A Plain View is a new-ish body of large format photography from skateboarder cum actor cum photographer Jason Lee, shot over 3 months (25 days of shooting) on a 5000 mile tour of Texas. If information in Will Gillham’s Afterword, “On the other side of everywhere else,” is correct (and I have no reason to think it’s not), it looks like Lee started out at his home near Denton, took 287 northwest to 83 and wiggled around into Spearman, then south through Lubbock and Midland/Odessa and west to Van Horn, then Southeast to Victoria, and Northeast up to Liberty, TX, and then back up to Denton, sticking to small state highways and farm-to-market roads, exploring the small- and ghost-towns that dot the wide expanses of Texas.
I jumped in early on the Preorder, and scored a copy of the fancy slipcover hardback version, which included a print of one of my favorite shots from the series, one that I almost bought a print of when I visited his show at Artspace 111 last year. One of these days, I’ll probably have the print I received framed, even.
Now. I grew up in Northeast Tarrant County, between Fort Worth and Denton, and I’ve been to many of the places Lee photographed for A Plain View. The scenes are familiar to me: desolate landscapes; boarded-up motels and cafes; churches and adult theaters; simple, honest homes in various states of decay; railroads and liquor stores and largely abandoned main streets. Almost all of it looks sorta like home to me. There’s a sense of peace and simplicity, of honesty (in the sense of ‘no artifice,’ rather than the truth-telling or intellectual senses), timelessness. Some of these places have looked pretty much the same for my entire life, or for as long as I can remember, for 25 or 30 years, at least. And from listening to Lee talk about his process (in a recent video from Ilford and Exploredinary) he appreciates similar sorts of things in the Texas landscape.
The book is well printed, and this deluxe hardcover version is very fancy, with it’s slipcase and tipped-in photo on the cover. (I’ve seen pictures of the softcover version, and it looks fine.) Film Photographic (the Instagram community started by Lee and others) have done a great job with this, their first book. Lee’s photographs are presented at roughly 8×10, giving plenty of room to study the careful composition, and really dig into the details.
Over those 25 days on the road, Lee shot nearly 300 frames of expired Kodak film, and 117 of them are reproduced in the book. If I’m honest, a few of the included photographs maybe could’ve been cut. A few have some distracting motion blur (in particular, a large bush that takes up most of the center of the frame is blurred from wind motion) and in some instances, he could’ve stopped down a bit more and gotten the weeds in the foreground sharp along with the decaying buildings in the middle ground. Part of it, maybe is the 1941 Kodak Ektar lens he used on his Speed Graphic, but many images are sharp-enough from front to back, so I wonder why several are not. In some it works, adds to the nostalgic mood, but in others, it’s distracting, and I think he could’ve left out a few, maybe a dozen or two, and had a somewhat stronger edit.
But it’s Jason Lee’s book, not mine, and what do I know. Shoot. I share all kinds of poorly composed and even more poorly executed 4×5 shots. I made four exposures at my sister-in-law’s wedding, and I can’t bear to share any of them because I shot wide open, and the depth of field got the couple in focus fine, but left the cake and all in front of them blurred out, pretty much ruining the shots, in my opinion.
So what do I think of the book? Well, I’m a Jason Lee fan from way back in his skateboarding days, I loved the movies he did with Kevin Smith (but didn’t watch the Earl series), and I love what he’s doing for film photography, using his celebrity to promote this excellent hobby and medium. The book is a lovely object, that will sit happily on my shelf for awhile, and that I’ll probably pull out from time to time. Lee’s work is right in line with other work that I appreciate, from Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld and similar, with excellent composition of evocative landscapes and familiar locations. I really enjoyed the exhibition at Artspace 111, but the book honestly leaves me a bit flat.
Overall, A Plain View earns 3.5 stars.
Signed softcover copies ran a shocking $100 direct from Film Photographic and other fine retailers, and are completely sold out as of July 2020. But keep an eye out for exhibitions of his work. He had an exhibition of photographs of Oklahoma at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa scheduled from May 31-November 10, 2019 (and which ran concurrently with Larry Clark’s Tulsa) that was definitely worth the special trip I made to see it. And Lee has many more things scheduled well into the 2020s. It’s good to know that someone of Lee’s caliber is passionate about film an spreading the word, and I look forward to following his photographic career with somewhat more intensity than I did his film and television.