There is a strange and perplexing photograph in Curran Hatleberg’s photobook, River’s Dream (TBW, 2022), which shows a man with a large swarm of bees attached to his face and body. The image is bewildering. The man is sitting down in a chair, with no protective gear, and his eyes are closed. His hands are raised as if he were clearing away the bees from his eyes. The bees encircle him, creating an almost otherworldly scene as if they were testing his body to serve as a new hive. In a previous image from the sequence, the same man stands beside the beehive, again, with no protective gear. This time, his eyes are open, and he directs his gaze toward the camera, almost caressing the bees as though they were his beard. There is a serene confidence in his look as if the swarm was part of his person, like some monstrous appendage. These two photographs are found early in the sequence of River’s Dream. Much like his double portrait of the bee man, the book contains beguiling images shot in the American South, compiled on front and back stoops, in the swamps, along country roads, and amidst the auto-wrecking yards of the region.
Over the past decade, Hatleberg has made two extraordinary photobooks, Lost Coast (2016) and River’s Dream (2022). Photographs for Lost Coast were shot in Eureka, California, in Humboldt County over a year while Hatleberg worked as an instructor in the College of Redwoods Art Department. The photographs for River’s Dream were made over a longer span of time, between 2010 and 2020, across the American South, particularly Northern Florida, after repeated visits to the state.
One of the hardest things a photographer can do is ask a stranger if they can take their photograph. The request can feel like an intrusion, an invasion into the subject’s personal space, raising questions about the photographer’s motives and intentions — “You take my photograph, and then do what with it?”
The exchange between two strangers can feel decidedly one-sided, leading to a general sense of unease between the photographer and the photographic subject. This uncertainty often fuels skepticism toward the practice, with critics voicing a deep-seated distrust of images and photographic portraiture. There is certainly validity to this complaint, with a long history of images being used in situations not of the subject’s choosing. However, in the contemporary moment, there is a renewed desire between critics, practitioners, and viewers to rethink the encounter, reimagining the limits and potentials of what images can do, but also reviving the space of portraiture as a complicated site of negotiation, refusal, affirmation, consent, vulnerability, and mutual exchange. 1
Curran Hatleberg’s photography resides in this vexed and complicated space. When he asks to take another’s portrait, more often than not, people say no. When they say yes, it is often because they wish to share something, or they, too, are looking for something undefined.2 It is a vision shared.
In a conversation with Sasha Wolf for the book, Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice (2019), Hatleberg describes how much his work relies on personal connection, spending time with people and places not known to him, not knowing what will happen from one moment to the next:
Human beings have the shocking ability to be entirely predictable one minute and completely surprising the next. I remember a woman who invited me to stay with her for a few nights. “It’s dangerous out there,” she warned. She was an incredible cook and fed me like I was her son. One night we ate spaghetti on paper plates in front of the TV. When a strong wind blasted into the room, she fired a pistol out the door into the night. I didn’t even know she had a gun. She never mentioned it. One of the shots missed the open door and left a ragged hole in the wood paneling. She rocked out of her recliner as if nothing had happened. Smiling, she warmly insisted I have seconds. I believe photographing people forces an interest in lives other than our own, allowing an opportunity to see ourselves reflected in someone else. Biases, judgments, and stereotypes fall away in the face of vivid experience.
This condition of not knowing is what makes Hatleberg’s images feel so alive. Oddly enough, his anecdote seems like an apt description of the experience of viewing his work: encountering his photographs can be like a sudden pistol shot in the dead of night or the comforting warmth of a bowl of spaghetti, or perhaps some strange and incongruous mix of the two.
Hatleberg initiated his work on River’s Dream in response to the mysterious death of one of his friends in Florida. Though none of these details are touched on in the book, there is still a sense that disaster and decline structure his images. Moving through the sequence, you feel as though you are drifting through the wake of the minor and major disasters of the South: wrecked cars, ruined houses, empty storefronts, the skeletons of crocodiles, rubble, and wreckage. There is even a pauper’s funeral in a sprawling auto yard.
The landscape is a world inundated with water. Akin to this flooded feeling, looking at Hatleberg’s photographs can sometimes feel unmoored, anchorless, as though you are lying down in a stream, closing your eyes to the world, without thinking of where the river will take you. Hatleberg’s moment is a moment of daydream and reverie.
The disaster that his camera chronicles is both natural and social. It is the disaster of periodic hurricanes and floods and the disaster of a negligent economic order. This is not the South of manicured lawns, cultivated golf courses, well-off retirement homes, or other sites and spaces of leisure and luxury. Hatleberg’s South is the other South–it is the South of the forgotten country road, the secret swimming spot, the front porch stoop, the overgrown cemetery, the dominoes table, and the beekeeper’s hive.
This other South resonates with a distinctive time signature, one marked by a rhythm that is neither hurried nor predictable. It’s a place where life unfolds at its own pace, in sync with the ebb and flow of a long summer’s day. Hatleberg repeatedly visited the region in the middle of summer when the humidity was unbearable as a way to be in tune with the region, to dial into its distinct frequency, to allow the place to soak through his skin.
“The heat forces people to be outdoors,” he recalls in an interview with the writer Luca Fiore. “And the photo opportunities are endless. People go out on the streets just to walk, letting themselves go out into the world without any planned thoughts. In those temperatures, you take off your shirts, your skin is laid bare. Crime increases. Waves of moisture wash over the landscape, driving weeds out of the concrete.”3
In a short essay published in the back of River’s Dream, the writer Joy Williams notes how Hatleberg works in the space of aftermath.4 This is a perceptive analysis. But one should ask — the aftermath of what?
Hatleberg’s camera is adept at chronicling the ‘what’ of a disaster, but it is less clear on the ‘why,’ or the ‘how.’ A photograph of a wreckage is not a social reading of that wreckage. Interpretation of that wreckage always comes later.
Reading Hatleberg’s sequence is like waking from a dream, with only scraps and fragments of a narrative that remain elusive. There are beautiful moments — fireworks on a community lawn, a brilliant sunset, a praying mantis attached to a woman’s hand — but these moments are fleeting, obscure, enigmatic. Hatleberg’s photographs are not symbols or ciphers of a psychological condition or the psychic state of the photographer. What these images add up to is anyone’s guess.
The ethereal nature of Hatleberg’s photographs can also be found in his debut photobook, Lost Coast (2016). Set in Humboldt County, California, Hatleberg has noted the striking resemblance of this region to the edge of the world, where the turbulent Pacific Ocean meets its black sandy shores, and ancient redwood forests sprawl down from the mountains in all directions. All of this coexists with a town experiencing industrial decline, creating a unique combination that can conjure an almost otherworldly, hallucinatory experience. Whatever makes up this vision, whether it is the ravine at the side of the road or beach cave covered with teenage graffiti, it is all strangely unfamiliar, forgotten.
Hatleberg never focuses on this landscape in isolation. He is not interested in the sublime as such, but in how the landscape operates as an unassuming backdrop to his portraits. Visitors to Humboldt County may perceive Hatleberg’s photographs as subdued, perhaps even incongruous with the place itself. Ultimately, they do not serve as a faithful reportage of the natural world, but rather as a complex fusion of industry and nature, often filtered through the lens of portraiture.
Hatleberg has described how Humbolt County is like a place of no return. A region that he felt like he could get lost in, or just disappear and no one would notice, and many of the people he photographed did just that. They left town without a trace, without anyone noticing.
Hatleberg’s photographs from Lost Coast were included in But Still, It Turns (February 4, 2021 – August 15, 2021), held at the International Center for Photography and curated by Paul Graham. The exhibition featured the work of eight photographers Graham admired who worked in a direct photographic mode that took the “world-as-it-is,” as he called it.5 Graham planned the exhibition before the Covid-19 pandemic, but his essay for the show and the dates of its exhibition just so happened to occur at the height of the pandemic.
Graham’s title for the exhibition derived from what the astronomer Galileo Galilei apparently uttered under his breath as he exited his inquisition just after being forced to renounce his observation that the earth rotated around the sun (and not the other way around). Although Graham decides not to mention our current political moment by name, he writes how the critical power of the title seemed pertinent to our shared political moment — one characterized by the prevalence of anti-truth politics, political polarization, rising right-wing populism, and authoritarianism. In a time of pandemic and quarantine, however, Graham was struck by how the critical valence of the title had also changed, serving as a positive reminder and hopeful promise that life will go on.
To historicize his argument, Graham notes that the conditions of photographic production and circulation have dramatically changed since the rise of the medium in the twentieth century. Unlike the previous century, where photography found its home in illustrated magazines and periodicals, this state of affairs has shifted during this past decade — magazines and periodicals have closed or shrunk, and the internet has grabbed images for free. Lost in this environment, Graham claims, is a vital source of income and platform for photographers. Also lost are the constraints of an editorial frame, the subsumption of the image to a narrative arc, or illustrative function. Graham defines this moment as post-documentary and reads this loss of illustrative function, editorial prompt, and narrative arc as a form of emancipation. Whether the present moment can be classified as post-documentary or not, the liberation from the strictures of an editorial prompt or script has allowed photographers like Hatleberg to work with what can best be described as the messy tangle of dispersed places and lives, in what Graham names “earthly facts and chance collisions, history and its shadow, to form or echo some kind of interconnectedness.”6
For Graham, any advanced photographic work that treats the world-as-it-is has no choice but to do away with the narrative demands of photographic illustration and closed sequencing and instead strive to live with indeterminacy, to linger in the provisional and contingent encounters of the world and transform these encounters into a constellation of meaning and memory:
Through photographs, the prism of time is illuminated and breaks to clarity. We see the components and how they fit together. They take us on unexpected paths, they bring us to other lives we could know if life turned another way; they foster empathy for our fellow citizens, for lives not our own. They allow us to recognize that life is not a story that flows to a neat finale, it warps and branches, spirals and twists, appearing and disappearing from our awareness.7
What do we make of this experience of time that Graham describes in Hatleberg’s work and others — an experience that warps and branches, spirals and twists, appears and disappears from our awareness?
One way to approach this question is to return to the logic of the dream and the snakes, crocodiles, and watermelons that recur throughout the photobook. “It’s a sequence of images that proceeds according to the logic of a dream,” Hatleberg has recalled on these recurring images. “Later in the sequence, more images of snakes appear. One in a tank, the other in an inflatable pool. If you think about it, even the river that gives the book its title proceeds in loops and resembles a snake.”8 His images seem to suggest that photography does not merely picture the world-as-it-is, rather it offers you the otherness of the world as if it were a dream.
It is important to note that the photobook does not adopt the feel and character of a dream as a means to explore the unconscious or engage in a pseudo-Surrealist parlor game with the psyche. Instead, it embraces the dream’s inherent logic for its recursive structure. The structure of Hatleberg’s photobook is recursive, in theorist Kaja Silverman’s sense of the term, insofar as it forces us to “see again,” compelling us to interrogate the way we look, inviting us to examine the way that we perceived the world the first time.9 This recursive and looping motion is also echoed in the swirling and pooling colors of red, blue, and yellow on Hatleberg’s marbled cover.
On this “recursive structure,” there is also that humble first image from the book, the image of a dog exiting the front door of a ramshackle house, leaving the house to explore what lies outside in the depths of the night. Hatleberg seems to be telling us about how his approach is like that of a curious dog, scampering around, looking up and looking down, his camera drifting and moving in all directions, happy with wherever the road takes him.
There might be an additional layer of meaning to this image, however. It is possible Hatleberg selected it as the opening image of his book because of its obscure connection to his earlier project, Lost Coast.
When Hatleberg was living in Eureka, shooting the last images for his photobook, he was under immense pressure because of the book’s tight deadline. He had already taken hundreds of photographs but felt as though something was missing. The deadline made him anxious and frantic, so he pushed himself to take more and more photographs. As his time was running out, he decided to visit the city’s waterfront one last time. But when he got there, it was abandoned, and the area made no impression on him whatsoever. There was no one to meet or talk to, and nothing appeared worth photographing.
While he was walking toward the Pacific Ocean with his camera in hand, he passed by a parked van and suddenly saw a big, grimy, and frightening dog. When they locked eyes, he noticed that the dog had one eye missing. Without warning, the dog lunged at him, forcing him to the ground, and sinking its teeth in his leg. He desperately tried to free himself by striking the dog, but it only tightened its grip. The whole situation felt like a dream. Just when it seemed the dog wouldn’t let go, the animal suddenly released him and vanished as though nothing had happened. With torn jeans and blood trickling down his leg, he remembers laying on the ground, with the sun setting and the tide going out, realizing the project was over. He left town the next day.
A year later, Lost Coast was published.
- In the pages of Aperture, writer and photographer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa has observed a contemporary shift in an attitude to the photographer-as-outsider. This trend involves the rejection of what he terms a “liberal strain of determinism,” which attempts to prescribe and prohibit artists from creating their work based on their specific ethnicity, gender, nationality, or social class. While these restrictions are well-intentioned in addressing systemic and historically entrenched inequalities, they inadvertently oversimplify and treat these categories as rigid and absolute. In contrast, Wolukau-Wanambwa sees value in the position of the photographer-as-outsider. “The representation of others,” Wolukau-Wanambwa notes in a text published for Aperture, “affords us new means to claim a commonality that respects our differences, while reminding us, as Toni Morrison wrote of the portraiture of Robert Bergman, that ‘the stranger is … not alien but remembered.’”
- Curran Hatleberg, “Photographic Activities: A Salon,” a talk presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, accessed October 23, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQZqW6cdKK8&t=1184s
- “Something happened, and then it is as if nothing happened at all.”
- Work was included by photographers Vanessa Winship, Richard Choi, RaMell Ross, Gregory Halpern, Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti, Kristine Potter, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, and Curran Hatleberg.
- Paul Graham, “Belonging Particles,” in But Still, It Turns: Recent Photography from the World, (London: MACK, 2021): 15.
- Ibid, 15.
- Kaja Silverman, World Spectators (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).