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Texas Reader: Buffalo Bayou Blues

By Larry D. Hodge

Rivers are where cities are born, and woe to the city that forgets its origin. Photographer Geoff Winningham calls his new book of photographs, short essays and historical descriptions of Buffalo Bayou, Along Forgotten River. (160 pages, 80 duotones, hardcover, Texas State Historical Association, $39.95 (800) 826-8911) From the monochromatic photographs to historical accounts of the lost natural greatness of the stream, Winningham plays the blues for a river.

From 1997 to 2001, Winningham photographed Buffalo Bayou from beginning to end, from high in the air to down on the bank. He starts from the bayou’s origins at a small pond and a drainage ditch about 30 miles west of Houston, tracks it through the western suburbs, past the pilings of downtown bridges where the homeless rest, through the huge petro-chemical plants that line the ship channel and out to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunlight seems to ache in his cover photograph of willows that screen the bayou just west of downtown Houston. Buildings tower ghostlike behind the trees, fading into silvery reflections from windows and the bayou’s waters.

There is a ghostlike quality to this book. Part of it comes from the austere, almost astringent quality of the photographs. It’s as if Winningham is trying to make them documents and not just aesthetic treats. Winningham doesn’t take pretty pictures, but ones that are a bit forlorn.

What’s forgotten can be sad, and in order to reclaim the river for memory, he can’t make it pretty. The forgotten river has endured too much history and too much change for that.

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