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Echo Mask: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Echo Mask Photographs by Jonathan Levitt Reviewed by Blake Andrews The photographs in Echo Mask were made primarily in the Maritime Northeast between Newfoundland and Maine, and around the mangrove islands and hardwood hammocks of the subtropical Southeast.
Echo Mask. By Jonathan Levitt.
Echo Mask  
Photographs by Jonathan Levitt

Charcoal Press, Ohio, USA, 2019. In English. 96 pp., 9¼x12".

Jonathan Levitt’s new book, Echo Mask, opens with a brief flurry of charcoal skies. Such scenes will be familiar to anyone who's spent time along Levitt's native Maine coast, where weather windows can close quickly. Next comes the book’s basic framework: a grainy monochrome image across a two-page spread, followed by a small centered block of text.

The prose touches on natural phenomena, museum holdings, and the title—Echo Mask refers to ceremonial headgear worn by Northwestern natives—among other topics. At first, I took the passage to be a summary photo caption. But not so fast. The words aren’t literal, just odd. Dreamy. Poetic. “Great," responded Lenz when I told him I found the texts to be pure mystery. "The exact experience we hoped for! We really wanted the book to be something that gets stuck in your teeth. Something that nags at you and you can’t quite figure it out." Mission accomplished.

There are seven such breaks at regular intervals throughout the book, in which a two-page spread is followed by a text block numbered sequentially by Roman numerals. These words provide small verbal harbors where the mind might rest a moment—a brief refuge from the photos. Well, perhaps rest isn't the right word. They require some work, and even then I still found them impenetrable. But to their credit, these words operate in a part of the brain far removed from the photosensors. They are somewhat jarring, which I’m guessing is the intended effect.

Words aside, most of the book is photos. Levitt's images are concerned primarily with the natural world and its strange machinations. There are plants and animals shown in their habitats. Note, "animals" includes humans, which Levitt depicts with warm intimacy. Also rocks, fungi, water, mountains, coast, and other general components of earthbound existence. Levitt is a serious cook with a master’s in gastronomy, and he’s included pictures in that vein too: eggs, meat, fish, animal skin, and the most forlorn rustic kitchen I've seen in a while.

The photos bounce from subject to subject, mixing proximity, color palette, size, and aspect ratio in assorted form. A horizontal monochrome mountain landscape is followed by a small, vertical color photo of a fish in a jar. A foggy grey chasm is followed by what seems to be a colorfully mis-exposed mushroom. A snarling polar bear sits across the page from some strange runic script. Connections are tenuous. The reader is kept guessing.

Regardless of specific subject, Echo Mask circles back continually to its fundamental themes: life/death, natural cycles, rudimentary elements. "The best food is usually very simple," Levitt tells Juxtapoz. "…It's the same with photography. The best pictures are simple and timeless." His visual style is primordial and murky, with “some element of chaos,” as Levitt describes it. That said, the pictures feel exact. They’re clean, not messy, and teed up precisely on the page as smallish frames with wide white cushions.

The visual style of Echo Mask falls in line with books such as Maja Daniels Elf Dalia, Matthew Genitempo’s Jasper, Jenia Fridlyand’s Entrance To Our Valley, and (Levitt’s neighbor, geographically and stylistically) Gary Briechle’s Maine. Although these titles tend toward the tack sharp, they feel somehow fuzzy, with pictorialist leanings. Many are shot in the intermountain West, but, regardless of location, they tend to exude the unsettled sensibility of the frontier. Mood takes general precedence over reportage, and monochrome’s abstraction offers refuge from straight truth.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at