Chloe Dewe Mathews discovers a richness of life along the River Thames

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Over five years, Dewe Mathews explored the length of the River Thames. Her new publication collates the rituals, events, individuals and communities she encountered on its banks

The River Thames trickles out in the Cotswolds and stretches 210 miles across the UK, before emptying into the North Sea. Its dark, greyish waters cut through the land, carving out a meditative space: undefined, reflective, and neutral. William Wordsworth expressed it at the start of the 19th century in his poem Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. A riposte to a rapidly-industrialising London’s encroachment on the Thames, in which Wordsworth venerates the beauty of the river before the city awakens. “Open unto the fields, and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep; In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep,” he writes.

Photographer and film-maker Chloe Dewe Mathews’ latest photobook, Thames Log, captures the fluidity of the Thames, and the sense of freedom it engenders, encouraging individuals and communities to interact with it in varied ways. Co-published by Loose Joints & Martin Parr Foundation, where an exhibition of the work will be exhibited this summer 2021, the book ebbs and flows like the river it pictures, from a textured stripe of green, washing across its front and back, to the images arranged across its french-fold pages. “There is a looseness to it … the pages curve and curl like ripples and waves,” describes Dewe Mathews. “The images spill over pages, so you only see parts of images, and images within images.”

Courtesy Loose Joints.
Courtesy Loose Joints.
First sight of water 05/09/2011, 12.00 pm Kemble 4 n/a 51°40'46.3"N 2°00'46.7"W Sunny intervals © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints.

The publication’s format lends itself to the photographs inside it: a vivid documentation of individuals, communities, events, rituals, and moments accompanied by precise GPS coordinates, dates, tides, and the weather; a nod to the technicality of documentary photography (reiterated by the book’s title Thames Log) amid an otherwise poetic and free-flowing project. “The river is an alternative space,” reflects Dewe Mathews. “It is a public space, but also a democratic space in its neutrality, and allows for such a great range of activity. It is open and reflective.” 

Pagan River Ritual 23/06/2013, 6.30 pm Oxford 3 varies 51°45’07.2”N 1°14’34.6”W fine © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints.

The work provides a snapshot of the multitude of ways in which people interact with the river: Dewe Mathews encountered her subjects through research, but also by wandering, seeing what she might find along the river’s banks. Early on in the book, a Druid rows his coracle amid the pastoral settings of Lechlade, from where the Thames begins; and, elsewhere, three women [pictured above], members of the Oxford Pagan Circle, twirl in long flowing dress upon a grassy bank. In Shoeburyness, at the end of the river’s course, a Hindu community bathes a murti of the elephant god Ganesh in the Thames’s darkened waters, a surrogate for the River Ganges, thousands of miles away. 

In Southend-on-Sea, a man and woman kneel atop a concrete platform for their Maghrib [below, left] or evening prayer, while three young girls drink along the same stretch of water in an image captured just 15 minutes earlier [below, right]. Later, in Southend again, flowers [featured image] dance across the water, marking the scattering of ashes moments before, and we witness the mass baptisms of evangelical neophytes [below, centre] photographed on two separate occasions: their white robes catch the bright light bouncing off the surface of the water. Life and death, religion, friendship, ritual. The Thames reveals itself as a magnet for the intricacies and intimacies of those drawn to it.

Maghrib / Evening Prayer 08/05/2012, 6.30 pm Southend-on-Sea 2 daily 51°31’56.5”N 0°42’51.5”E fine © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints.
Girls Drinking 08/05/2012, 6.15 pm Southend-on-Sea 3 varies 51°31’56.3”N 0°42’52.5”E fine © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints.
Mass Baptism 23/08/2013, 3.30 pm Southend-on-Sea approx. 180 biannually 51°31’54.6”N 0°43’32.7”E overcast © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints.

Even the typeface of the book is a nod to relics of the river’s depths.  Doves Type was developed in the early 1900s by Doves Press, a private press in Hammersmith, a riverside neighbourhood in west London. However, in 1909, its co-founders fell out, and several years later one of them destroyed the entire Doves Press oeuvre, throwing more than a ton of lead type, including the Doves Type, off Hammersmith Bridge. Over 100 years later, in 2014, a diving team recovered 148 metal sorts from the Thames, and the typeface has been recreated to its original specifications.

Brought together in Thames Log, with its expressive design and layout, the series explores “how people project meaning onto the river,” as Dewe Mathews describes it, “observing how each person treats and reads the river differently”. And it is this diversity, and the sense of freedom engendered by the water that encourages it, which Dewe Mathews captures in her images. The photographs flow across the pages, providing a sense of movement and openness, which feels especially poignant during a time when stillness and confinement define so much our existence.   

Thames Log by Chloe Dewe Mathews is co-published by Loose Joints and the Martin Parr Foundation. 

Redsands Sea Forts Restoration 03/10/2015, 2.30 pm Thames Estuary, 12 varies 51°28’30.5”N 1°00’06.5”E overcast, mist © Chloe Dewe Mathews 2021 courtesy Loose Joints.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.