JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Charcoal Press (here). Debossed linen hardcover with cardboard slipcase. 10 x 13 inches, 96 pages, with 48 monochrome photographs. Design by Jesse Lenz. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Photobooks have grown complicated in recent years. Buttressed by improved technologies and splintered publishing interests, they come regularly now in a variety of types, sizes, materials, and layouts. Design quirks jockey for prominence, from Rorschached page trimmings (e.g, here), to dot matrix printer holes (e.g, here), facsimiled ephemera (e.g. here), and free form pastiche (e.g. here). These recent examples are just the tip of a broader industry iceberg, which leans increasingly toward experimentation and away from standard forms.
The new photobook frontier is tantalizing, but let’s not kick old ways to the curb just yet. As titles by Baldwin Lee (reviewed here), Mimi Plumb (reviewed here), and Alessandra Sanguinetti proved in 2022, publishing magic can be found in simple forms too. These picture-forward photobooks featured statuesque monochromes on semi-gloss white pages. With few extraneous frills, they relied on straight photography to do the heavy lifting.
Erinn Springer’s Dormant Season follows this classical tradition. As the title hints, its design is austere. It’s a clothbound white hardcover nestled in an unbleached slipcase. There is minimal text inside, no essay or captions. Instead the book’s horsepower is supplied by photographs. They’re lushly printed with rich tones, then dispensed one (or occasionally two) per spread. The leisurely pace leaves plenty of room for pondering. The reader may be lulled into reverie, but Dormant Season is far from sleepy. As with books by Lee, Plumb, and Sanguinetti, its strength lies in clarity of observation. One stellar frame follows another. Considering that Springer is a young and self-taught photographer, this is a remarkably assured debut.
Her project began in the late 2010s. Springer had just returned to her northern Wisconsin home after eight years working commercially in New York. In a town of 1,000, she could trace her local relatives back seven generations. What started initially as “sincere observations of family” took a darker turn after the unexpected suicide of her brother-in-law. “The process of photographing became a coping mechanism and record of the coexisting,” she explained in a recent interview. She’d initially planned a short stay in Wisconsin, but the project (then called Dormant Seasons, plural) took on a life of its own, along with a companion series called Home Is Where The Garden Grows. She resettled for good in Wisconsin (dividing time with her Brooklyn home) to pursue both projects in earnest. “Most people consider it a flyover area,” she says. “If you could go somewhere, you probably wouldn’t choose to come here, but because of that, it’s not so much about what’s here, but who’s here.”
Dormant Season is rooted in a rustic freeze. In physical time and space, it’s not far from Sanguinetti’s Some Say Ice. But that book played against historicism, while Springer’s attentions are internalized. As the book’s opening photo affirms—a deer caught midair by spotlight—flushing out targets during winter hibernation can be hit or miss. The family compound served as Springer’s base, for both photo adventures and creature comforts. This one was straight out of Americana central casting. A picture of dogs blurring against a white farmhouse might sketch a line from Robert Frost. A few pages later we get a peek into the interior. Kitchen appliances lean arthritically, even as Springer’s camera tries to prop them up. Kids laze under comforters on the sofa. A hunting trophy simmers in a pot of water. Mortality is a basic fact of rural life, as are frozen cars. Might as well sidle up to the wood stove. Outside, the Wisconsin winter is long, white, and stark.
Despite the conditions, Springer made regular forays into the elements. She tracked family members at times, and sometimes followed unknown characters. “I spent still mornings feeding mules,” she writes. “fleeting afternoons power-washing barns, long nights running hounds, and many days alone on the road–knocking on unknown doors–hoping to reach a new understanding of regional and personal history through the subjects I photographed.” The book’s final tally was distributed roughly half and half between relatives and strangers. Without captions it’s hard for readers to discern which are which. Photos return continually to the comforts of warm dry interiors. Whether in the hay barn or bedroom, Springer extracts candid portraits from the innermost sanctuaries. Are they family? Neighbors? Strangers? Distinctions fade as the community snuggles together, forming a united front against the impassive void.
Blank pastures are one visual pole in Dormant Season. The counterparts are inside. Dimly lit mise-en-scènes are rich with details, stuffed to the rafters with knickknacks and tonal gradation. The sequence moves back and forth easily, and becomes especially charming with subtle references. Acupuncture needles on a woman’s back mimic fence posts in a field. An open palm with missing thumb sets the stage for a garage door with greasy hand prints. A white scar on black fur imitates the glow of sunlit window panes. Over the last half dozen images or so, the scenery begins to thaw. Snow melts, and wall paneling assumes the greyscale of grass. The grand cycle is about to kick into gear once more. But stuffing nature’s clock into a book isn’t so simple. Clearly some thought has gone into image selection, editing, and flow.
They say you can’t go home again, and that comes into play too. The prodigal daughter returns, exploring the yeoman’s ideal of boot-strapped agrarianism. That’s a loaded equation even without the Jeffersonian baggage. Larry Towell’s The World From My Front Porch faced the same headwinds, as did Paula Chamlee’s High Plains Farm. I’m happy to say Dormant Season navigates the terrain better than either. If it comes tinged with nostalgia, that’s not such a bad thing after all, especially as we approach the dark season. In fact Dormant Season may well become a winter staple. Have the seasonal doldrums got you down? Snuggle up to this snow-white gem for a photographic reprieve.
Collector’s POV: Erinn Springer 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 her website (linked in the sidebar).