Inspired by the dense, mountainous region that stretches across parts of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma in the United States, photographer Matthew Genitempo created his series “Jasper” to address his fascination with running away from the everyday. The resulting photographs culminated in a thoughtful—at times dark—vision of life in the Ozarks. The men that Genitempo photographed for “Jasper” live in quiet solitude, surrounded by thick, snarled forest undergrowth and air hung heavy with mist.
LensCulture discovered this series when Sean O’Hagan, critic at the Guardian, chose it as his Juror’s Pick for our Emerging Talent Awards 2017. About Genitempo’s series, O’Hagan writes: “In photography, I am often looking for that sense of the mysterious or the ineffable that you find in poetry…Genitempo’s series has a sense of intimacy that only comes from patient engagement with a difficult, elusive subject: people who do not want to be found, never mind photographed. The work, though, does not feel intrusive. The use of black and white (and various gradations of grey) alongside the deft interplay of portraiture and landscape created a sustained atmosphere and a profound sense of place.”
Drawn to the remarkable images in this series, I chose to reach out to Genitempo in order to learn more about his experience creating “Jasper.” Below, the photographer speaks about photographing in this remote area and his own desire to escape the pressures and expectations of contemporary American society.
LensCulture: How did you first become interested in pursuing a series featuring these men? I know you shot the project for your thesis, but what about their particular type of “running away” drew you to them?
Matthew Genitempo: My interest in running away was hidden at first; I didn’t identify it until after multiple trips to the Ozarks. Largely, I share in their desire to run away. I felt connected to the allure of it all. That desire usually lies dormant, but I think it’s something we all feel—especially Americans. We’ve lost touch with our own humanity: we’re trying to keep up with everything, trying to fill societal expectations, and never quite fitting into roles we’ve been asked to assume.
And that’s only part of it. Our attention is being demanded all the time. It’s nearly impossible not to feel controlled by everything around us. It’s exhausting and only natural to want to take back control of our own lives.
The desire for autonomy is stronger than ever—it’s so palpable. For me, these men were such a straightforward example of freedom. I wanted to try and understand that.
LC: The men featured in your series have defined their lives through isolation. Do you have a personal connection to this region? Was it a challenge to ask them to open their lives to you?
MG: I ended up in the Ozarks by chance, but I was very familiar with the poetry of Frank Stanford, and his words had shaped my view of the place. They sort of set my expectations. The deeper love for the region came after months of spending time there.
As for asking the men for pictures—it was erratic. It really depended on the day. Some days I was more courageous than others, but I have a hunch that the view camera helped me get my foot in the door. The camera demands time and attention to detail, and I think that represented a dedication that most folks there understood. People recognized that I wasn’t just some guy with a camera screwing around.
LC: Can you talk about what your days looked like when you were shooting the project?
MG: My days were pretty unpredictable. Some days I would spend just driving, keeping an eye out for something worth making a picture of. Other days I would spend hours just visiting with folks. Those days seemed to be the most beneficial. Once people could get a grasp on what I was after, they would direct me to a productive spot that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
I constantly fought against my instinct to plan and arrange. I wanted to control things, but I had to learn to let every moment move me to the next. You have to lose your agenda, quiet your anxiety and discomfort and just follow along.
LC: I read in one of your other interviews that you envisioned “Jasper” as a book from the start. What about the book format appeals to you, and why do you feel that “Jasper” is best suited to that format?
MG: I think because I am such a believer in photobooks, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I think books are the best way to ingest photography. They’re finite. In galleries and museums, there are so many uncontrollable elements. With a book, the experience is loosely defined by the artist, and the rest is controlled by the viewer. It’s such a wonderful and personal exchange.
LC: Regardless of format, the portraits and the landscape shots in “Jasper” serve different purposes—can you articulate what you wanted to communicate to the viewer with each subject?
MG: When I look at the landscapes, I always think about a John Berger essay about Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film, People of the Po Valley. Berger describes the Po River as a recurring character in the film that is “unpredictable, always shifting, meandering and refusing norms.”
The landscapes in my series are a similar mechanism. The fog that runs throughout the work moves through and connects scenes—eventually it clears out to make room for the portraits and interiors, but nothing is made clear.
LC: The portraits are, of course, also critical. They’re so raw and intimate. How did you balance privacy and intimacy in your practice?
MG: I’d like to think that I’m very sensitive to different energies, so it all felt natural. It seemed pretty obvious to me when a line could potentially be crossed, and I stayed attuned to that. I respected the moments when I wasn’t welcome.
LC: What do you hope I (or any viewer) take away from the experience of looking at the series? Is there anything you hope the project communicates to its viewers?
MG: I don’t want to speak in place of the work, but I would hope that it would help us share the feelings that we all possess—to provide another path to empathy. I guess that’s the best I can hope for.
—Matthew Genitempo, interviewed by Coralie Kraft