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Book review of Fluvial by Colin Pantall in PHmuseum.

Finding Yourself in the Water

The flow of rivers, the flow of life, the washing away of worry and care: that’s what you’ll find in Tito Mouraz’s beautiful photobook Fluvial, a story of the rivers across northern and central inland Portugal.


A body in water feels different. It is buoyant, it floats, the water in our bodies finding an equivalence with the lake, sea, or river we swim in. Fluvial is a book of that escape, photographed in the rivers of Portugal’s mountainous interior; it shows bodies swimming, floating, drifting and diving through snow-melt rivers.

It starts with a ladder, a step into another world and a sensory return to nature. Immersed in the river, the sound of water flowing over granite, the crackle of sand against rock come across in visual form. There are flashes of light, scatters of leaves, and the ripple of water over rocks.

There are many watery movements; the stillness of the current on a weir in the moments before it topples over the edge, the gentle touch of the wind on otherwise still water, the shadows of river dimples flickering on rocks below the surface. These are the silverine moments that we are immersed in when we go near natural bodies of water, moments that we understand intuitively, physically, emotionally, but have somehow forgotten how to articulate.

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane wrote about these natural moments, remembering the words that we have forgotten. There is a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”, or "sill" - that’s the glassy curve of water formed at the point where the water tips over the edge of a weir.

Mouraz photographs these moments and merges them with the experience of being in those free-flowing, fresh streams of snow-melt at the height of the Portuguese summer and beyond.

It’s escape and immersion. There’s a scene in the strange and brilliant film Border where the two main characters swim in a Swedish forest pond. These characters are different from the rest of us, they understand nature as something that is alive, something they are part of. And so they joyously swim in this forest pond, amidst the leaves, fecundity, the decay and they become part of it because they have always been part of it. All of us have and are part of that world.

That is one side of Fluvial and so we see bodies standing, swimming and floating in the clear, black (and sometimes murky) waters. It’s a cleansing, a rebirth, an escape, a return depending on who’s being photographed; the man deep in thought as he sits in the silty shallows, the woman clutching her puppy, the girl in the knotted blue bikini wiping the water out of her eyes.

But the rivers are also a playground, highland beach resorts of smooth granite and soft sand. So that side is shown through parked cards and a mass of children sitting on the beach, through picnics and play. Fluvial is a visual lexicon to the quicksilver moments of river life, moments that in our modern life we sometimes forget exist. It’s a photographically beautiful collection of images where water flows over rocks, where the natural and the geological bring a different imperative to our lives, where time moves with a different flow. 

It might also be also a memorial. Some of these rivers are snow-melt rivers (they have snow in Portugal, who knew?) but as winters get warmer so the snow stops. And as summers get hotter so the rains grow more infrequent and the rivers die. Many of Portugal’s rivers were reduced to a trickle in the drought of 2017. It won’t be the last time one feels.

Colin Pantall

+info: PHmuseum website