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Book Review: Northwoods Journals


Book Review Northwoods Journals By Kurt Simonson Reviewed by Karen Jenkins As a young boy, Kurt Simonson discovered a sealed envelope in his grandmother’s dresser drawer labeled “not to be opened until my death.” Its secret contents and deferred revelations haunted him in the decades to follow. After nearly twenty years away from home, he returned to Minnesota to revisit the familiar and familial.
Northwoods JournalsBy Kurt Simonson
Flash Powder Projects, 2015.
 
Northwoods Journals
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Northwoods Journals
Photographs by Kurt Simonson. Essay by George Slade. Poem by Franz Wright.
Flash Powder Projects, Albuquerque, NM, USA, 2015. In English. 136 pp., 65 color illustrations, 10x8".


As a young boy, Kurt Simonson discovered a sealed envelope in his grandmother’s dresser drawer labeled “not to be opened until my death.” Its secret contents and deferred revelations haunted him in the decades to follow. After nearly twenty years away from home, he returned to Minnesota to revisit the familiar and familial. Photographs made there during the last twelve-odd years comprise his debut publication, Northwoods Journals. An image of the now-opened envelope lying face down on a crocheted afghan starts off the sequence; its sliced seam announces his grandmother’s passing, while its otherwise unyielding muteness sets the tone for the works to follow. No literal explanation of the envelope’s contents, good or bad, commemorative or confessional, is offered here. Nor are we presented with a straightforward narrative elucidation of the family legacy that seems to hinge upon it. Yet, Simonson does give us something to open — a few short paragraphs to set the stage. A tipped in sheet of paper, folded over in thirds reproduces a handwritten note by the photographer. In it, Simonson tells the story of the envelope’s discovery and its portentous influence over him. He also points to some broad themes and symbols in his work — from the bibles and blankets requisite of both grandmothers’ homes to the entrancing depths of the surrounding Minnesota woods.

Northwoods JournalsBy Kurt SimonsonFlash Powder Projects, 2015.
Northwoods JournalsBy Kurt SimonsonFlash Powder Projects, 2015.

Inside the homes of his extended Minnesota family, Simonson photographs those spaces and details less self-consciously arranged by their inhabitants. Places where a kid might play alone, or poke around in during a family visit – inside the bathroom medicine cabinet or the basement rec room. Dated wallpaper and carpet endure and catch his eye, like the school portraits and trophies also depicted here. Simonson’s interiors seem well-insulated from the Minnesota elements. A rare block of natural light penetrating their wood-panel and cinder-block solidity illuminates a water heater in one cellar domestic scene. While some views give up dreams of another place — vacation snapshots and an elaborate hand-drawn map of the Magic Kingdom fill a foldout spread — most adventures are close to home and out of doors. The lush Minnesota woods and waters are alternatively bright and welcoming and moody and mysterious in Simonson’s view. He blends past and present in this photographic exploration of the natural world he grew up in; with his siblings and their children now exploring its dark corners and dire realities. Life goes on, but death and decay are also here. Small dead creatures are strung up and pinned down by these anonymous protagonists who move gracefully among abandoned, rusting cars and machines, their motives and machinations purposefully enigmatic. A photograph of a trampoline and its reflection in a body of water looks like a portal to another world. A magic kingdom indeed.

Northwoods JournalsBy Kurt SimonsonFlash Powder Projects, 2015.
Northwoods JournalsBy Kurt SimonsonFlash Powder Projects, 2015.

In his accompanying essay, George Slade sagely argues that “storytelling and photography benefit from subtraction and withholding,” and that Simonson’s work is richer for its opacity and half-truths. The envelope and its secret contents both drive the narrative here and are beside the point. There are perils to pinning our meaning to someone else’s truth, or giving the unknowable too much power. The quick rewards of an easy read are not a Simonson family value. Even the homemade family tree that Simonson photographs requires a good deal of unpacking — laying out its branches not in who, where and when, but in genetic traits in abbreviation and color code. “Read over again,” instructs an annotation on a page of a grandmother’s bible depicted here. An apt directive for the devout reader and the key to unlocking the power of Northwoods Journals, a seductive collection of photographs that delightfully eschews a ready narrative or pat answers.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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