John Guider, BE’ 72, understands fully what Emerson meant when he said, “Who looks upon a river … and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”
Guider, a well-known commercial photographer, has traveled the world to produce the perfect image for clients. In August 2003 he embarked on a journey of a different kind that would take him miles from home as well as miles from his previous life in commercial photography. He canoed from the creek in his Nashville backyard, up the Harpeth River to the Cumberland River to the Ohio, and then down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
The result is The River Inside, a book and a traveling exhibit of platinum print photographs, a number of which are exhibited at Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks through April under the auspices of the Medical Center’s Office of Cultural Enrichment.
Guider says in the introduction to his book that he dreamed of “walking out of my familiar world and entering a completely new one.” He accomplished his dream, despite having little experience with canoeing and camping.
“It sort of spoke of my capricious and romantic nature,” says Guider. “There was very little planning at all. The only thing that saved my life was that I started in my creek. I was seven days on the Harpeth, which is a gentle, beautiful river. It’s probably the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had in my life. That was my training.”
When he reached the Ohio, things were not so gentle. It was at flood stage at Paducah, Ky., with banks submerged, and Guider wound up caught in spill-off from the Lake Barkley Dam. “You get in trouble once and you remember it,” says Guider. “Getting caught in the dam prepared me for the wing dikes. [Built into the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, wing dikes force water away from the banks, thus speeding up the river.] The whirlpools, too, are daunting, and they run the river like movable minefields.”
Despite his lack of experience and the forces of nature, Guider completed his journey of 2,800 river miles in five years, going back for shorter runs from the headwaters of the Mississippi during the summers until finishing in mid-July 2007. Though sometimes going for days without seeing another person, Guider discovered the power of community. “All along the river, people went out of their way providing for my safety and well-being,” he writes in his book. As he entered the darkroom, making the images that would tell his story (a yearlong process of experimentation by which he settled on the platinum print process), he also discovered the power of the Vanderbilt community.
“David Fox [BA’72] saw my work at a show and literally grabbed me and took me over to Ingram [Industries] and set me up,” says Guider. “He did as much of the groundwork getting the project where it is as anybody else.” Others involved include Andrew Maraniss, BA’92, who helped edit the book; Susan Knowles, BA’74, MLS’75, MA’86, who served as the exhibition’s curator; Stacey Irvin, BA’98, who designed the website theriverinside.com; Coke Sams, BA’68, who produced and directed a short documentary about the trip; and Orrin Ingram, BA’82, of Ingram Industries (and Ingram Marine Group), who provided funding. The exhibit, which originated at the Tennessee State Museum during fall 2008, has been to Dubuque, Iowa; St. Louis; and Memphis, Tenn., and will travel to the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Ark., in April. In August it travels to Clarksville, Tenn., and then to the River Discovery Center in Paducah.
Guider’s new project is to photograph his navigation of “the Great Loop” during the next five or six years. For this journey he has built his own boat, and will journey up to 6,000 miles down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, around the eastern United States through the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, up to the Hudson River, and through the Great Lakes back down to his starting point. Last June and July, he completed the first section to the Gulf of Mexico, where he was caught in a storm and nearly sank.
“It made me realize that everything I had learned on the river was of little use on the ocean,” Guider says. Even as he journeyed down the Mississippi again, Guider was aware of how dynamic life on the river is, how it changes, and how it has paralleled his own life since he began undertaking these trips nearly seven years ago.
“I think the river is like a person’s life,” he says. “It changes. One of the bittersweet aspects of this last journey was that I had met so many people on the canoe trip, and I was really looking forward to reconnecting with them. But all the way down the river, I could not find a single person [I had met before]. It was as if somebody had changed the set on me. Even the river level was different, so the banks had a different appearance.
“It’s enough to spend your life on the river and not ever know it. It’s just that amazing.”
Find out more: www.theriverinside.com