Review by Christopher Dow
Most Houston drivers can navigate around the city with some knowledge of its intricate network of roads and highways. Daily, however, those same drivers cross many bridges with little thought of the intricate network that lies beneath.
Usually it’s another road or maybe a railway line, but frequently, it’s one of the many streams and bayous that overlay the landscape. Although essential to Houston’s early settlers, those waterways today are generally ignored.
But not ignored by everybody. Renowned photographer and Rice University professor of art and art history Geoff Winningham saw Houston’s principal waterway—Buffalo Bayou—and found himself inspired by the same muse that motivated explorers of the past to trace the sources of other influential rivers. “From the first time I photographed Buffalo Bayou, over 20 years ago, I wondered where and how the stream began,” Winningham writes. “I had to find out for myself, so I began to explore the western suburbs of Houston, following the bayou as best I could by car and foot.”
Winningham eventually found what he sought, and his just-published Along Forgotten River: Photographs of Buffalo Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel, 1997–2001, with Accounts of Early Travelers to Texas, 1767–1858 (Texas State Historical Association, 2003) is both a candid documentary and a paean to a natural resource that remains fundamental to Houston’s economic and aesthetic vitality. The supplemental excerpts from narratives by travelers who were among the first to journey through this region are not simply a quaint touch. They add historical depth and lend insight into the conditions and difficulties—natural and man-made—that Houston’s pioneers had to deal with, making the book as much a portrayal of Houston’s growth and development as it is an extended portrait of Buffalo Bayou.
Winningham opens by recounting his meanderings through relatively unspoiled natural tracts west of Houston to pinpoint the bayou’s headwaters. The process took him some time—often when he thought he’d found the source, he would discover fresh clues that led him onward. With the headwaters finally located in three creeks situated north and west of Katy, Winningham embarks on the journey downstream.
As the bayou picks up volume and winds across the prairie toward Houston’s outskirts, the touch of human hands begins to appear in the presence of plowed fields, livestock, and picturesque farms. At last the bayou edges into the city, almost unnoticed until it flows beneath 610 West to form the southern boundary of Memorial Park. A little farther along, just west of downtown, it is most visible as the main conduit of Buffalo Bayou Park between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. Suddenly, full-blown, there is downtown Houston, its steel and glass towers overshadowing the human scale as well as the course of the bayou. After that, the bayou again passes from casual view as it makes an ever-widening approach to the industrialized precincts downstream. Those in turn give way to vistas of Galveston Bay, where the industrialization fades into the background, nature reasserts itself, and the bayou ends, nearly 100 miles from its source.
Winningham has produced several excellent books of photography—among them Rice University: A 75th Anniversary Portrait and In the Eye of the Sun: Mexican Fiestas—but Along Forgotten River may be his best work to date. The book’s 80 large-format black-and-white photographs do more than profile the terrain of the bayou. They subtly explore the diverse characteristics and sometimes contradictory character of the city that has used and often abused this waterway. The common farm animals outside the city give way to the exotic as a llama peers from a River Oaks backyard. People frolicking in Buffalo Bayou Park contrast with homeless men beneath bridges just a mile downstream and other people fishing farther east. And dominating the central portion of the book is the cityscape of downtown, jutting above the trees and reflected in the water.
Along Forgotten River is no idealized portrait with smiles resolutely in place and blemishes carefully airbrushed away. Instead, it is a fascinating look at Houston from the perspective of the river that has nourished the city from infancy. It is a view few Houstonians have paid attention to, but one they should not forget.
This review origninally appeared in the spring 2003 issue of Sallyport: the Magazine of Rice University.