Who wants another coffee table book? Another big picture book to clutter things up? Well — we do, this one. It’s us, guys — where we live and breathe and do our everyday living, in central Illinois — along the Illinois River. In late 2005 David Zalaznik, a photographer for the Peoria Journal-Star, was invited by the Peoria Art Guild to participate in an exhibit about the Illinois River. He set off with his camera, and this stunning volume is the result.
I sometimes play a night game: I put aside my book, turn out the light, and then go over in my mind as much as I can remember about what I’ve just read. It’s an interesting way to court sleep by keeping at bay dailyness thoughts that might delay it. For several nights now I’ve put not words but pictures in my mind, Zalaznik’s superb photos. I first range over some of the many shots of peopled small town life on the river’s banks. They are often funny — bubble gum contests — but always striking, like the boatmen harvesting invasive Asian carp with nets, or sportsmen with bows and arrows as fish leap from the water.
I fasten on my favorites, the water itself in all its phases, winter ice to summer calm, and the myriad waterfowl that inhabit the banks, the waters and the skies. There are startling close-ups of bald eagles, a brooding great blue heron, swans with entangled necks, seemingly so near you can feel the down of their feathers. One shot of extraordinary beauty is of an intricate pattern of Canada geese crisscrossing a setting moon. Another captures a rower, far out at dawn, with the river and sky all golden. Another lights on a simple, weathered blue door, with water lapping its base. I fall asleep dreaming of thousands of ducks peppering a gray canvas sky.
As one pages slowly through, the photos are identified, a few explained. Pat Quinn, then lieutenant governor, begins the book with a brief and graceful history of the Illinois River, recounting its early days of Indian dwellers and European settlers, its descent into industrialization and pollution, and the current reclaiming of the river through such projects such as the state’s Illinois River Coordinating Council, the Nature Conservancy, Emiquon (the University of Illinois at Springfield is an active participant in this), and others.
The bookmaking is splendid. The juxtaposition of pictures makes turning each page a surprise; the variety is extensive. I did often wish for a map of the Illinois River — it could have gone on the end papers. Later I realized I missed Ratty and Moley: there must have been some animal wildlife in riverbank holes, snakes or turtles sleeping in the sun. I also regret no photo of Emiquon and the returning wetlands, for Emiquon was past its beginning stages when Zalaznik was roving the river.
But these are small carps against the grandeur of the whole. Both the photographer and the press have produced a work of love, and this is a book you’ll continue to be drawn to, irresistibly.
Jacqueline Jackson is books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and author of several award-winning children’s books.
Life Along the Illinois River, photographs and introduction by David Zalaznik, foreword by Pat Quinn. University of Illinois Press, 2009, 110 pp.