Photobook Review: Matthew Genitempo’s Walk in the Woods

Jasper is a book about the romance of the wilderness, about the realities of escape, of how to find oneself and lose oneself in the backwoods of America.

© Matthew Genitempo, spread from the book, Jasper

… this is not a story of ruin for ruin has no ghosts it is a story that ends with a waterfall deepening like two closed eyes in the throes of loss or bliss it crawls lush of alone beneath where gathered mist cascades sycamore leaves like divine decrees passed down through the ranks of angels it turns back toward the bark we are born of & becomes the doorknob of every house which falls out & rolls half circles on the floor with the sound of a knifeblade being sharpened (from Untitled by Ryan Paradiso)

Jasper begins with a poem made of words and it continues with a poem made of pictures; a visual exploration of an escape from a world engineered for neurosis, sadness and ill-content.

The first three images set the mood; a Steichen-like landscape where wisps of mists slither over soft charcoal hillsides - a man in a raincoat, collar turned up, hands clutching his collar, back hunched, strands of hair falling from a bald spot, his huge back moving across the frame begging the question of who, where, when and why has he found himself in this place. And then the place, a forest clearing, pines rising over a scrubby undergrowth, a primaeval land where mist conceals the world, softens the world, dampens the world.

© Matthew Genitempo, spread from the book, Jasper

It’s a poetic book then, a book about the land (the American land – it’s photographed in the Ozark Mountains) and the people who live there. They go to escape the harshness of the urban world, to escape their friends or their family, or sometimes simply to try to escape themselves in the hope that through their forest sojourn they will leave their demons behind.

It doesn’t work like that. Through a mix of portraits, landscapes and interiors, Jasper weaves us through the interior. There are no words, but there is a narrative, a strong narrative which melds the poetic with the emotional, folding the quiet dynamism of the portraits into the sinkholes of the grays and blacks of the hillsides.

Genitempo made these images through the lens of his own experience, making “instinctual pictures” with “an internal necessity to them.” It wasn’t a perfectly laid out project in other words, the images evolved, and Genitempo evolved as he travelled through the Ozarks. This is almost tangible in the images that have a life of their own and are not pinned down by the artifices either of a photographic persona, the photobook or (worst of all) a burgeoning art practice. The images have room to breathe and so flow from the page, from one mood to another.

© Matthew Genitempo, spread from the book, Jasper

So the story arcs from soft to hard, eddying from the romantic to the real. There is space for the poetry of Frank Stanford (a major influence on Genitempo) to creep in, for the histories of the American landscape and the romantic ideas of liberation and escape in that landscape to creep in. But at the same time there’s a darker edge, a Gothic subtext that merges with the backwoods horrors of George Romero or Sam Raimi.

An image taken through a trailer window, out-of-focus drips and smudges blurring the picture, shows the figure of monkey-man-dog scraping at the ground, a creature out of Edgar Allan Poe, a creature that you would lock your doors to of an evening in the woods, in the dark, all alone.

Doors are locked. There’s an axe flitted across an outside trailer door. Whether it’s to keep something out or keep something in, we don’t know. There are scarred, worn-out hands emerging from tattered, worn out sleeves, and a chaos of interiors that hint at stalled and troubled lives.

© Matthew Genitempo, spread from the book, Jasper

There is also beauty within those lives. Pages from a notebook show birds sketched with patience and love, a knife carves dirt from grimy nails, an image of care and self-comfort, and there are faces that have a kind of peace and tenderness about them.

Jasper is a book where the romance of the land and the harshness of life meet on uncoated pages that let the charcoals and black sink into the oversized pages. And sink in they do, but they rise up as soon as you look at them: the passions and emotions contained within them drawing you into the worlds that Genitempo has created. The people in Jasper are not separate from the land they have chosen to live in - they are part of it. And as soon as you open the book, the same thing happens to the viewer. It’s a book we become part of.

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Jasper by Matthew Genitempo

Published by Twin Palms Publishers in September 2018

51 tritone plates printed on uncoated paper // Clothbound hardcover with raw paper dust jacket

96 pages // 26.5 x 33 cm // First Edition, signed: $95

BUY NOW

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Matthew Genitempo is an American photographer and book publisher currently living and working in West Texas. In 2018 he was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award and he received the Medium Festival of Photography Scholarship. He is represented by The Kominek Gallery, Berlin. Follow him on Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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