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Book Review: The Return


Book Review The Return By Adrain Chesser Reviewed by Blake Andrews America is a country rooted in Utopianism. We can do it better. That's the driving Mantra. And while it may not always be true — in fact most Utopian communities fall far short — it hasn't stopped people from trying. Almost from the moment the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, side communities have splintered off in search of greener pastures. But these haven't been mere dead ends. They've structured the nation.

The Return. By Adrain Chesser.
Daylight Books, 2014.
 
The Return
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

The Return
By Adrain Chesser
Daylight Books, 2014. 144 pp., 72 color illustrations, 9x10¾". 

America is a country rooted in Utopianism. We can do it better. That's the driving Mantra. And while it may not always be true — in fact most Utopian communities fall far short — it hasn't stopped people from trying. Almost from the moment the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, side communities have splintered off in search of greener pastures. But these haven't been mere dead ends. They've structured the nation. Jeffersonian Democracy imagined a nation of independent agrarian outposts, and the pastoral ideal was later legislated as prescriptive social engineering in the form of 40 acres and a mule courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Until the 20th Century the Utopian equation was simple: Go West, young man. But the frontier has long been closed. California now has 38 million residents. The pioneering edge has been forced back on itself, sometimes circling many times before finding a home. One place it has found refuge is the Great Basin region. The intermountain West may not pose a physical frontier but the frontier spirit is alive and well there. In recent years it has caught the interest of photographers Alec Soth, Mike Brodie, Lucas Foglia, and Bryan Schutmaat, among others. Now Adrain Chesser joins the fray with The Return.

The Return. By Adrain ChesserDaylight Books, 2014.

The Return documents the members of Coyote Camp, a loose tribe of idealists practicing a pre-industrial lifestyle largely reliant on hunting and gathering. In his brief introduction Timothy White Eagle explains that most come "from the disenfranchised margins of mainstream America. All believe that major shifts are needed in at the way modern society interacts with the natural world." Modern day Pilgrims.

Well duh. Industrial civilization — Heart Eater Monster, to use Eagle's term — is destroying the planet. It's the sort of connect-the-dots realization that hits most adolescents at one point or another. But unlike most young people, these folks have actually taken the lesson to heart and followed through. They've gathered friends, dropped out, and are practicing the deep ecology habits that are probably necessary for planetary sustainability. Whether they've created a true Utopia or not is an open question. Paul Shepard and John Zerzan might say yes. Industrial apologists — and that includes most of us — would say no. Most will satisfy any Utopian cravings with a week of Burning Man or Rainbow Gathering before returning to convenience. For Coyote Camp, the commitment is lasting and total.

The Return. By Adrain ChesserDaylight Books, 2014.

Judging by Chesser's photos they live a hard, rugged life. It's full of dirt and blood and woodfires and walking. It involves sleeping outdoors and killing animals and foraging for berries and other societally obviated skills. These ordinary challenges are exacerbated by the fact that the tribe is nomadic. They follow "the hoop," an ancient nomadic circle sweeping through four states. 40 Acres and a mule would be a problem for these folks. 40 million acres might suit them better.

The Return. By Adrain ChesserDaylight Books, 2014.

If all of this sounds slightly familiar it might be from reading accounts of Native Americans. That's no accident. Coyote Camp consciously models its habits on nomadic pre-Columbian societies. Teepees, skins and totems appear regularly in the photographs, and even their communication has taken on the character of native verse. Timothy White Eagle's text is written in the archaic, earthy, and slightly fluffy language of true believers consumed by a separate path. "…and the heroic youth / will be the first to walk this path / this tribe and others will begin the great Un-Spinning…" That sort of thing. It's not exactly evangelical but it has the tone of ancient scripture. Unfortunately, White Eagle occasionally over-reaches. To claim that "The First People" supposedly lived in The Garden "without intrusion" is wrong and smacks of romantic primitivism. The world is slightly more complicated than Noble Savage vs. Heart Eater Monster. But I suppose that's a minor quibble. Generally the text performs its task, which is to set a Native American mood for the photographs.

The Return. By Adrain ChesserDaylight Books, 2014.

Ah yes, the photos. They're quite entertaining. Chesser counters between formal portraiture and set pieces in an entertaining mix. He mixes straight landscape and human activity, and along the way manages to convey the story of Coyote Camp, or at least some of it. His use of light is exquisite. If it's sometimes overly sentimental, that can be excused by the subject matter. This is the new Utopia remember, the great un-Spinning. It must be presented as Heroic. Most importantly the photos convey an intimacy dependent on exclusive access, as Chesser had to track down the tribe and then live among them for many months to capture these scenes. The investment pays off with the photographs. There will be inevitable comparisons to Lucas Foglia and Mike Brodie. Some of the photos here might pass unnoticed in A Natural Order or A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. Some manage to pass unnoticed in various other projects by Chesser. But for The Return they've been sharply edited into a meaningful work.

The Return. By Adrain ChesserDaylight Books, 2014.

The layout and reproductions are excellent, but I'm not a fan of bare cardboard binding. Why go to the trouble of making beautiful pages, only to wrap them in the equivalent of a cheap cardboard box? And no bookcover? Maybe this is just a personal thing. Perhaps cardboard is in, and I'm just old fashioned. In any case my fresh copy of The Return already has dinged corners, and I suspect it may not age well on the shelf. But that may be by design as the book follows the spirit of nomadic culture. No plastic, no artificial permanence. Every object is inherently e phemeral including this book, including the Utopias.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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