‘What the Living Carry’ (published by MACK, London) is the most recent work and publication from Morgan Ashcom; a semi-autobiographical yet imagined narrative surrounding a rural town named Hoy Forks. The town is wholly fictional, produced through an amalgamation of real people and places that Ashcom has experienced over numerous years. The name itself is taken from Cormac McCarthy’s also semi-autobiographical novel Suttree, and even here in the title of the work we see perhaps the most pertinent idea throughout What the living Carry — one of parallels, leaning on personal experience and letting the real influence the imaginary. These literary beginnings seen in the title are a compelling albeit unfamiliar place to start from, but crucially foreground the importance of literature to Ashcom and one can see the rhythm of written narratives permeate both the photographs and structure of the book.
It is not at all surprising, given the continuing relationship between literature and Ashcom’s work, that What the Living Carry functions much like a literary novel; the narratives that Ashcom at least hints at appears wholly realistic, the photographs are of real people who will inherently have their own real narratives and wherever the places that make up Hoy Forks actually are, they are still real places albeit under different names. Yet at the same time when one reads a novel, despite it being entirely plausible, there is an acceptance that the narrative is concurrently fictitious. By definition of a novel being fictitious prose, one never reads a novel with the expectation that any of it happened or at least there is a willingness to accept that the work weaves between both the real and imagined. This feels exceedingly true for Ashcom’s book and we engage in this fictitious yet believable narrative because it maintains this realism. Perhaps this idea is even more pertinent within What the Living Carry because we physically see these people and places; they are not simply words on a page and by visually engaging with the photographs, that realism is even more tangible than in if the book was purely made from words.
Hoy Forks itself is as much a utopia as it is a dystopia; an idea of a place that offers an idyllic rural escape from the tensions of booming modernity yet holds a profound and sombre subtext of forgotten communities, lost directions and dwindling American dreams. The serenity that Ashcom presents to us on the surface is progressively and jarringly questioned by the more uncomfortable works in the book, seemingly always offering us the start to a somewhat disturbing array of narratives but never conclusive endings. And in this way each photograph plays internally against itself; vacant streets seem blissfully calm yet become increasingly uneasy to look at, a pleasant backwood footpath is fractured with a sign reading “Sex Pit” and the lonesome distant characters that populate the book are photographed in warm seductive light. It is an alluring, although at times difficult, position to be placed in as a reader. A photograph of an older gentleman, leant against a set of steps in beautiful evening light with an open bottle of champagne next to him offers us both the possibilities to project our own innumerable thoughts into the scene but equally there remains an unsettling realisation that the gentleman has a very real story of his own.
Ashcom shows a genuine acknowledgment for the fragmentary nature of a photograph; that despite a photograph being an ode to what is being photographed, it rarely satisfies a whole truth or conversation and the book uses this innate and often problematic characteristic to perform as starting points to different conversations, stories and ways of thinking. His poetic and melancholic wanderings that make up What the Living Carry seem very much to be an inward conversation with himself and by traversing through this landscape, the work acts as a personal mediation for Ashcom. There is such a palpable and anecdotal relationship between Ashcom’s rural Virginian upbringing and the narratives he searches for in this fictional town of Hoy Forks. Morgan’s move to an urban domain away from his family farm and his consequent need for a space to reconnect where he would often find himself in woodland areas similar to the idea that Hoy Forks constructs (intriguingly Suttree also found escape in the woods) starts to demonstrate how heavily the work is made from personal experience. The name “Hoy Forks” comes from a grave that was near to Ashcom’s childhood farm and the more the book is deconstructed, the more apparent these parallels are. Yet at the same time the book also appears to be an outward conversation, or at least invites us to project our own personal experiences and thoughts into the book, allowing them to influence the narratives that we then perceive. Thus while the book is personal for Ashcom, it also becomes personal for the reader.
Despite the melancholic rhythm to the book, four typewritten letters interspersed between the photographs present brief and somewhat comedic points that puncture this undulating current. The letters are written from ‘Eugene’ at the Center for Epigenetics and Wellness of the Spirit addressed to Morgan in response to his request for DNA analysis and here we experience Ashcom situating himself directly within the narrative. The textual inserts not only see Morgan become a character within the overall narrative but it furthers our belief in the book and Hoy Forks as Eugene recites anecdotes from around the town. The inserts are incredibly thoughtful, sitting comfortably within the pages both conceptually and physically where even the convincing font seems to be suited to the town of Hoy Forks.
What the Living Carry is a beautifully open-ended piece of fiction. Firmly influenced by literature and memory, it’s astutely situated in an imagined place that refuses a singular and fixed perception of itself. Instead it oscillates continually with the imagination and experiences of each reader yet pleasingly always remains deeply personal to Aschom himself
Images courtesy of Morgan Ashcom and Mack Books. All images © Morgan Ashcom.
Morgan Ashcom is an artist based in Charlottesville, VA whose work explores the tension between invented and experienced narratives. Ashcom’s work has been exhibited and published nationally and internationally including two solo exhibitions at Candela Gallery and the Houston Center for Photography in 2018. His work has received numerous awards including Center’s Choice Awards, the German Photobook Award and the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s Photography Now Purchase Prize. Ashcom has been an artist in residence at Light Work and has taught at Western Connecticut State University, Ithaca College, University of Hartford, Cornell University and the University of Virginia. See more of Morgan Ashcom’s work — Website
Perimeter x Heavy is a new editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy’s inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.