January 22, 2018 FotoFilmic

A recent University of Hartford MFA graduate, Matthew Genitempo lives and works in Marfa, a small desert city in west texas also known for its very active artistic life. The project presented here took Matthew to another small town named ‘Jasper’, this time nestled in the Ozark mountains of northern Arkansas, about an hour south of the Missouri border. Matthew spent time there between 2015 and 2017 during his MFA studies. The resulting homonymus series ‘Jasper’ takes the viewer on an escape from everyday life by following that of a few men living there by choice.

Matthew’s deeply evocative, yet highly detailed black-and-white images conjure up a different sense of time and being, inseparable it seems from the formidable geological presence of the old mountains. The shining stillness and quiet beauty emanating from Matthew’s portraits and landscapes work in worthwhile contrast to the slightly deranged, hyperstate of constant frenziness required today, reminding us of how simpler and truer everything can and perhaps should be.

Looking at Matt’s work ‘documentary poetics’ comes to mind: people and places reveal themselves with a joyous nudity, suspended in time, wholly present. Matt seems to photograph a reality filled with both existential plenitude and accepted nostalgia, a present of the past stepped out of time in glimmering shadows, a philosophical chiaroscuro. His ascetic photography both enchants and clouds our certitude. What if this could really be something else? Another choice, another life? What if we were the ones having stepped out long ago?

Ahead of the SOLO III Exhibition running July 21 – August 19, 2018 at FotoFilmic’s PULP gallery, we’ve reach out to Matthew to ask him a few questions on his series ‘Jasper’, as well as regarding his photographic practice in general.

FotoFilmic: First off, congratulations again! As juror Mark Steinmetz did, we too fell pretty hard for this hauntingly beautiful and mesmerizing series and are really delighted to have the opportunity to bring more attention to it. Steinmetz is often viewed as a “photographers’ photographer”, i.e. amongst the most respected photographers working today: how does it feel having your work publicly endorsed by someone as influential as him? And how much did Mark contribute to the shaping of your own photographic voice?

Matthew Genitempo: Thank you! I really appreciate the opportunity and I’m touched you all felt so deeply about the work. I’m not exactly sure how long I’ve admired Mark’s photographs, but I recall seeing them years ago when I first dove into photography. I used to go on these binges, spending hours looking at various photographer’s work on the internet.

I think this is part of the standard discovery process when one develops an infatuation with photography. A friend sent me a link to his website and I recall being overwhelmed by the amount of strong images. Since then his pictures have had hold on me that I’m not sure I will ever shake, or ever want to shake. Having a leading light like Mark champion the work was surreal, to say the least.

F/F: In his comments Mark qualified your Jasper photographs as ‘highly descriptive, yet mysterious’. I’m interested in this apparent paradox, having images whose presentation remain documentary at heart while infusing a deeper narrative in their sequencing of large, moody landscapes with intimate portraits and revelatory closeups: is this tension between storytelling and description, between visual clarity and immanential feeling an important aspect of your work in general?

MG: I’ve always been intrigued by that paradox but I think it became an especially important interest when I was making Jasper. Fog looms large in the Ozarks. It’s density is so great at times that the roads become unnavigable. Because of the fog, the moody and indistinct landscapes are unavoidable. The view is always unpredictable. The light is constantly changing and the scenery is shifting every second. The capricious landscape became a chief character in Jasper. I didn’t choose this. The land inserted itself into the work and pushed itself into a leading role. Once I submitted to that, I shifted my attitude about the pictures. From then on when I made landscape photographs I had the same attitude Sally Mann had when making her Southern Landscapes. Mann says, “…and to whatever extent photographs can reveal the dark mysteries of a haunted landscape, I set out to make them.”

The fog creates an anxiety between the portraits and interiors. There’s a curiosity as to what is hidden by the fog and once the fog clears maybe we will be granted some clarity. Even though all of the facts are presented in unmistakable detail in some of pictures, they don’t provide answers. Even when you’re liberated from the fog, the answers are nowhere to be found.

F/F: Speaking of which, can you tell us a little more about the story behind the story, how Jasper came into the picture and how the project took root there? Also are you still visiting there, and what is your relationship today to the individuals you photographed?

MG: I was working on a project in the American South West and I was traveling a lot. As much as I wanted it to, it just wasn’t working out. It was too difficult to travel, make pictures and keep up with school. I decided it was probably best to make work closer to where I lived. I was living in Austin Texas at the time and I started making pictures in a forest called The Lost Pines about 20 miles south of where I lived. This is a special place. It’s considered a “pine island.” It’s a disjunct belt of pine trees that is separated by over 100 miles from the Piney Woods region that runs through east Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. I started making pictures there and then I began exploring other pine islands in the Piney Woods archipelago and eventually ended up in the Ozarks of western Arkansas. When I got to the Jasper area, everything just felt right. It was overgrown, dense with this incredible fog and the mountains were mottled with small homesteads. I was completely mystified. At the time I was also entranced by the poems of Frank Stanford, an Ozark poet and land surveyor, and that added another layer of mystique.

From there, one thing led to another. I would meet someone, let them know what I was doing, they would help me out, and then point me in the next direction. I didn’t fight it. They were my guides. They’re all isolated from one another but they’re all oddly connected. There are people living out there that can only be found by word of mouth. I had to cultivate relationships and build trust. I haven’t visited since I finished Jasper, but I’m still in contact with a few folks from the area. Personally, it was a really difficult time, but I miss it. I think about them quite often.

F/F: Jasper takes us in a remote, rural setting in the middle of the country, and you yourself live in small Texas town and community: do I sense a pattern here? 😉 More seriously, your photography acts as a wonderful and very welcome escape from what constitutes daily reality for the majority of us out there: the ever so ubiquitous picture of suburban life populated with cars, malls, peripheral nature and career objectives. ‘Jasper’ frees us of the Average and invites in a different perspective: how important is escapism to you and your photography?

MG: I didn’t recognize the fascination at first. I was just going to the Ozarks every other week and making pictures because I loved it and it honest. Once it became apparent what I was doing, I realized the importance of autonomy. I’m certainly attracted to the idea of vanishing. I think everyone falls on that spectrum somewhere, whether it’s moving out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere or disappearing amongst thousands in a big city.

F/F: ‘Jasper’ has been entirely shot on large format black-and-white film, a demanding practice that requires careful planning and execution. The more obstrusive presence of the camera and its tidier capture process often yield photographers to adopting a more directorial style of interaction with their subjects, however none of your portraits feel remotely staged. And those that carry a certain gravitas and depth don’t feel forced onto their sitters either: can you elaborate a bit on your practice, i.e. how you manage to achieve such seemingly fluid and natural photographs?

MG: Shooting with the view camera was crucial to the process. Ever since I can remember I’ve had a fascination with societal outliers and making pictures of people like that requires a lot of time getting to know your subjects. The slow and careful operation of making pictures with the view camera really helps facilitate that.

When I was making the portraits in Jasper, I was usually spending hours at a time with the men. The camera was set up in the room from the very beginning. Sure, a view camera is a large presence at first, but after a while you start to forget about it.

It becomes just another piece of furniture and making a picture wasn’t a big production. Disappearing behind the dark cloth was just part of hanging out.

F:F: What about your choice of working in black-and-white? Nowadays one sees an overwhelming majority of photographers working in color, especially in the documentary arena. I’ll however easily admit that (even more so in today’s digital photography context) large format black-and-white film definitely lends your work a rare analytical, almost pensive quality with – just like Steinmetz’s – lyrical accents that I don’t believe would translate as well with say color (film or digital). What is your view on black-and-white photography, and do you also ever work in color?

MG: I worked in color for years up until I started making Jasper and I’ll admit, at first I started working in black and white because I wanted to make less decisions. I wanted to restrict myself and work within those limits. Maybe it was just dumb luck but ultimately I think it was one of the best choices for the work. Removing color from this world aids viewers in escaping reality and never grounds one in a specific time and place. Color adds another complex element that might have distracted from that.

F/F: Same with digital: as just discussed your photographic practice is rooted in the analogue film medium, what is your relationship to digital photography today?

MG: I have nothing against digital photography. I use my iPhone all the time, but I’m just terrible at selecting photographs. There’s not really a financial consequence when you make a thousand digital photographs of the same thing and when I tried shooting digital, I would do that. Determining the right frame from there was nearly impossible.

I also love the aspect of waiting for the film to be processed. The time between when the photograph was made and when you actually get to see it is important to me. You can’t remember the setting in which you made the picture as well. Removing yourself from the context is helpful. You’re able to make sequencing and editing choices much easier.

You’re not as attached to the moment and you can pay attention to what’s in the picture.

F/F: What’s next for you? Any other projects already brewing, and any chance to see ‘Jasper’ in book form anytime soon?

MG: I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Since I’ve moved out West, I’ve started making pictures here. It’s really beautiful out here and it’s easy to get out and make pictures.

Living here has changed my relationship with the land and I hope that will result in new pictures. I am still fascinated with escapism and autonomy, so I will just have to wait and see how these interests show up in my photographs. Also, there is a good chance you will see Jasper in book form… hopefully soon.

IG: @genitempo

Published on January 23rd, 2018.