When Quinta Scott ’63 began photographing the Mississippi River just before the Great Flood of 1993, she wasn’t quite sure where the project would take her.
But nearly two decades and thousands of photographs later, Scott has used the images to weave together the river’s history – from its formation to Hurricane Katrina – in her latest book, The Mississippi: A Visual Biography.
Her finished product is both visually appealing and educational. As readers sift through Scott’s 200 photos, they also read her research about how humans have affected and changed the river’s wetlands and what Americans are doing to restore them.
“It’s been 17 years since the ’93 flood and the damaged wetlands have recovered, though in some cases the wetlands needed help from foresters replacing dead trees,” she said.
Scott hopes Mississippi will help people rethink the way they look at floodplains. Though her book covers the entire river, much of it focuses on how human impact on the river over time contributed to the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
During the 2005 hurricane, levees failed in over 50 different places, putting 80 percent of the city under water. Some of the sudden collapses released highly pressured water that launched cars into trees and houses off their foundations.
“We need to change the way we live,” said Scott. “Where possible, and it’s not in New Orleans, there should be a minimal number of people living alongside levees or none at all.” She added that this is also a challenge along the floodplains in the alluvial valley and along the Upper Mississippi, because levees are so much a part of daily life.
In her book, Scott shows first how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers added to the problems all along the river, since they were responsible for levee design, but then illustrates how they’re working to restore the river and its wetlands.
Mississippi is a result of Scott’s lifelong fascination with the river. Now a resident of Waterloo, Ill., Scott said that she used to pretend to be a riverboat captain growing up in St. Louis, Mo.
“The river’s been in the back of my mind ever since I could pick up a camera,” she said.
Mississippi is Scott’s fifth book. Her previous books paid homage to Route 66, the Eads Bridge and St. Louis.
Howard S. Miller, who wrote and provided historical context for The Eads Bridge, said that unlike many photographers he’s worked with, Scott has a lot of “cultural savvy.”
“She is a serious photographer who also brings a historical, cultural and ecological sensitivity to her photos,” he said. “You don’t always see that.”
As Miller suggests, Scott constantly reads up on what she’s photographing. While taking photos for Mississippi, Scott carried a copy of Wetlands (Audubon Society Nature Guides) by one of her Connecticut College professors, William Niering. The book, which describes the flora and fauna of the wetlands, helped her identify tree species along the river.
“When I found black willow in Iowa and Louisiana, Niering would confirm that my observations were correct,” she said.
An art major at the College, Scott was also influenced by professors like Marguerite Hanson and William McCloy who challenged and convinced her that a career in art was possible.
To find out more about Scott, visit her Web site or check out her blog.