Chloe Dewe Mathews looks beyond the popular portrayals of the River Thames
Titled Thames Log and published by Loose Joints, the five-year project is an upended approach to the ever-changing bank of England’s longest river.
- Ayla Angelos
- 14 January 2021
The River Thames is primarily there to serve a function. Besides London's busy Southbank that gets inundated with bodies in the warmer months, the remaining parts of the 215 mile-long river are tourist wastelands where ports and expensive flats populate the water’s edge. It’s a growing commodity of wealth that London-born photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews came to realise while shooting a piece on the Caspian Sea in 2011.
Having returned from Central Asia and observing the Thames – which was “only a few hundred metres from my house,” she says – “I was struck by the extent to which the river was, in contrast, used in a practical and heavily regulated way. So I began to explore it on foot, in the hope of discovering something more organic, an alternative to its more functional profile.”
This quest has grown into a series titled Thames Log, a project that she was shooting between 2011 and 2016. Now taking shape in a book of the same name published by Loose Joints, the photographer has re-immersed herself in the work as it sees her document the unsung moments from one of the UK’s most recognised locations. “Thames Log is my attempt to look beyond the river’s well-documented facade and examine the quiet, unexpected and often ritualistic moments of interaction with the notorious watercourse,” she tells It’s Nice That. It’s a topic that further cements the photographer’s long-standing affair with capturing the elements of our environment and its resources – like that of her previous work on the Caspian coastline.
Since we last heard from Chloe just over a year ago, she’s spent much of the time travelling back and forth between England and Southern Spain – that was until travel became restricted with the nature of the pandemic. She launched a new photographic series and film titled For a Few Euros More, before turning back to her older work on the Thames, what was then a series of unpublished works. “I got really excited about the potential of the book as a medium,” she says, adding how she worked with the publisher to create an experimental design which “really gives cogency to the project as a whole”.
Chronicled geographically and presented with a French fold, Thames Log presents an array of thoughtful, reflective imagery that sits alongside GPS coordinates, dates, tides and weather, marking spots on the Thames as she traverses from Central London through to the opening of the estuary. Chloe was keen to explore each part of the river, which meant that she’d “make forays here and there”, all with the added intention of covering the ground extensively and accurately, “from source to mouth”. She adds: “I visited some stretches only fleetingly, other places I returned to repeatedly over months and even years.” Some moments were quiet, where all but the wind and ripping water’s edge reverberated as she’d wander through its desolate land. Others, though, were quite the bustling counterpart, having stumbled across more “dramatic” events such as a mass baptism, which she recalls as a moment that would momentarily transform the landscape.
Having taken five years to complete, for the first part of the journey Chloe thought she knew the river pretty well – especially as she’d grown up next to it. “How wrong I was! There’s no doubt that the increasing obsession with health and safety has had a big impact on the ritualistic behaviour,” she adds, “although perhaps more ancient practices are simply getting superseded by more modern ones, such as hand washing and phone checking!” London’s history is deep-rooted in the Thames, where objects and archaeological findings have long washed up on the shores, telling fascinating stories of a bygone time. It’s also a source of water, which equally connotes associations with religion and ideas of life and youth, where rituals of healing, shamanic purification and baptisms would make appearances. Despite the changes of modern society imparting itself on spiritual places like the Thames, Chloe has become witness to the still-flourishing secular rituals “in a country where the practice of organised religion is declining.”
A lot can happen over the course of five years, not only in terms of the river’s landscape but also on a more personal and political level, too. The biggest change was the “unbroken life of luxury flats” that now litter bank from Putney Bridge through to Vauxhall. “It’s a symbol of the grotesque way in which so much in the capital has become commodified, widening the gulf between rich and poor,” she says. “If you stand in the middle of Wandsworth bridge now, and turn 360 degrees to look over what would have been small working neighbourhoods of Fulham and Battersea, the contemporary view is nothing but blocks of homogenous, often vacant luxury flats on both sides of the river. It’s a horrifying sight!”
As such, Chloe’s 152-page book is a welcomed and more human approach to the face of the river. That’s why you’ll see snippets of the Summer Eights boat race, petals floating across the surface of the water after a deceased person’s ashes have been scattered, and a Pentecostal group baptism happening at Southend on Sea. It’s an alternative to the stereotypical views of the harshly modernised stretch of river, and an image should be held dearly – for humankind’s imprint on the natural world is one that’s forever increasing. Because in the future, what will be left of places such as the Thames?
Thames Log is co-published with the Martin Parr Foundation to accompany an exhibition of the series at the Foundation, Summer 2021.
GalleryChloe Dewe Mathews: Thames Log. Published by Loose Joints. (Copyright © Chloe Dewe Mathews, courtesy of Loose Joints 2021)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.