In 2013 Amani Willett released Disquiet, one of the most beautiful books of that year. A sequence of images that contrasted the first years of his son’s life with the political and social turbulence that was swirling around him in his home country of America. This was (and is) a gem of a book that balances melancholy and uncertainty, with a tempered optimism that befitted the titular disquiet of the times.
Now four years later come his latest work The Disappearance Of Joseph Plummer. This is an altogether different proposition. In fact from the moment you pick it up, this has a very different feel to it. If anything it could be mistaken for a novel. The book size and format, the illustration on the cover, even the graphics. It all has the feel of a vintage Conan Doyle, or Jack London. Also unlike the very personal approach used with Disquiet, this time Willett had a much more unusual source for his subject material.
When Willett’s father purchased the deeds to an area of land in New Hampshire which he intended to develop as a rustic retreat, he was unaware of the existence of the hermit, named Joseph Plummer who had inhabited the area hundreds of years earlier.
Upon discovering the story Amani Willett began to research the man behind the myth and construct an imagined pictorial biography of Plummer. Using archival images and excerpts from texts which he seamlessly juxtaposed against his own original work, and by scouring local archives for reliable evidence of his subject, sure enough a portrait of Joseph began to emerge.
The similarities between the hermit and his father were undeniable. In the 1700s Plummer had retreated from society and pursued a solitary existence where he could commune with nature and live off the land. Whilst Willett’s father probably had no desire to be quite so reclusive, the land had, it seems, been purchased to be used as a place of refuge away from the maelstrom of twenty first century life.
Whilst it would be fair to say that the structure and layout of the book is one that has been used before, anyone who has seen, for example, a copy of Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood will undoubtedly see a few similarities – a tale with a factual basis, which is given an imagined, albeit informed spin by the artist – but this criticism would be more than a little disingenuous, as no matter how many comparisons could be levelled, this book more than stands on it’s own two feet and does so beautifully.
It is also important to remember that, whilst the story that drives the book is fascinating, we should not loose sight of what gives the book it’s true beauty, the photographs of Amani Willett. These beautiful images are used to spectacular effect to evoke mood and drama. The air of melancholy and mystery perfectly captured by the pallet and dream like exposures of his pictures. Whilst obviously being conceived for this narrative, the diversity and style of each image is perfectly suited to, and wonderfully evokes each scene. A spectral figure moving through the landscape, dark, solitary, private. A stack of logs on a porch in half light, a human presence. An illuminated road sign in the dead of night, confusion, isolation. An axe, and the tree stump that bears it’s scars, self sufficiency, masculinity. Hazy impressionistic landscapes that suggest memories of a time long since passed.
The Disappearance Of Joseph Plummer is a beautiful, elegant and cinematic tale, and more to the point, it allows Willett to stylistically flex his muscles and stretch his wings. His talent as a photographer has never been in doubt, now he has also proved himself very adept at storytelling. I would go so far as to say that tales with much less substance have been made into movies by people with far less vision……mmm, a movie, now there’s a thought.
This review first appeared on: PhotoBookStore.co.uk