Curran Hatleberg – An Interview

Curran Hatleberg River's Dream

by Luca Fiore

Snakes, alligators, dogs, bees. And then woods, wrecked cars, bodies of water, domino games, watermelons. Curran Hatleberg’s is a rosary of objects, perspectives and situations in which the animal and plant worlds often intermingle seamlessly, as if were only chance that earned them a shot – and thus the photographer’s attention. River’s Dream (TBW Books, 2022), the volume signed by the 40-year-old U.S. artist, which was among the finalists of the Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook Awards, the most prestigious prize in photography publishing, is the result of a whole decade of wandering in the southern United States, between Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Presented in 2019 at the Whitney Biennial in New York, it is conceived as a chapter in a single project on contemporary America: an attempt to gauge the country’s pulse in these years of turbulent transition. In the previous instalment, Lost Coast (TBW, 2016), Hatleberg immersed himself in the atmosphere of the northern California town of Eureka, where the majestic beauty of the redwoods of Redwood National Park coexist with the social unease of deep America. “In River’s Dream I try to approach these places from a particular perspective, which is that of individuals, of families, of community,” Hatleberg tells Il Foglio. “I longed to go to Florida in search of the paths off the beaten track. I was not interested in the Florida of Miami beaches or Disney World, or that ends up in the newspapers. I knew nothing about that state, and I was curious to understand what happens in normal places and in everyday life. And I wanted to do it in the middle of summer, when the humidity is unbearable, to better immerse myself in the atmosphere of those places.”

Hatleberg visited Florida for a couple of years, returning to see the same families he had met by chance to spend time with them. “I even lived for several months with some of them and became part of their daily routine. These are people I met while photographing: they were as interesting to me as I was to them. And there was a spark. It was a kind of magnetism, an unspoken connection.” This close relationship allowed Hatleberg to enter the world of these people, to access their moments of intimacy and vulnerability. A deep relationship that grew out of complete strangeness. “I relied on them, as collaborators, subjects and guides,” he explains. Hatleberg is not afraid to use the word “friendship” to describe this relationship. The volume opens with a blank page that reads, “This book is dedicated to the Huggers.” The artist explains, “The Huggers are ‘those who embrace,’ but they are also the Hugger family, one of the families I have grown most attached to.”

It is thus a book about friendship, but also about summer: “The heat forces people to be outdoors. And the photo opportunities are endless. People go out on the streets just to walk, letting themselves go out into the world without any planned thoughts. In those temperatures, you take off your shirts, your skin is laid bare. Crime increases. Waves of moisture wash over the landscape, driving weeds out of the concrete.” After his experience in Florida, the photographer landed an artist residency in Galveston, a coastal city in East Texas, which also allowed him to spend periods in Louisiana and Mississippi. “The weather there was incredible, too: you had wet clothes on all day long. It’s the swamp where snakes and alligators live; whose images recur throughout the book, as do those of the families who hosted me.” Places, seasons, people. Hatleberg records and documents. But there are no captions or notes in the book to associate the images with the circumstances in which they were taken. This is not an oversight, but a conscious choice. “When, by showing a photograph, one answers too many questions about who, what, where, and why, you close off many of the possible interpretations. If immediately after looking at an image you read the caption and think ‘oh, it’s Florida,’ the game is already over, the imaginary is already circumscribed. Whereas in this way the viewer has a chance to dream. And the hypotheses of interpretation are neither confirmed nor denied. It’s a kind of ambiguity that I really like.”

It is no coincidence that Hatleberg’s photography was chosen by Paul Graham for the group show “But Still, It Turns,” presented at the International Centre of Photography in New York and the Rencontres d’Arles, in which the British photographer put forward a new generation of artists who have restored vitality to the tradition of photography based on life “as it is.” It is, in different nuances depending on the author, a lyrical documentary, in which reality is represented without technical distortions, but without deluding oneself or claiming to be objective, but rather winking at the narrative of fiction. River’s Dream begins with an image of a ruined house, whose white door is dotted with red, black and yellow spray spots. The next picture is dotted, however, with a swarm of bees around two slices of watermelon. In the subsequent image, two more slices of watermelon are leaning against a yellow-painted wooden windowsill, and in the background is a sign that reads “Pure Honey.” We turn the page and find a man in a yellow T-shirt who, with a scowl, sports a beard of bees around his chin. The following photograph shows a family at the side of the road around a table eating slices of watermelon. The browsing continues with three men around a small table playing dominoes. In the next shot, the framing is close up and you can make out the domino pieces positioned like a snake. Turning the page, there is a photograph of a little girl, sitting amid piles of rubble, holding a snake. Hatleberg explains, “It’s a sequence of images that proceeds according to the logic of a dream. Later in the sequence, more images of snakes appear. One in a tank, the other in an inflatable pool. If you think about it, even the river that gives the book its title proceeds in loops and resembles a snake.” These are not metaphors or symbols, although it is difficult to separate an animal like the snake from a symbolic connotation, but recurring themes, like melodic lines in a piece of music. A score built by counterpoint, in which recurring images are woven into a visual flow that has little or no narrative, but much that is poetically atmospheric. Hatleberg’s is a work about the humidity, the water, the river, the life that comes alive in these regions unfamiliar to those born and raised on the East Coast’s big cities. “These are places neglected by more than just media attention. They’re places you’ll never hear about except that, for one reason or another, you’re forced to go there. America is a really big country, but probably 70 percent of it is more like these places than big cities like New York, Miami or Los Angeles. If there’s a standard, it should be looked for here, even if it’s the part of the United States you know the least about.” Hatleberg explains that, especially at this time, in such a polarized country where division dominates, photography is a great excuse to bring people from different worlds together and give them an opportunity to share something. “While working on this book,” the photographer says, “I had someone say to me, ‘I’ve never met an artist or someone from the left. But you’re nice, you’re okay.’ Ultimately, looking at it as it is, it is more what we have in common than what sets us apart. I think people are good by nature. At the heart of work like this, there is probably the belief that it’s possible to understand the meaning of family and community. Maybe that sounds trivial, but it’s probably not so obvious: people can be together even if they are different. And this I was able to see thanks to my work as a photographer.”

It’s as if Hatleberg’s documentary approach brings him closer to a specific subject and theme. In this case, the South: unfamiliar and foreign to a man born in Washington DC and a Yale graduate. But it is the logic of the dream that carries forward the lyrical argument of the conversation. Yet each shot is an image that stands on its own, capable of communicating even in isolation from the final sequence. Many of these photographs convey a mysterious charm, difficult to decipher. A skewed, off-axis beauty. Lester Bangs would have called it “grungy.” “Yes, I desire to show beautiful things. That’s where I want to get to. But what I prefer is to make an image that thrives on the friction between extremes: happiness and sadness. Hope and despair. It happens that you find yourself in really tough situations, socially or personally, but something appears inside the frame that opens up a possibility.” The photographer suggests looking at the ending of his book: there is a sequence of images showing a middle-aged, red-haired woman. She is sitting at a table by a river. In front of her are empty bottles. Some full of water, some of beer. She looks at the arm of a person outside the frame, on which a praying mantis has rested. “It was an ordinary day in an ordinary situation. It looked like it was going to rain. Then this beautiful insect comes out of nowhere, like a small miracle. It’s on such occasions, when the everyday flirts with the sublime, that life becomes exciting.”

Speaking of small miracles, in 2020, shortly after taking the last photo in this book, Hatleberg’s first child was born. He was registered at the registry office as River. This is not a key to River’s Dream, but something the artist greatly cares about. “The whole time I was working on this book, he didn’t exist yet. My son had not yet been born. Now, looking back on it, though, it’s like I went through these vivid, intense, beautiful experiences as if in a dream. The dialogues I had in the places I ended up, the excitement of not knowing where photography would take me at the end of the day, and trying to find the most visually appropriate way to communicate all this. And today I think that, in a way, the first person I wanted to share what I saw and experienced with was him, my son. Even though I didn’t know him yet. And today I imagine him as having participated in this impossible dialogue. And what you now see in the book, ultimately, is also his dream of what was happening to me.”

Il Foglio, 5 November 2022

© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW

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