Jesse Lenz, The Locusts

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Charcoal Press (here). Clothbound embossed hardcover with tipped-in image, 9.75 x 12.5 inches, 144 pages, with 75 monochrome plates. In an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Among the final images of Jesse Lenz’s first monograph The Locusts is one I keep returning to. In it, a young boy leans into a pool of water, his face submerged in the world below, invisible to us. What we can see, instead, are the tender details of a fleeting moment. There is the strap from a pair of goggles snugged around his blond hair, and a large cup from Burger King that his small hand clutches. Soaked from previous dives, his back is tense with expectation, his arm bent backwards, like the wing of a water bird, scouting for prey. What does he look at? Perhaps, a frog or a tadpole to catch and take home, or some forgotten treasure glistening on the bed. The scene is almost idyllic; if it wasn’t for that wall made of concrete, tagged with graffiti, confining this space and photograph alike, as if guarding a well-kept secret. It is here, on the threshold of genuine discoveries and unexpected contrasts, where the realm of The Locusts unfolds. One in which little people are submerged in an environment that isn’t exactly wild, but tamed just enough for nature to reclaim some of its pockets and mysteries. The kind of place that requires attention and the commitment to being present in order to be seen and cherished.

For Lenz, this lasting commitment to a place, and the life unfolding within, didn’t come easy. A self-taught photographer who spent most of his childhood traveling, he began his career as an illustrator and graphic artist working for publications including Rolling Stone and The New York Times. While making good money, his disenchantment grew with the long hours clocked at his home office in West Virginia, and the restrictive freedoms of commercial work. “I’ve always loved making images,” he told me, “but since I never had roots, I only felt at peace when I was on the move.” Looking for change, photography presented the perfect path to pursue both. In 2014, Lenz co-founded The Collective Quarterly, a slow-paced travel-journal dedicated to long-form stories about small-town places and its people. After a few years of alternating extended periods on the road and back home with his family, his wife and children came to join him on his trips. Their sons were three, two, and one when the Lenzes “sold everything and went on the road” with the intention to explore North America in an Airstream for five consecutive years. About twelve months in, the couple decided “to pull the plug.” “It just wasn’t feasible,” Lenz remembers, “we were in places like the Mojave Desert, my sons playing outside, while rattle snakes were letting us know that they were around as well. Then I had to leave them for two weeks at a time, photographing some community, living elsewhere. I began to feel really bad.” Exhausted from the stresses of their nomadic life, the family settled on a farm in rural Ohio, buying the childhood home of Lenz’s wife Katelyn, built by her family. “I knew it was the right decision,” Lenz says, “but, honestly, I didn’t want to move there, to this entire Ohio-West Virginia area. The landscape and culture didn’t resonate with me. I rejected it.”

Feelings of reluctance, failure, and embarrassment were joined by loss, and forced Lenz to eventually embark on a different, more inward journey. “I had to come to grips with my own shortcomings, with where I lived, but also with mortality. A friend passed away, and other friends lost their children. It was a difficult time.” Readjusting his emotional focus to the life at hand, Lenz also began to direct his camera towards a new subject: his children and the surrounding environment. Joining them at play in their backyard and roaming the fields, new photographs slowly emerged, and with them the delights of discovery and a sense of acceptance. But it wasn’t until he shared one of these photographs with a friend (receiving encouraging words and some tough love) that Lenz began to consciously pursue and build a series.

Imposing in size and elegance, The Locusts retraces Lenz’s four-year journey of grappling with his own refusal, and finding meaning in the snippets of everyday. Unfolding as an evocatively loose sequence, the photographs are organized one or two to a spread and drift through the years’ changing seasons. Many of them are of his children, at home and outside, exploring and observing, climbing trees and looking at books, occasionally bruised and rarely resting. Most of these monochrome images speak through the gestures and expressions they capture – sometimes, at odds with the settings or mood they emerge from. Take, for instance, the close-up of his son standing within an apple tree, its branches heavy with fruit. His face adorned by an adhesive cobweb and a carefully painted spider, he looks straight into the camera – neither dreamy nor smiling, but serious and skeptical, like a grown-up preparing his argument. There is a vigilance to these images that may appear staged or choreographed, but isn’t, because it has little to do with the act of directing and everything with time. The time that Lenz spent waiting and watching – not for the perfect sunset or decisive moment, but the reoccurring moments of mundane magic, at times dispelling small dangers lurking around the corner. What resonates, then, within these lusciously dense photographs, including those of landscapes (or fragments thereof), animals and insects (dead and alive), is a gaze searching for grace and permanence amidst ever-changing instances: whether it is a pouty face and tousled hair, or the marvel of a scene observed beyond the frame.

Formally, Lenz’s images do not conform to a cohesive style or visual language – perhaps a residual effect from his previous work, which, responding to the respective needs of different stories, Lenz has described as “a bit all over the place.” Craving to explore a more unified vision, he returned to analog photography and black-and-white film, educating himself through photobooks, an important, at times, overwhelming and frustrating process (which eventually led him to found the Charcoal Book Club and Press).

The visual vocabulary permeating The Locusts lends itself to the comparison with various photographers documenting their children, including Sally Mann and Rinko Kawauchi. This comparison, however, only holds on the surface. Because Lenz’s photographs, albeit depicting his family (there are a few images of his wife as well), are not about them. Instead they navigate this narrow space between distance and intimacy, that reveals more about the photographer than the ones he photographs. This subtle yet significant difference is present in the work of Emmet Gowin, who Lenz references as one of his key influences. There are resonances in style, but more interesting are those in perception and mood, which aren’t quite melancholic, but ripe with opposing forces. As both photographers are the children of ministers, I wonder whether their sensitivity for – and their works’ disposition towards – dualities, is grounded in their upbringing. For Lenz, the hovering presence of death clearly was.

In The Locusts, the theme of mortality manifests throughout with a sense of foreboding, but is most tangible in the photographs of perished animals (often road kill). But like any good parable, whether biblical or mythical, an encounter with death reinvigorates the experience of life – a sensation that is particularly palpable in Lenz’s images of living animals, whether they are roaming his garden, sunbathing on leaves, or running through the brush.

Perhaps the most moving parts of the book are the landscapes, because they probe the symbolism of its title – locusts as harbingers of ruin but also of hope, nourishment, and survival – with wistful intuition. Such as the delicate spider web – deadly for those who get caught in it and beautiful to observe nonetheless, or the muddy path leading to a farm, suspended between the romance of seclusion and the terror of loneliness. These images feel like glimpses into Lenz’s struggle of growing roots, both emotionally and photographically, and his attempts to come to terms with them.

It takes patience and dedication to make pictures like these, and both are equally present in the book’s handsome design – the linen-bound cover and its subdued grey, the texture of its pages, the tonal depths of the photographs, and the white space around them – which, as a whole, make it easy to forgive the one or the other photograph that feels slightly out of place.

What keeps surprising me about The Locusts is the seamlessness of its message, sensible in the images and echoed in a quote by Frederick Buechner on the book’s final page: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. If we agree that “coming-of-age” is a term used to encapsulate a process of growth from youth to adulthood, The Locusts corals a “coming-of-place”, found in the present, captured to be valued and remembered.

Collector’s POV: Jesse Lenz 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 (linked in the sidebar).

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