Current Feature: Jeff Whetstone
JF: Personally, I thrive on chaos. I really like chaotic situations, and as a photographer part of my strategy is improvising around chaos. There’s a video of a snake I caught, Drawing E. Obsoleta, which is, in a way, me dealing with the very unpredictable nature of the snake and trying to control it, knowing that I can’t control it. Maybe as a species, our relationship to nature is trying to control something that is really not necessarily chaotic, but unpredictable. I think our frustration and our attraction to nature comes through that. It’s a bigger force than we are. The unpredictability of nature is something that I think we’re all trying to battle with.
AB: Can we talk a little bit more about the images in Central Range? They're very beautiful. How did you come by these structures? What is it that possessed you to shoot them?
JF: I came to those structures through a very chaotic approach. I spent two summers photographing locusts, or grasshopper swarms in Utah, Nevada. I was very interested in the history of the Rocky Mountain locusts, which were the largest conglomeration of terrestrial animals that the earth has ever witnessed. The locust swarm in 1847 really changed the history of the expansion west. After two years of photographing locusts and getting basically one usable picture out of it, I realized they’re not that impressive photographically. It’s very hard to record the imagery of a swarm of locusts and I decided I would never take another picture of a grasshopper again. I still had a month out in Utah, it was all paid for, I’d bought my ticket and made all these arrangements. I had a car full of cameras and film and I said "Well, what's next?” I started driving and I drove to what are targets on target ranges. I was looking for something. I thought they were beautiful, and I photographed this one target, kind of over and over. I guess I realized that these targets are kind of ominous. Public parks in Utah are, in a way, billboards or vestiges from a really violent history. That violence, those wars out west in the middle of the 19th century, the landscape doesn't record them. There were no buildings to record them; what records them is the culture; the gun culture of the west: the targets. You can see the vestiges of that expansion recorded in an abstract way through these targets. I thought they were, in a very confusing way, in a confused space. Hopefully maybe even confuse a sense of where it is, what it is and maybe even confuse historical eras.
AB: I wanted to ask you why it is called Seducing Birds, Snakes and Men.
JW: The seducing part of that were the pictures. They were vehemently beautiful. They're breathtaking, but once you realize what they are, they’re kind of violent. I mean, how many bullets went through that board? For what? Well, people playing with guns, and target practicing and hunters getting their targets out, but you know, lots and lots and lots of them. What I did, I was kind of playing a little bit with Utah. I went to every town named after one of the new apostles of the church and photographed their target range.
AB: Is that what those are?
JW: Yeah, those are target ranges in all the towns named after the apostles. So, I was kind of playing with the violence of church history, not to pick on the church or any particular denomination, but that's where I was. I was in a landscape slaughtered by territorial violence, and there were target ranges in every little town. They were beautiful. I must mention, Seducing Birds, Snakes and Men - That was the name of the show. Louise Bourgeois was asked “what is art?”. Art is seducing birds, snakes and men. She’s the coolest ever. I was so glad that show was about birds, snakes, and men. There was a little homoeroticism in the show too, so I thought it was really appropriate to use Bourgeois' quote.
AB: There were 6 images in that show, but what was homoerotic?
JW: It's in a video that was called On the Use of a Syrinx, it was about turkey hunting.
It was part of wild men, the guys in camouflage. How do you hunt turkey? You only shoot the male bird and the only way to get the male bird in the range of your gun is to imitate a female mating call. So we have male hunters, imitating a female bird's mating call to attract a male. I put little tiny microphones on the hunters, and asked them to translate what they were saying to the male bird in English. In the end, it became sort of an x-rated hunting documentary. It's kind of funny, it's on the website and you can watch it. It's funny and horrific, yet somehow kind of alluring and savage. We had this male in a very southern dialect talking as if he were a female describing what kind of sex he would have with that male turkey.
AB: You have talked about Deliverance. When I think of Appalachia, that is the first thing that comes to mind. In your words, how did that influence you and your work?
JW: Where I grew up was about 50 miles, as the crow flies, from the set of Deliverance. It came out when I was about 12 years old. It was a movie that kind of devastated Appalachian culture in ways a lot of other stereotypes didn’t. I think part of the reason it was so effective in really coining this Appalachian stereotype of these sexual predators out in the landscape, is that there was a great deal of truth within the movie. It was a movie about tourists against natives, about progress against nature, about is there anything to be saved of indigenous culture, about rural Appalachian culture against this cosmopolitan culture moving in. All these issues were very much alive in Deliverance. Deliverance is a fascinating book by James Dickey and film by John Boorman that investigated a lot of issues people from rural Appalachia were dealing with. Then there were sex scenes, specifically the rape scene. What it did for me as a kid, was that it made me afraid of my neighbors. All of a sudden I was like "man the Lawly boys that live up the road, I'm going to go down to the woods and get raped by them." It made me scared of my own culture in a way. It's a movie that was both very respected and very reviled. I grew up with these masculinity contests. Just like a lot of rural or urban boys, we had a lot of the southern masculinity contests and I was never a winner of these contests at all. I kind of saw things from the outside. Deliverance has been a really important part off how I think, how others think about Appalachia. I really love to play with masculinity in my work. Sometimes I make it really sweet, sometimes I pose men in the flesh, and sometimes I make it really scary. But what I love about doing it is that the men and I work together on this. It's not like I'm secretly manipulating them into a pose. I tell them exactly what I'm doing, tell them I'm playing with masculinity, the camouflage costumes, and we collaborate. I feel that's really fun, more than fun. I guess everyone in a way thinks that the south is this monolithic, homophobic right wing Trump supporting area, which it's not. It's not at all. It's very diverse, and the more you get into peoples' personalities, everybody is post modern and a real mix of who they are, who they portray themselves to be and how they understand their own portrayal. I love having those conversations with people in rural regions.
AB: You previously talked about how you have a cousin or an uncle that you said had a biological clock, he knew how to time the suckerfish?
JW: That was my uncle Tim, his story has a huge influence in my life because of what this story illustrates. He caught these suckerfish that no one really eats except really traditional people in Appalachia. They’re actually incredibly delicious, but no one catches fish to eat them anymore, especially suckerfish. Well, he does, he loves them. I said, "I want you to take me suckerfishing so that I can photograph it," and he said, “well, Jeff, when the first dark wood petal hits the ground, they’ll start running.” I thought that was so poetic, because it visualizes that middle of May when the first dark wood petals would swoon. Once they're done blooming, the petals start following him. When the first one hits the ground, it releases a signal for a migration to happen. Because they're migratory fish, they swim upstream like salmon spawn. That clock is so ancient, and so mystical. That mysticism of nature, it's something that I think we lost. That now we look at nature through these scientific ecologies, and not through mystical ecologies where trees communicate with fish. My uncle Tim understands a lot of what the Appalachian people say: that old-fashioned wood talk. Literally a mystical, anti-modern way thinking about nature. I really want to hold onto that.
AB: So what was your clock, what was your knowledge?
JW: You know I grew up in a very rural area, no one lived near me. We lived on this defunked farm way out. I didn't have any neighbors my age, so I was pretty much left to my devices. My entertainment was catching animals, watching animals, and hiding from animals. As a kid, I would enter the woods as an eleven year old with two dogs and a complete thought of fascination and fear. I was scared the whole time, I was constantly hiding and searching and catching things. If I heard the slightest noise, I would hide. You know, as a kid, fear is sort of fun, theres' something exhilarating about fear. During those periods, I understood how animals, even something like salamanders, would return to the same little spot over and over. I got to know certain birds that would nest in the same trees, and the snakes that I would never catch were always in this rock pile at a certain time of day. I figured that there was this whole system of natural habits that seemed to be hidden to us humans. The secret of the hundred acres around our house. That's what made me really go into the study of biology. I studied zoology, and realized that it was even broader than that, and I found that really fascinating.
View the full interview in our Issue No. 16 Chaos.