By Luca Fiore
Amherst is a New England city with a population of 38,000, in the state of Massachusetts. It is the birthplace of Aaron Schuman, photographer, writer, curator; a man with a CV befitting his 42 years. The city is known above all for being the home of Emily Dickinson. Schuman now lives in Bristol, England, and every now and then returns to visit his parents. It was during one of these visits that he developed an interest in reading police reports from the local “Amherst Bulletin”. “CITIZEN ASSISTANCE: 4.14am–A man shovelling snow on State Street told police he saw a strange orange glow coming from the eastern sky that might have been something on fire. Police determined the glow was probably the sun coming up for the day. Or: “SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY: 5.53pm–A woman called police after being approached by a photographer in downtown who asked if he could take pictures of her feet. The photographer was not located”. And so on: “NOISE COMPLAINTS: 7.19pm–Residents at The Boulders reported a loud argument between a man and a woman and banging on the walls that caused a painting in their apartment to fall to the floor. Police determined that the neighbours were engaged in what was described as “overzealous copulation”, and were not arguing”.
Schuman was, at first, struck by the comic quality of these short snippets, and decided to collect more Police reports. However, the more he read, the more he became fascinated by the contrast between the bureaucratic style of the reporting, and the mundanity and irrelevance of the events described. The clippings began to evoke images in the style of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander or Diane Arbus: “ANIMAL COMPLAINTS: 6.30pm–Police took a report that four dogs were sitting on top of a vehicle parked on Pray Street. Police were unable to find the dogs or the vehicle”. Two years later, Schuman returned to Amherst with his Yamiya Rz67, but left his clippings in Bristol, on purpose; he did not want his images to be solely their faithful visual projections.
The book generated by this work (Slant, Mack, €35), collates 46 photographs and 50 clippings, and opens with an Emily Dickinson poem which says: “Tell all the Truth/but tell it slant”. For Dickinson, “slant”–also the title of Schuman’s book–is the term for half rhymes which lack a perfect coherency between sounds, and toy with assonance or consonance. In English prosody, the term is generally considered to offer an effect of disharmony. Similarly, Schuman’s images of Amherst become a black-and-white poetic account of a city afeared, where neat whitewashed villas harbour an underlying tension–of which the police reports are but one manifestation.
A barn on which someone has scribbled “In Border Patrol we trust”; a child’s slide erected on the roof of a house overlooking a street; dark skid marks on an asphalt road in the middle of a wood; a giant spider’s web among trees illuminated by sunlight. These are all oblique references to the text of the police reports, and the relationships between the images offer an outlook which is, by turns, ironic, concerned, sarcastic or empathetic. Why is that child dressed as a policeman? What are we to make of two gravestones in a cemetery, one engraved with “Helen” and the other with “Helen’s Mother”? The book concludes with a police report about people sleeping in their cars, pretending to look at the stars, and with a photograph of a “drive-in” sign surrounded by stars. The very final image looks like a starry sky, but cannot be; perhaps, it shows the last remnants of light from a firework.