Retelling the Legend of an 18th Century Recluse

Composed as a fragmented narrative, Amani Willett’s latest photobook explores the peculiar and mysterious tale of a reclusive man who once resided on the land his family now owns.

© Amani Willett, spread from the book, The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer

In the 1700’s, a man turned off by modernity decided to step away from society and to live alone in a New Hampshire forest – a choice he complied with for 69 years. Present in everyone’s gab, Joseph Plummer would become known as “The Hermit”, turned into a legend by the 400 inhabitants of the town he left behind.

Very little is certain about him, but they nonetheless named the surroundings after him and made a lot of assumptions about his life, from his love failures to his occasional outbursts of anger and other mania. They even gathered his ephemera at the local historical society. To photographer Amani Willett, whose family owns a cabin nearby, he simply became Joseph.

© Amani Willett, spread from the book, The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer

“I was interested in the actual man behind the legend. The appealing thing to me was that very little and sometimes contradictory information was available about him”, Willett explains. In a book recently published by Overlapse, he combines archival material and his own photographs, the results of his own quest for Joseph Plummer. “My approach was similar to an investigation, piecing together his life trying to find him”, he adds. A puzzle made of vintage portraits, engraved landscapes, testimonies, note books, annotated books, photographs and manipulated photographs - the book offers a timeless narrative whose hero remains anonymous – is he Joseph Plummer, Willett’s dad, who leads a life close to nature, Willett himself, or all of them?

© Amani Willett, spread from the book, The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer

“While searching and editing from Brooklyn, where I live, I had plenty of time and I started to play with things”, Willett says. His interventions include the scratching, erasing and sawing of some of the visual material, making it difficult to date – is it Plummer’s diary or Willett’s dad’s notes that we try to decipher on a paper turned brown with time? Is it Plummer’s face or another’s whose lines have evaporated under Willett’s action, creating a portrait of a figure that doesn’t exist other than as a myth?

“It was a way to bring my own physical presence into the story”, he explains “but also to respect Joseph’s desire of going to the woods to become anonymous. I never got to see him and I wanted to keep it that way. More than a portrait of him, it became about the human need for that kind of space.” And so the investigation remains blurry, keeping us wondering, as Willett wrote by erasing most of the words from a novel’s page that he inserted in his book, “where an old man had a path”, filling the woods with his presence in various forms centuries after his death.

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The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer by Amani Willett

Hardcover, 22 x 17 cm portrait // 136 pages

Section-sewn binding; interior tip-ins; gold foil deboss on cover + spine

50 colour and 28 black and white photographs

Publication: 1 October 2017 // ISBN: 9780994791931 // $50 | £35 | €40

BUY HERE

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Amani Willett lives and works in New York. His photography is driven by conceptual ideas surrounding family, history, memory, and the social environment.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

PHM 2018 Women Photographers Grant
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