Garrett Grove, Errors of Possession

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Trespasser Books (here). Perfect bound with book jacket and metallic foiled cover (8.25×10.25 inches). Includes 104 pages, with 29 black and white and 28 color reproductions. With a short story by Travis Klunick. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Cody Halton and Garrett Grove. (Cover and spread shots below.)

This body of work is currently on view at Ampersand Gallery in Portland (March 26-May 3, 2020, here).

Comments/Context: It may be hard now to imagine past cultural paroxysms on the scale of the current coronavirus pandemic. But it was only a few years ago that Americans experienced a societal trauma which, at least at the time, felt every bit as threatening. Donald Trump’s surprise election threw half the country into existential crisis. The other half? Not so much. It was a split verdict, and for a short minute, the country seemed on the verge of outright fracture.

Garrett Grove was pursuing his Hartford Photo MFA at the time, his matriculation roughly coinciding with the early stages of the presidential campaign. His 2017 thesis project had taken root in Grove’s native Pacific Northwest—mainly Oregon and Washington—but its aim was internal. As he described the photos in an early interview with Ain’t Bad, his initial motivation had “less to do with the external situations laid out before my camera and more to do with the internal landscape my mind was inhabiting while visiting these locations. Adrift in an internal dialogue during a time of drastic personal change, I found empathy in the slow-to-change places of rural America.” The working title, Journey To The Interior (named after a Margaret Atwood poem), was a nod to both private reflection and frontier wilderness.

All well and good. But presidential campaigns have a way of disrupting things, and 2016’s was momentous. Societal fault lines were exposed. Grove wondered how they might correlate to the internal ones he’d already sketched out. “With the election gaining momentum, it was apparent that the polarization of our country was making this divide bigger,” he told Aperture, “and I wanted to travel between these two psychological realities.”

As it happens, the Pacific Northwest also divides neatly into two psychological realities, and the split roughly corresponds with geography. West of the Cascade range, the rainy lowlands harbor dense pockets of population which tend toward blue state ideals; east of the Cascades lies the high hardscrabble interior, its arid climate and rural populace leaning closer to Pocatello than Seattle. This is Trump country. 

Making photographs across both sides of the Cascades, it was probably inevitable that a political dimension would infuse Grove’s work. His became a study of various dualities: internal, geological, and cultural. The name Journey To The Interior was dropped in favor of the less literal Errors of Possession. Under this title, the project was published as a book late last year by Trespasser Books, an exciting upstart out of Austin.

The book begins not at the western frontier but beyond, with an image of clouds drifting somewhere over the Pacific. This is the first of five monochrome photographs comprising the visual prologue. They depict a rain drenched, overcast environment, probably not unlike the mental image which kept you and your cousin from bolting to Seattle after college. If those pictures don’t drive home the region’s dank climate, an image several pages later will. It shows a soggy ruffian slumped atop a round of Doug Fir. His greasy hair and soiled clothes have been out a while, but they don’t seem to bother him; he seems more focused on the bowl of cannabis cupped in his hands. I suspect every resident of the northwest has encountered someone like this in person. In fact, I’m tempted to declare it the definitive totem of the region, or at least of its western underbelly. 

But this is only half the story. The east side is perhaps more tantalizing, carrying the faint whiff of the exotic — “a look into the lives of blue collar Americans,” as promised in Trespasser’s description. Just what is it that makes those Trump voters tick? We’ll find out eventually, but first a photo of shadowy salmon leads the reader upstream, into the interior. Within a few pages, the reader arrives at a geologic feature immediately identifiable with the eastern slope of the Cascades: a wall of basalt columns topped off in dry prairie. There’s a man standing near the bottom for scale, and he appears outmatched. 

This is the first in a short sequence of Western motifs—canyon, spread eagle, cowboy hat/sagebrush, dry gulch, dustbowl— which captures some measure of the region’s immensity. The high deserts of Washington and Oregon cover a territory roughly the size of Italy, with a population barely approaching seven digits. It is colossal—and empty. A good-sized handful of its residents appear in the sequence finale. It’s a colorful frame of farmers sandwiched between sky and Palouse. They form a crop circle of sorts, broad enough to require two pages, yet still dwarfed by their surroundings. These are sturdy folks living off the land. Judging by Grove’s photos, they might grow apples or potatoes, or perhaps timber or firewood. With a handful of elbow grease, even those basalt columns can be chopped into products.

The photographs settle into this interior country and root around there for nearly the remainder of the book. They include some images we might expect —forlorn barns, men in stiff Stetsons, quiet main streets, truck cabs, mobile homes— but also several which invite fresh perspectives. A flashed snap of a bird resting on a globe inside a curtained trailer is just plain ineffable, as is the following picture of man plastered in duct tape straps. Grove mines this disquieting vein throughout, with a man sliding down a tuber mountain, a strange knot of roots, a utility pole missing key parts, a roughneck and his dog apparently living in their car. “BELIEVE,” commands an Art Deco marquee in Lakeview, Oregon, not that Grove’s odd findings raise any doubts. He has a nose for truths too strange to be fiction. After these many diversions through the interior, the book crosses west again for the wonderful coda, a sun splashed shot of coastal bluffs through evergreens. 

All in all, Grove’s photographs defy easy narrative, their secrets kept latent by deft sequencing. The book bounces easily between monochrome and color, with a mix of size and placement on the page for well paced variety. There is a strong visual style throughout, and the photographs entertain. But whether they peer deeply into the Western psyche is an open question. A nicely executed photograph of families gathered in western wear may confirm demographic judgements, but whether that’s a judgment of photograph or photographed will depend on the viewer.

This divergence might apply to Trespasser Books generally. This is a young publisher based in the west, with an ethos rooted in the frontier, wilderness, and wide spaces. But it has one boot firmly planted on the eastern seaboard. To date, three of the four Trespasser books —Errors Of Possession, Jasper, and Good Goddamn— have come from Hartford alumni. This is perhaps the nation’s premier non-residency program, and all three authors are damned good photographers. They compose, light, and frame to perfection. But when their well polished talents are applied to the west’s less polished subjects, the mix can be off-putting. I fear such photos may overpower their subjects with poignancy, thus committing an error of possession.

Trespasser’s presentation is stylish and well considered. The softbound cover envelops the metallic interior like a glove, and the sizing of the whole package feels good in the hands. Grove’s photos come in brief clusters until nearly the end, when the pace is broken up with a short story by Travis Klunick. It’s written in the first-person vernacular of someone who might be from Prineville or Pasco or thereabouts, although no specific location is mentioned. The narrator is looking for something called “the hum”, which is never explained. “I’ve got my antennae turned way past up, tuned for the beauty,” he says. So perhaps things are looking up after all. Has the crisis passed and the psychological divisions healed? Or perhaps the text is merely a place to pause, allowing readers to catch their breath before the book’s final few photos, all bathed in sunshine.

Collector’s POV: Garrett Grove does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, so interested collectors may want to follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar). The prints on view at Ampersand Gallery are priced between $1300 and $3500, based on size.

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