Matthew Genitempo’s Jasper was, I believe, the January 2019 photobook-of-the-month selection from the Charcoal Book Club.* It was beautifully printed and lovingly published by Twin Palms, and is a really beautiful portrait of a really beautiful place.
Looking through Jasper again for this review, I was sure the photographs were of Appalachia. Most photobooks of this type—rugged people in lush, remote mountain regions—so often take place there, or so it seems to me. So imagine my surprise when I found the note on the title page at the end, where Genitempo thanks “…my dear friends in the Ozarks.”
My mom and an aunt and uncle live in the Ozarks, in or near Eureka Springs, AR. My aunt moved there in the early 1980s; my grandparents retired there for a few years in the late 1980s, but the lack of services (the nearest full-service hospital is an hour away) drove them back to DFW. And my mom moved there full time in 2013.
So I have some rather intimate familiarity with the Ozarks, or at least the little bit of the part that extends down into Northwest Arkansas. I have fond memories of running trot lines with Granddad, catching sun perch off the dock and Grandmom frying them up with eggs and toast for breakfast. One winter, most of the family was snowed in at Christmastime and my uncle and I tied ourselves together with a length of rope and climbed down the mountain to explore a cave. Afterwords, or the night before, we went caroling in the remote neighborhood and one of the neighbors, a fun older guy named Rollie (or Rolly or Rolli or somesuch) came out in his bib overalls and played Rudolph or something on his trumpet.
My family experience there was one of leisure, more or less. Sure, I knew my aunt and uncle struggled quite a bit, working multiple food service jobs, taking odd jobs and running side gigs before that was a thing. But my grandparents were retired, and I was there as a child on summer vacation.
Just down the hill, or maybe on the next mountain over, there was a place called Hog Scald, a group of strange divots in the smooth rock of a stream bed, where hog farmers would dunk their stock in boiling water to make removing the tough bristly hair easier. Just past that was/is a spot overlooking the lake where young people would go to jump off the 40 or 50 foot drop into the water, flipping and spinning and laughing. From the top, it looked incredibly high and with my slight fear of heights, I couldn’t imagine; but from down on the water, floating by in a boat, it just looked like fun.
In between hog scald and the leap, or maybe just after the leap, there was a small shack, four plywood walls and a plywood roof with a bit of tar paper. I think it was just one room back in the 80s. Over time, it expanded, and the last time I was by there with Mom and some of her sisters, there were three or four rooms, a cistern, some beat up old cars, and a red and yellow child’s plastic slide.
So my family and experience in the Ozarks has largely been one of rather extreme privilege, and despite our very working class background (Granddad was a public school teacher, coach, and, much later, administrator; Grandmom worked with disadvantaged people at the local junior college… so maybe not working working class, but definitely not part of the leisure set, not from any sort of wealth). Other people that live there, especially people who were born and grew up there, people who go there to escape, disappear, be alone, live very different lives.
As an adult, my fondness for the place has dimmed considerably, and I’m left only with nostalgia.
In 2013, I converted to Islam and married a marvelous woman, the darling, adorable, Hanabibti. That’s her to the right, trying to blend in while still remaining covered down in Kerrville, TX, another beautiful place that holds some wonderful memories. Yes, she’s brown. She was born in Bangladesh. She tends to wear hijab in public.
I didn’t have much money at the time—still don’t really, but we get by ok—and Mom loaned us her house in Eureka Springs for a honeymoon. Lovely, right?
And it was, most of the time, lounging around the deck, taking drives through the mountains. But when we had to interact with the people, I saw for the first time their true, racist, bigoted, colors, and I haven’t spent a single penny in the county since.
It’s a shame, really. The people there need money. But I guess they need to hate even more. Anyway.
It’s my own fault, really. Had I paid any attention as a child or young adult, I would’ve noticed just how white Northwest Arkansas is. I mean, it’s white. There is a decent Latinex population that mostly works in the Tyson plants that seem to pop up in nearly every city of any size, but they’re largely invisible and the only circles where my aunt and uncle (or my grandparents, for that matter) encounter people with different skin tones is at the Walmart, or maybe if they go to one of the many Mexican food restaurants around.
Eureka Springs is in Carroll County, up on the Missouri border. Just to the east is Boone County, where the Ku Klux Klan has it’s national headquarters. According to Mom, one of the counties up there surrendered the Civil War… in the 1980s.**
It, like Kerrville, TX, is not a place that welcomes muslims or mixed-race couples.
As a white man, I was blind to this, and shame on me.
Anyway. What does this all have to do with Jasper?
Well, it’s just to say that I’m deeply familiar with the country, and I recognize the fog-shrouded hills; the rain-splattered windshields, spiderwebbed, with dirt tracks snaking through the forest stretching over the next hill; the forest shacks, the cluttered interiors, the obsessive collecting of junk that in my mind points to long term drug psychosis.
Genitempo says the book was “inspired by the life and work of the poet and land surveyor Frank Stanford,” someone I had never heard of. Stanford was born in Mississippi, but spent some of his brief life in the Ozarks. Wikipedia has him as one of the best, largely unknown, poets of the 20th Century, with most of his work only appearing in small chapbooks during his lifetime. (A collected poems volume came out a couple of years ago.) Given his day job as an unlicensed land surveyor and the little bit I learned about his life and work, I can imagine the links to the men and woman that populate Japser.
The publisher’s blurb reads, in part
By capturing the foggy landscapes, cluttered interiors, and rugged men that are tucked away in the dark woods, Jasper explores a fascination with running away from the everyday. The work bounces between fact and fiction, exhibiting the reality and myth of what it means to be truly apart from society.ttps://twinpalms.com/books-artists/jasper/
and I think they hit the nail on the head. Usually, publisher’s blurbs leave me a bit cold. I don’t really get the same things that they see. But this is spot on, or nearly so.
The one thing they (and most other reviewers) leave out is just how white this fantasy of living apart from society is. The only non-white faces in Jasper belong to dogs and deer, and I expect that’s just how these people like it. I don’t begrudge them. After 7 years as the only Caucasian in a neighborhood populated by South Asians and Arabs, going days or weeks without encountering anyone with my cultural background, I get a bit edgy. At the same time, I get really uncomfortable in places where there are only white folks, and with good reason since the reception they often give my darling, adorable wife and I.
Jasper is a pretty great book, really. I don’t know what I can really say about any of the pictures themselves. The printing and binding and overall finish of the book is fantastic, and any photobook that can dredge up so much emotion from me with so little just has to be great.
Overall, I give Jasper a rare 5 stars.
Jasper remains available direct from Twin Palms and you can view a selection of photographs at Genitempo’s website. If you’re interested in solid black & white photography and photographs that suggest volumes, then look no further. This is really some excellent work.
*Yes, I’m that far behind, further in fact…
** I was unable to verify this, but I don’t doubt it.