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Parliament of Owls: Reviewed by George Slade

Book Review Parliament of Owls Photographs by Jack Latham. Reviewed by George Slade Nestled within the redwood forests of Monte Rio, northern California, sits Bohemian Grove, a 2,700-acre retreat owned by the exclusive gentlemen’s San Francisco Bohemian Club, founded in 1872. Every summer, the retreat is frequented by the political and business elite of the US. Shrouded in secrecy, the activities at the grove have become the subject of countless conspiracy theories and rumors...
Parliament of Owls. By Jack Latham.
Parliament of Owls
Photographs by Jack Latham

Here Press, London, England, 2019. 192 pp., 9¼x12½".

Life is all about access, isn’t it?

As we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from the basic—food, water, rest, security, safety, etc.—to psychological needs of belonging, love, and esteem, we ascend toward the goal of self-realization. Every step involves access to resources. There’s not much room at the top of the pyramid; only the most determined can reach those heights...

Access to Fort Knox might help, though.

There are two kinds of people in Jack Latham’s book. Those with power and very deep pockets, and those with unquenchable compulsion. The former, ‘campers’ at Bohemian Grove, a private club in Northern California, are all male, almost entirely white, and most are card-carrying members of the one percent. On the other side are those who want to probe the mysteries and expose the details of the privileged enclave. Judging from the evidence Latham provides as researcher and visualizer, these are comparably white and male.

Parliament of Owls. By Jack Latham.

Our guide, and surrogate, employs visual and verbal devices, the archival, and the nominally present (photographs and transcribed interviews made ‘now,’ in 2018 and 2019, as opposed to evidence from a historical ‘then’) to construct a narrative. Despite his elliptical story-telling and refusal to draw conclusions, we follow his lead.

Parliament of Owls. By Jack Latham.
Latham combines several streams of information. Screen captures and dialogue excerpts from various videos accompany transcripts of exchanges between Latham and some of the principal antagonists. His own photography, typically of the physical environment around and inside the Grove, serves as one non-hierarchical element of the story. He engages an unusual cluster of determined myth busters, including Alex Jones, chief of InfoWars (“There’s a war on for your mind!”) and purveyor of noxious conspiracy theories. (If you look closely you will discover our current President among the Jones citations.) Another member of the team is the late Richard McCaslin, a.k.a. The Phantom Patriot. Check him out; he was singular.

Two types of pages comprise Parliament of Owls. One opens normally, the softcover folio lying flat before you. The other has an uncut lower edge. If you want to collect both the conventionally accessible imagery and the telling nuggets hidden within the folds, you must pick up the volume and manipulate it. Generously sized pages require you to pry towards the gutter. Don’t give up; critical information lies in the depths. One could use a knife to split the seam, though such a violent intrusion, while emulating Jones and McCaslin’s goals regarding Bohemian Grove, would spoil one of this book’s pleasures.

Parliament of Owls. By Jack Latham.

About those eponymous owls. They are central to Bohemian Grove’s mystique; a thirty-foot tall owl totem stands in the compound, another appears in the Grove’s logo. Five owls appear in uncanny studio portraits spaced throughout the book. Twin Peaks fans will find owlish ties to both the original series and the 2017 feature The Owls Are Not What They Seem. As a character observed, those nocturnal raptors “serve an imperative function. They remind us to look into the darkness.”

Is this book what it seems? Latham notes that the project is in part about “the dangers of not providing context to the public.” Is it entirely fictive, built on selective access to details?

Parliament of Owls holds many subversive delights. Recall the onion’s layers; there is always more to the picture, more implications to access. Be persistent.

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Parliament of Owls. By Jack Latham.
Parliament of Owls. By Jack Latham.

George Slade, aka re:photographica, is a writer and photography historian based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. He is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization TC Photo.

Image c/o Randall Slavin