The Design Observer Group


Posted 04.18.13


Dennis DeHart

Confluences



Lewiston Valley, Idaho, Emmit in the foreground, Lewiston Mill adjacent to the Clearwater River in the background, 2013.

This story begins with salmon eggs. In 2011, I was camping with my son Asher, then five years old, along the Selway River in North Central Idaho. He was playing on the riverbank when he reached into the water and pulled out a gelatinous mass of pinkish orbs. As he admired the orbs both in horror and awe, I noticed a battered salmon thrashing in the river. It’s going to attack my son, I thought, before realizing the ludicrousness of the idea. The salmon had just spawned and was preparing to die. In her final gesture, she had transferred her life to the eggs that were now in my son’s inquisitive hands.

This experience left a profound impression on me. The salmon had traveled some 700 miles, through eight dams and four rivers, to return home and lay her eggs. In a simple gesture of curiosity, my son negated a portion of her efforts.


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For my photographic series Confluences I have been circumventing the territory of the Inland Northwest, following the rivers as my guide, mapping a watershed I now call home. Confluences examines the multiple narratives inherent in place. The photographs engage with Native American history, land use, environment, energy, poverty, agriculture and industry in rural Eastern Washington and Oregon, and Northwest Idaho. Weaving together landscape, portrait and still life, they express the unparalleled beauty and tragedy of the dynamic and complex landscape and its inhabitants.

Perhaps the region’s most significant confluence is the meeting of the Snake and Clearwater rivers at Lewiston, Idaho; 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lewiston is the farthest inland seaport in the western United States. Seagoing vessels travel through numerous locks in order to deliver their goods. Downstream, they continue on the Columbia, once a powerful river, now a series of slack-water lakes behind large dams controlled by the central brain of the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.

The dams are either the life or death of the region, depending on whom you ask. Grand Coulee Dam is the largest electric power-producing facility in the United States and is a source of cheap energy for the Pacific Northwest. Grand Coulee is also a central component in the Columbia Basin Project, which irrigates 670,000 acres of once barren and now fertile farmland in Central Washington. But this development comes at great cost: native peoples have been displaced, the wild salmon population has been decimated, and the Columbia Basin Project is, in many respects, a financial sinkhole.

Confluences is my attempt to examine and reexamine a complex and layered series of interconnected places through the lens of the now. It is a messy affair in which history has allowed me the luxury of some objectivity, but the project would not make sense unless it came from the heart.