learn more about Richards, his work, and Riverwalk at his website at darkroomprint.com.