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Book Review: Leviathan


Book Review Leviathan By Morgan Ashcom Reviewed by Colin Pantall Two years ago, From the Study on Post Pubescent Manhood by Stacy Kranitz was published. This was a saddle-stitched affair that featured full-bleed spreads of Kranitz’s immersive photography as she participated in the life of Skatopia, the anarchist skatepark farm run by Brewce Martin in Appalachia.

Leviathan. By Morgan Ashcom.
Peperoni Books, 2015.
 
Leviathan
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Leviathan
Photographs by Morgan Ashcom.
Peperoni Books, Berlin, Germany, 2015. In English. 74 pa pp., 33 illustrations, 11¾x11¾".


Two years ago, From the Study on Post Pubescent Manhood by Stacy Kranitz was published. This was a saddle-stitched affair that featured full-bleed spreads of Kranitz’s immersive photography as she participated in the life of Skatopia, the anarchist skatepark farm run by Brewce Martin in Appalachia.

Kranitz’s was an approach that was both personal and aggressive. There was no distance in either the photography or the attitude. The book was modest but the work was great; an adrenalin-fuelled way of working that is quietly gaining Kranitz a reputation on an international stage.

Morgan Ashcom also photographs Skatopia in his new book, Leviathan, a publication where the beauty of the pictures is matched by the beauty of the book. Stylistically it is as far removed from the work of Kranitz as you could imagine. Where Kranitz’s pictures are almost performative in their involvement with the young men of the farm, Ashcom’s are formal and distant, large format portraits in which the lives of Skatopia’s transient population are set against the lush vegetation of Appalachian Ohio.

Leviathan. By Morgan Ashcom. Peperoni Books, 2015.
Leviathan. By Morgan Ashcom. Peperoni Books, 2015.

Yet at the same time, there is an intimacy to it. Ashcom grew up on a farm in rural Virginia. In his statement he says, ‘In my work I use the language of realism to construct a fictional world, one that points to allegorical and mythological themes.’

In Leviathan the allegory centers on Skatopia, an island of escapism built upon the back of the beast-whale that is the United States. The allegory is laid out in a short text, part of which goes like this;

Elated, on the sands they build a fire,
A mounting blaze. There, light of heart, they sit-
No more discouraged-eager for sweet rest.
Then when the crafty fiend perceives that men,
Encamped upon him, making their abode,
Enjoy the gentile weather, suddenly
Under the salty waves he plunges down,
Straight to the bottom deep he drags his prey…

Leviathan. By Morgan Ashcom. Peperoni Books, 2015.

It’s a brilliant artist’s statement. It’s short, it’s poetic, it’s from the 2nd century and within these lines, Ashcom’s sentiments, sympathies and politics are all made clear. These are words that, if you read them, hook right into the work.

So the work is heartfelt and this affects how the book is read. It starts on the road to Skatopia, the mist shrouding the hills in which it lies, and then we’re on the farm itself, half-completed pools mixing with fireworks and burned out cars.

Leviathan. By Morgan Ashcom. Peperoni Books, 2015.

There’s blood-stained flesh and coming-down faces. We see the tail-fin of a whale (it’s not real) through a smashed up windscreen (that’s the leviathan of the title), and a wide shot shows the ramshackle, Wacky Races building that constitutes the beating heart of Skatopia. Shots of a half built pool repeat through the book giving a seasonal feel and the idea that not much happens on the ground, but it happens in people’s heads. It’s Mike Brodie mixed with Lucas Foglia and it has a quiet charm. But in this charm there is a touch of violence; the pot-bellied man giving the finger as the sun sets behind him, the man with a hole in his head where his skull used to be. He dies and we see the actual hole on the actual skull.

Leviathan. By Morgan Ashcom. Peperoni Books, 2015.

Folk stand around in clusters, some together, some apart. They blast fireworks at each other and they sit around waiting for something to happen. It’s come as you are, and come as you find it, but even here there are little pockets of comfort; it might be the dug out sleeping pit on the side of a road, it might be a stretched out armchair, or it might be the end of a graffiti scrawled caravan. So this is a place for escaping, for resting, for sleeping. Until the leviathan awakes, at least.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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