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Sleep Creek: Reviewed by Brad Zellar


Book Review Sleep Creek Photographs by Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth Reviewed by Brad Zellar "Sleep Creek’s cumulative power shares much with the darkest, most batshit-crazy, and vaguely (or not so vaguely) sinister folk tales, mythology, film noir, and biblical prophecy; imagine Night of the Hunter remade as a zombie film with a screenplay by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Samuel Beckett..."
Sleep Creek. By Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZJ133
Sleep Creek  
Photographs by Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth

Void, Athens, Greece, 2019. 144 pp., 6¾x8½".

Generally, by the time I spend money on a photobook I’ve heard about it from or had it described to me by friends, read about it somewhere, or spent time looking at it — usually at one of the art book fairs, none of which I attended last year. When I received Sleep Creek in the mail, however, I knew nothing whatsoever about it, and was entirely unfamiliar with the work of Hausthor and Guilmoth.

I realized, though, that the first photobooks I fell for were all blind discoveries at the local Carnegie library in the smallish town where I grew up. Those books — Diane Arbus’s first monograph, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and William Eggleston’s Guide, every one of which was wondrous and deeply mysterious to an adolescent boy who’d never been anywhere — were pure discoveries; I’d never heard of any of those people, and had no way then of knowing they’d created anything of lasting significance. I realize now, though, having revisited them one more time, that each of those books includes some orienting text in the form of essays and/or blurbs.

Sleep CreekBy Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth.

Sleep Creek, however, features no text at all, beyond the usual stuff you’ll find on the copyright page. The cover features not a photograph, but a gold engraving of a goat huddled in what appears to be a shower of stardust, and the book’s design is compact and elegant, but don’t be fooled: that goat is in fact Hausthor and Guilmoth’s ingenious Trojan Horse (“Oh,” my wife said when I opened the package. “That looks like a sweet little book.”).

Sleep CreekBy Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth.
I’ve always loved looking at photographs, but I’m also a helpless creature of language, and the challenge for me has always been to translate the images I see into words, to tease from them some sort of narrative — or at the very least narrative fragments, faint voices, scraps of poetry, or even just an appropriate and satisfying epigraph. And usually when a book of photos confounds all such attempts, I get bored and end up feeling stupid and resentful. I guess I like to have at least a small sense that a book is about something. Yet with every fresh pass, Sleep Creek confounds not just interpretation, but comprehension; it eludes coherent narrative structure at every turn, and from page to page — and photo to photo — it whipsaws vertiginously between the arctic and the inferno, terror and enchantment. And those are precisely the reasons why I find it so fascinating and consistently unsettling. Hausthor and Guilmoth have entirely their own thing going on, but for those who like general comparisons, imagine, say, Trent Parke dosed with LSD and dispatched to the First Circle of hell. As I time and again flipped through the pages of this book I felt like I were stumbling through a dark, overgrown, and terrifying landscape and was trying to navigate with nothing but a jerking, erratic compass from a box of Crackerjacks. And for me, the definition of the purely visionary is disorientation that works.

Sleep CreekBy Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth.
Sleep CreekBy Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth.

Sleep Creek’s cumulative power shares much with the darkest, most batshit-crazy, and vaguely (or not so vaguely) sinister folk tales, mythology, film noir, and biblical prophecy; imagine Night of the Hunter remade as a zombie film with a screenplay by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Samuel Beckett. This is a book full of what I call “what the hell?” pictures, but these aren’t the sorts of “what the hell?” pictures I’m now accustomed to seeing in so many boring or pretentious photobooks. And that’s because with Hausthor and Guilmoth, “what the hell?” is merely a question that triggers an avalanche of other questions. And the more time I spent with the book, the more urgent the answers to those questions started to feel. There are a couple dozen photos here — photos, I should say, that on their own would look merely mysterious or even pretty if framed next to your desk — that I’ve now spent the last week being haunted by and obsessively interrogating; they nonetheless persist in refusing to offer up any answers or comprise a narrative, but they do invite myriad inventions of one, and that, to me, is a fantastic gift to receive from any piece of art.

By pure coincidence, as I was reading before bed last night, I stumbled across the previously elusive epigraph I’d been looking for. In Jorge Luis Borges’ The Wall and the Books he writes, “Music, states of happiness, mythologies, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain landscapes, are trying to tell us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; this imminence of a revelation that does not take place is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.”

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Sleep CreekBy Dylan Hausthor & Paul Guilmoth.

Brad Zellar is a writer who has collaborated with photographer Alec Soth on a number of projects, including The LBM Dispatch, a series of seven newspapers devoted to American community in the age of cyberspace. Zellar has also made books with Adrianna Ault, Raymond Meeks, Tim Carpenter, and Jason Vaughn, and is the author of Suburban World: The Norling Photos, Conductors of the Moving World, House of Coates, and Driftless. He lives in St. Paul.

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