Book Review: The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer by Amani Willett
By Scarlett Davis
I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
There have been many famous recluses, calling to mind writer Henry David Thoreau and the legendary film director Howard Hughes. There is a kind of stigma that goes with reclusion and solitude, yet the mystery and freedom that accompany the removing of one’s self from society is practically irresistible. We all secretly desire to retreat to nature; it’s Biblical, the longing to return to The Garden. The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer by Amani Willett is an exciting puzzle, a hermit’s delight wrapped in a kind of mystery genre, packaged with a book cover illustration that looks similar to the spy novels of the 40 and 30s. It was voted one of the best photography books of 2017 and has been featured in over fifty publications with comparisons made to the stylistics of David Lynch.
History and popular lore beautifully collide, as Joseph Plummer was in fact a real person, a recluse living in central New Hampshire two hundred years ago. Willett is a Brooklyn based- photographer. His monograph, Disquiet, akin to this work, is a rumination on starting a family, and The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer explores the fragmented identity of the hermit figure. Willett would frequent this area of New Hampshire, during his childhood summers. Finding very little concrete information about the real Joseph Plummer who left his town of a mere hundred people to be in the woods, the photographer’s imagination is allowed to run wild and fill in the gaps in the narrative. A few personal belongings of Plummer were accessible. The locals had said of the hermit that he was a loafer and a spendthrift and had a moral opposition to progress, sounding very much like the Transcendentalists of his era.
The collection operates on three stories: 1) the lore of the hermit 2) the man who was Joseph Plummer, and 3) the photographer’s father. Willett disperses authentic photos of his father from the 1970s. The first half of the book lays the groundwork, evoking feelings of the uncanny and the hermit, without having him present, the embodiment of the hermit, if you will, with landscape shots of the forest in violet lights, wood shavings, and an abandoned cabin. Pictures of Joseph Plummer conceal his identity by hiding his face. Curiosity and intrigue are heightened with redacted documents. The last portion of the narrative casts Willett’s father in a similar light, positioning his father as adopting the hermit life, similarly withholding his identity by shadowing his face or by capturing photos of him from behind.
By the conclusion, there is no overarching opinion of the hermit life or any validatory evidence that Joseph Plummer, the man, existed beyond his fantastic myth. The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer is testament to the power of photography in its ability to transcend its medium and to use the visual as narrative. Through this collection, we are reminded of the fragile nature of time and memory and its ability to distort and alter our understanding of history and reality. At what point does a memory become a story and after how many retellings does that same memory or point in time become the stuff of fiction? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, did it really happen? If one man chooses to live out his better years in the cloaked wonder of the woods, did he ever truly live. I guess that would all depend on your definition of “live?”
The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer is available for purchase at Overlapse.