“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar

Drifless Jason Vaughn

by Luca Fiore

The opening of Driftless, a photobook created by Jason Vaughn with the journalist and writer Brad Zellar, seems lifted from a Raymond Carver novel. Zellar tells us “I once set my GPS to take me to a trout stream that bubbled up out of a series of springs back in one of the valleys. Instead it led me up to a flat, treeless plateau, where the road dead-ended at the trailer of an old man who told me his family had been up there for 75 years. I told him I was looking for the stream, and he said he had a handful of confused people end up at his trailer every year. ‘Even the fancy machines get mixed up when they get off the State highway and onto these gravel roads’, he said.” The man then led the disappointed fisherman to the fence line at the edge of his property. Zellar continues, “the land suddenly plunged several hundred feet down into a hidden and heavily-forested valley. ‘It’s down there’, he said, ‘but there are easier ways to get to it’. Back at my car, after he gave me a complicated series of directions to get down to the stream, he said, ‘Ain’t nobody know where I am but people who don’t know where the hell they are’.”

“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar

The book, published by the independent American publishers TBW Books, includes images shot by Vaughn in a very peculiar period of his life. Having just overcome the nightmare of cancer, and awaiting the birth of his second child, the photographer rented an apartment next to the Mississippi river, going on to live there for a year. The location is called the “Driftless area,” a region in south west Wisconsin, seemingly preserved from the last ice age, and characterized by particularly rugged terrain, void of any residue from glacial retreat (in English, “drift”). The verb “to drift”, however, can also mean “to wander”. The photographs taken during daily walks in this small area of the Midwest attempt to capture “the process by which people wander in a space, sometimes deciding to stop, perhaps forever, sometimes disengaging and moving elsewhere.”

Black and white colours are alternated in a poetic and unrhetorical style, itself contrasted with Zellar’s non-didactic captions. A nest amid branches. Different types of reflection on the surface of a stream, webs of branches, a hydrangea bush at different times of the year. A child walking. An adult walking. An old man walking. A waterfall of ice. Flocks of black birds. Photographs that, very slowly–requiring patience–become metaphors, and improvised thoughts. They open and close like the action of an accordion, alternating epiphany with riddle.

Next to an image of a section of frozen lake, its rippled surface illuminated by a ray of light, Zellar writes: “Some people would just as soon leave the jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered on the table.” Next to a night shot of some branches lit by the camera’s flash: “The voice of one more exhausted foreigner: ‘There are so many reasons’.” Or elsewhere: “Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt. Oh, the cold stone panic of never…”

The last photograph is of a sheet of ice floating on water, a large stone on top of it, seemingly suspended on the surface of the water. On the page to the left of the image is the quote: “We are alive. We are burning. We are libraries one fire.” Under the photo, meanwhile, the Italian of a music score: “Con fuoco. Con brio. Deciso.”

The book concludes with three quotations; one from the American poet Robert Hass, one from Samuel Beckett and one from Sophie Scholl, the German dissident murdered by the Nazis in 1943, aged 22. This last quotation reads: “A little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does.”

Il Foglio, 18th July 2019

“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar
“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar
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“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar
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“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar