JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Overlapse (here). Hardcover (17×23 cm), 152 pages, with 104 photographs and illustrations. Includes an essay by Lara Shipley. Design by Tiffany Jones. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The photographers Lara Shipley and Antone Dolezal grew up in the Ozarks, a region of the Midwestern United States, just where Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas meet, and today live almost at opposite ends of the country. Drawn to the mystery of the region, they returned to their home over the years to explore folktales around the “spooklight,” a mysterious ghostly light that appears in the woods and has been reported by generations of locals since the late 19th century. Shipley and Dolezal re-visited the region many times during the past decade, taking photographs and collecting stories shared by locals. Their collaborative project was recently published in a photobook titled Devil’s Promenade, referring to an unassuming wooded road where the light could often be seen; locals also believe that the devil lives there.
The artwork on the book cover is an illustration with a snake twisted around a cross, mirrored by pairs of plants and wolves decorated with embossed ornaments, half moons, and sparkles (a reference to the mysterious light). These elements are native to the Ozarks folklore, and the area is part of the Bible belt, so discussions around divine and the devil are common. The symbolic battle between good and evil evokes a range of possible mythical motives and sets the mood for the content of the book. Endpapers in black complement the dark visual narrative, and inside, the photographs vary in their sizes and placement on the pages, creating a dynamic and exciting visual flow. Short quotes throughout the book provide more context and are typeset at a slant, adding to the overall energy.
Using a combination of archival images and contemporary photographs, Devil’s Promenade takes us through a hundred years of history of this place, gently guiding us through the story while leaving enough space for interpretation. The book begins with a tender photograph of a toddler with blond hair seen from the back sitting in the river, followed by another square photo capturing what looks like a spot of light on the grass. It then opens to a full bleed black and white shot of the haunting forest at night. A few pages later, there is an image of four elderly women dressed in black standing outside, but after a closer look, and it becomes obvious that we are looking at the same person – it’s a spooky and bewildering realization. Another spread pairs a book “Wild Stories From the Ozarks”, by the folklorist Vance Randolph, with an archival photograph of three elderly men outside by a picnic table with another spot of light. The opening images bring together past and present in an eerie and uncanny introduction. Describing the Ozarks, Shipley notes “it is a place where people can take an ordinary and ugly tree, and surround it with a story both grand and menacing.”
Throughout the book, there are various images capturing unexplained mysteries: an archival black and white image of the road with a spot of light in the center, another with a portrait of a man with a ball of light covering the center of the picture, and a more contemporary shot of the road with the light seen at the horizon. These are followed by a photograph of a young man standing outside as a spot of light falls on his face paired with text on the left, typeset as rays of light, saying “Come out here to this road and you might find / something beautiful or something dark / you won’t know which until it happens.”
While the investigation of the supernatural phenomenon runs through the narrative of the book, Dolezal and Shipley also consider the local community, bringing together various voices that shape the narrative around the spooklight. There are intimate images of current residents of the area, both old and young: a young couple posing by the road hugging, kids swimming in the river in the heat of the summer, a man holding a baby, a woman showing her tattoo, teenagers in the woods in the dark. A tender portrait of a woman with her young son standing outside the house is paired with the text reading “there are spirits on this earth and they are here to help us,” reflecting the conversations happening in these families. And a couple of spreads later, there is a full bleed image showing a group of people at an event as they extend their arms with their eyes closed. It is followed by a picture of a man surrounded by people gently touching him in a healing act. Myths and mysticism that were passed down over generations clearly continue to shape the community today.
Spooky stories have always attracted photographers, and a number have explored the invisible and the mysterious in photobook form. A Copenhagen-based photo collective published an excellent photobook Phenomena (reviewed here), offering an in-depth photo chronicle of extraterrestrial enthusiasts and UFO believers. More recently Maria Lax has tracked eerie lights in the Finnish forest making connections to her family’s past in Some Kind of Heavenly Fire (reviewed here), while Bego Antón has brought together stories and images of Icelandic enchantment in The Earth is Only a Little Dust Under Our Feet (reviewed here).
Rather than providing an explanation to the mysteries of the Ozarks region, Devil’s Promenade immerses us into its world, creating an exciting fairytale like narrative. It allows us to draw our own conclusions about the source of the mysterious light in the woods, while offering a complex and caring portrait of a remote place in the United States and its people. “There is nothing unusual about the people here,” writes Shipley. “They can be found anywhere in America; a country where the myth of success is like the Devil’s bridge – a dream exchanged for a soul.”
Collector’s POV: Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley do not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artists via their respective websites (linked in the sidebar).