Aaron Schuman, Slant

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 88 pages, with 46 black and white images made between 2016 and 2018. Includes 50 reproductions of newspaper clippings (drawn from the Amherst Bulletin 2014-2018) and a poem by Emily Dickinson. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The police blotter in our very local newspaper (covering one village plus two others nearby) is a consistent source of unexpected entertainment. In a community of this size, there aren’t that many police encounters every day, so they can easily be summarized and printed in the paper once a week. With few violent crimes taking place in our area, the police tend to spend their time intervening in smaller issues, and so the reports cover a wide spectrum of the mundane and the eccentric – noise complaints, lost pets, drunk drivers, disputes between neighbors, mysterious passersby, abandoned cars, missing property, and a dizzying variety of people needing help of one kind or another. These incidents are dutifully logged, and to read them each week is to take the pulse of the neighborhood – it’s equal parts gossip and anthropological study, with a splash of deadpan local humor thrown in for good measure.

Aaron Schuman’s photobook Slant takes as its inspiration the police blotter entries from the newspaper in his parents’ hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Given that Amherst is a college town, it has a bit more going on than in smaller, quieter places, and so the blotter documents a much broader range of quirkiness. Sifting through these entries over several years, he separated out several dozen reports that had a kind of wonderful weirdness to them, and these mini-vignettes became the basis for a nuanced back and forth text-and-photography interaction in book form.

Photobooks that gather together found oddities (particularly in America) are a dime a dozen, but a look through Schuman’s project has a different resonance than flipping through a dull book of clever visual discoveries. Happily, he has resisted the temptation to be too literal – making the blotter texts and his pictures match too closely would have drained the project of all of its endearing mystery. Instead, Schuman borrows the idea of slant rhyme from Emily Dickinson – the rhymes aren’t exact rhymes, but oblique pairings and freer approximations, where the vowel or consonant sounds might be similar but the words themselves don’t fit together neatly. Schuman’s photographs have a similarly imperfect relationship with the “news” stories – we can catch an echo here and there (the truths “dazzle gradually” in Dickinson’s words), which feels like the world is in strange synchronicity, but the process is open-ended and rough enough that there is room for much more than obvious one-to-one matches.

Schuman’s smart text-and-image interplay is often one step removed. Blotter entries detailing voyeurs, peeping Toms, and possible alien visitations are placed on a spread with a image of a ladder leaning against a majestically large tree, just the kind of setup one might need to peek into someone’s backyard. And one specific incident involved a photographer who asked a woman if he could take pictures of her feet; a few page turns later, a huge foot on a flatbed trailer (likely part of a parade float) seems to have allowed the fetishistic picture making.

Other pairings revel in the dark humor to be found in the blotter incidents. Photographs of sassy college girls in short shorts and a lit sign welcoming students back to campus are matched with a write-up about a fraternity house with an inappropriate “freshman daughter dropoff site” sign on its front lawn. Entries detailing the noisy banging of “overzealous copulation” and the playing of the song “Endless Love” are alternately paired with images of framed portraits of priests, a drive-through marriage location, and the erotic nightspot Club Castaway. A photograph of long black tire skids on the road is placed with an entry about a towed car, a lost beagle (appropriately named Bagel) entry goes with the sign from a local dog club, and the story of two teens carrying a door sits next to the crackled paint (and door) of a local house. Even the many delusional reports of mysterious lights in the sky get their own image pairings, from the stars of a drive-in movie theater sign to pinpricks of light hovering above dark mountains.

Schuman’s black-and-white photographs are consistently composed with attention to formal concerns, from the slanted window that opens the photobook (and mimics the title), to crisply ordered views of parking lot barriers, a house crushed by a fallen tree limb, a pyramid-shaped pile of dirt (with a reflection in a puddle), and various houses, buildings, and weathered structures. His pictures are also filled with an old school enjoyment of tonal contrasts and tactile textures, where dark blacks and bright whites add dynamism and vitality to the compositions.

The other force at play in these photographs is an undercurrent of nostalgia for both the simple pleasures of small town life and the particular cultural emblems of the 1980s. A costumed child walks in the street with his mother, a sweet white Corvette (for sale) is parked behind a house, water slides are for sale, Space Invaders is being played in the video arcade, Beverly Cleary books are being read by teens, and the open gull wing doors of Delorean take us back to the charms of “Back to the Future”. There is enough ambiguity in Schuman’s pictures to prevent these associations from getting too heavyhanded, but the feeling of looking back, sometimes with the benefit of cinematic clarity, is certainly noticeable.

Overall, Slant is a tightly executed photobook project – well conceived, measured, clever but not showy, understatedly but smartly designed, and filled with pictures that feel boiled down to their essence. It’s a book that hits its marks with precision, turning an unconventional entry point into visual storytelling into something memorably refined and sophisticated.

Collector’s POV: Aaron Schuman does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (liked in the sidebar).

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