Meet the men living deep in the Ozarks, away from the fray

Matthew Genitempo has been making photographs for only about 15 years, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at his book, “Jasper.” (Twin Palms, 2018). The book, Genitempo’s first, ended up on many “best of” lists closing out 2018, and the recognition was well-deserved. Focusing on the lives of men who have seemingly taken themselves out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life, “Jasper” provides an antidote to what sometimes seems like a too chaotic and busy world.

Genitempo’s approach while making the book was to let his instincts take precedence over preconceived ideas. Before making the work that would end up forming “Jasper,” Genitempo told In Sight that he had been spinning his wheels on another project in the Southwest United States. He was pursuing an MA in fine arts at the time and was given the advice to hunker down in Austin, where he was living at the time, and force himself to make pictures there. That lasted a week before he felt the need to get out of town, ending up some 20 miles outside of Austin in a forest called the Lost Pines.

In the forest, Genitempo opened himself up to experimenting with the camera. He told In Sight, “I alternated between cameras, I switched to black and white, I began using flash, and I freed myself from the tripod. I was learning to use my intuition and to make pictures leading with my eyes and my instincts rather than preconceived ideas. I was making pictures in response to the woods.” And while he was freeing himself up, he also began meeting the people who made this area home, “I was really taken by that. Here was this place that was not far from where I lived, and people were making a life here that seemed so uninhabitable.”

This experience dovetailed nicely in something Genitempo was always interested in but didn’t totally know it: “I’ve been traveling the American West for 10-plus years, picking up hitchhikers, seeking out loners, photographing most of them and never really questioning why. ‘Jasper’ was me sort of reckoning with all that.”

The Lost Pines is a disjunct belt of loblolly pine trees that is separated by over a hundred miles from the Piney Woods region that runs through East Texas and into Arkansas, eventually connecting with the Ozarks, as they stretch down from Missouri. Genitempo followed the trail of evergreens to the mountains.

“Jasper” is a book of images that, ultimately, comes together to paint a lyrical and poetic portrait of a hermitic world deep in the woods of the Ozarks. But maybe the book is less a portrait of a place than it is a poetic meditation on a state of mind. In that case, it would be no coincidence that Genitempo says that the work was, if indirectly, heavily influenced by his reading of a somewhat obscure poet and land surveyor himself from the Ozarks, Frank Stanford.

Stanford himself grew up in the Ozarks, and that’s what he wrote about. Sometimes referred to as the Rimbaud of the Ozarks, he was a tragic figure: never finishing his undergraduate degree, didn’t really pursue a career as a poet and died of suicide before he reached the age of 30. His work, all about the Ozarks, is known for its unabashed romanticism and is highly regarded (today his work is housed at Yale’s famed Beinecke Library).

Here’s what Genitempo has to say about Stanford: “I was reading so much Stanford before heading to the Ozarks. … It was just a coincidence that I was reading Stanford at the time, but I think his poems are ultimately what led me to the Ozarks. By the time I finally got there, I couldn’t shake his influence. I had a sort of Stanford lens on everything. So much so, that I unknowingly illustrated some of the lines from his poems.” Stanford’s influence is so present in the book, he could have been one of the characters you meet in its pages.

Here are some photos from “Jasper.”

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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