What started as simple curiosity turned into a meaningful adventure for Associate Professor of Visual Arts Michael Kolster. His new book, “Take Me to the River,” explores four rivers’ stories of contamination, neglect and restoration.

Environmental photography and history are not new topics for Kolster. Originally from the West Coast, he has worked on projects examining natural transformations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Around 2008, he became particularly interested in the Androscoggin River, which runs through Brunswick and would become the eventual inspiration for the book. 

“At first, I felt like by studying the Androscoggin, I could get the know the place I’m living in a little bit better,” said Kolster. “The Androscoggin was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, and now it’s a place full of life, where people are frequently spending time.”

Kolster’s fascination with the Androscoggin led him to find rivers with similar stories. His search took him all the way down the Eastern seaboard as he documented the three other rivers that are also featured in his book—the Schuylkill in Pennsylvania, the James in Virginia and the Savannah, which defines the border between South Carolina and Georgia.

“These rivers were sewers,” said Kolster. “Nowadays, they are cleaner, but perceptions are slower to change. It’s an interesting moment in their transition where they’re just starting to become noticed as valuable property.”

To capture these rivers perfectly through a camera, Kolster used ambrotypes, positive images formed on an 8-by-10 inch glass plate. The process is done completely by hand and is quite laborious—Kolster had to bring a portable darkroom to the riverside with him, where he poured chemicals on the wet plate to prepare, develop and varnish the image. But the final product, he said, is worth the extra effort.

“People say, ‘Why bother? You can make things with a phone.’ But there were these imperfections that would speak back to me as I made the pictures,” he said. “It reinforces this correlation between the unstable and dynamic qualities of subject that I was photographing and the actual images themselves. It was a wet process photographing a wet subject.”

For this project, Kolster teamed up with Bowdoin Associate Professor of History Matthew Klingle to collect oral histories from Maine residents about the Androscoggin. 

After conducting dozens of informal interviews in order to understand Mainers’ relationship to their environment, Klingle wrote a series of essays for the book that were heavily influenced by these stories. Most notably, Klingle observed the generational divides between older people who thought of the river as polluted and younger people who saw its pristine beauty in the community.

Although the release of this book represents the end of a journey that started in 2011, Kolster not leave the rivers he visited. His next project will take him to Hawaii for another work focused on environmental history, but for now, Kolster can look out towards his backyard and marvel at the Androscoggin.

A panel and discussion was held last night at Kresge Auditorium in celebration of the book’s release. Panelists shared their thoughts on the making of the book and its larger significance in the community.