In moments of crisis, we seek relatable experiences, however bleak or frightening. Just take a look at the web: dystopian booklists from The New York Times, The Guardian, Goodreads. They’re everywhere. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Camus’ The Plague. Even Sophocles’ Oedipus—remember Thebes?
But the recurring theme in this disheartening catalog isn’t pandemic, not essentially. It’s nature—by which I mean nature’s endless subversion of pastoral fantasy. Though Defoe isn’t really my cup of tea, I too find myself pulling grittier depictions of the natural world off the shelf. Especially photobooks. Sleep Creek, in particular.
Published by Void in 2019, Sleep Creek takes us to Peaks Island, the most populated island in Casco Bay, Maine, though you wouldn’t know it from the photographs. And that’s due to an early decision made by photographers Dylan Hausthor and Paul Guilmoth, cofounders of Wilt Press, to abandon the idea of photographing the island as it is. In two excellent reviews of this book, Cat Lachowskyj and Brad Feuerhelm explain Hausthor’s and Guilmoth’s decision to create place rather than document it. The photographers share an interest in mythmaking, and in all myths worth their salt, the elemental takes on totemic dimensions. Humanity’s survival becomes a matter of celestial arbitration. Beasts, nightmarish in appearance, escape taxonomy. And somewhere in the wilderness, the underworld shares its fountain of mysteries with the earth. Maybe there’s a wide creek running between the two. Maybe there’s a ferryman to take you to the other side.
I’m excited to see photographers from parts of America other than the South take interest in landscape mythologies. Over the years, we’ve seen artists like Jack Spencer, Keith Carter, and Sally Mann capture that otherworldliness of oak moss, swamp, and church ruin so emblematic of the Gulf Coast. Recent interest in the Northeast by photographers like Paul Thulin (see Od’s review of Pine Tree Ballads) are breaking that Southern monopoly.
In Pine Tree Ballads, Thulin recreates childhood memories of summers spent in the Maine wilderness as a boy. Nostalgia is his muse. But this is where Thulin and the photographers of Sleep Creek part ways. Hausthor and Guilmoth did, in fact, grow up in New England, but nothing in the book appears wistful. There is no recherche du temps perdu. And though the word “myth” helps us talk about the terrifyingly disproportionate strength of darkness over light in these photographs, fact competes with fiction a little too insistently to let us forget we’re witnessing nature’s inevitable veto against bucolic make-believes.
There are other competing facts. The island’s colonial footprint, for example. As a point of contact between shore and ocean, Casco Bay has seen its fair share of historical unrest. Bloodshed between settlers and Native Americans features strongly in the annals of these islands, to say nothing of British skirmishes in the bay. And though Sleep Creek doesn’t retrieve that particular history, it does deconstruct the place that today’s vacationers might think they know. Insofar as myth is concerned, it’s in this sense: that what we see at Peaks Island—the ferry rides, the tourist industry, etc.—may be real, but it’s not the truth. Sleep Creek rends the veil. It shows the underlying world (the underworld?) that was always there and that will always be there. But that world is nature, not Tartarus. The achievement of this book, in my opinion, lies in its “negative capability.” John Keats, who coined the phrase, was thinking about the poetic value of uncertainty, how art sometimes leaves its contradictions unresolved, as Hausthor and Guilmoth do. Myth/not-myth.
Case in point: on the book’s forest green cover, a goat stamped in gold stares directly at you, the reader, below a scattering of golden dots. A constellation, maybe. A reminder, fixed in the heavens, that “wherever the earth is crag and scrub, the goats are there.” Goats scavenge the wastes. Their rectangular pupils have evolved to scan a wide, horizontal plain of would-be predators. Capricornus/ungulate. Myth/not-myth. On the back of the book, a medieval French woodcut of “Envy,” one of the seven deadly sins, flails with emaciated men and women. They are doomed to an eternity of freezing waters. We’ll see variations of this torture in Hausthor’s and Guilmoth’s photographs: deer, lifeless in the ice; a foot, frostbitten at the toes. No need to recast the natural as supernatural. The elements are distressing enough: fire, water, nature’s tree-breaking brutality.
Among the fascinating continuities in Sleep Creek is a tendency to see as the goat sees. Surely, from that perspective, the human must seem a strange creature: a wandering biped, furless, exposed. She passes by the camera as if being studied, like one of Stephen Gill’s nocturnal portraits in Night Procession. She has no shining eye, however, no tapetum lucidum. She’s not like the goat. Not like other animals in the night. There’s something haunting about that fact. Something slightly deranged.
Everything else crawls, slithers, or moves one hoof beside the other. But what aspires upward gets leveled. The tree topples. The man topples. What tries to go faster than the creek gets wrecked. A car flipped on its side is the last vestige of the vacationer’s paradise. A woman (the car’s driver?) floats on her back, downcreek, somnambulant—an illustration, perhaps, of the book’s title.
This bending of human will to nature’s level constitutes a kind of trope in Sleep Creek. There are other tropes. Tunnels (expect no light at the end) open in the undergrowth. Strange loops repeat the tunnel’s circularity. A spider, for instance, fashions a dangerous, silk dreamcatcher out of a flexible twig.
Then there’s fire, that divisive element, pioneering and apocalyptic, contradiction in its finest apparel. In one image, a square crate on the beach roars with flames: verdict against unnatural geometries or analog to the burning bush? In another photograph, fire dances on a ring of gasoline—another enigmatic loop. And then there’s the woman with burning hair, which ends the paradox, doesn’t it? No more myth. Just emergency.
Jack London wrote a short story, early in the twentieth century, that used to be required reading for most high school students. In “To Build a Fire,” a nameless man and a dog cross the frozen Yukon wilderness on foot. Skip to the end: the dog survives, the man does not. But that’s not what the story really wants us to see. The Yukon isn’t the antagonist personified. It’s not out to destroy the trespassing human. It’s just nature. Suffering is not unusual in that icy wasteland, but neither is it a foregone conclusion. What the man in London’s story realizes too late is that fear, in the wilderness, isn’t a weakness. It’s reverence.
Sleep Creek leans toward a similar narrative. “Reverence” may not be the right word, exactly. But if, as Joseph Campbell once said, it is “the business of mythology proper to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy,” Sleep Creek reveres the business of mythology enough to affirm its patterns. Comedy, in its classic sense, offers its audience a momentary reprieve from the great, ongoing falling-apart of things. Hausthor and Guilmoth do the same. For every image of cold austerity, there’s another one of gentle breath, gentle embrace. A man exhales warmth across the petals of a frozen flower. A couple, their arms and legs intertwined, enjoy themselves in the grass. And in one of the final images, a female goat gives birth, defying the dark days still to come.
Topping dozens of recommendation lists in 2019, Sleep Creek doesn’t need my endorsement, which it obviously has. But I’m happy to nudge it toward those who might have missed the hype and to applaud the design team at Void as well on another very fine publication.