Curran Hatleberg’s new photobook, River’s Dream, begins with an image of a curious dog nosing through the tattered screen door of a rundown shack into the night-time darkness beyond. Though it does not exude the dreamlike otherness of many of the ensuing photographs, it slyly alerts us to what is to come. “It’s as if the dog is leading us through the looking glass to where the dream begins,” says Hatleberg.
Ten years in the making, River’s Dream is a vision of the American south that is by turns familiar and otherworldly, intimately observed and, at times, heightened to the point of hallucinatory. Following his instincts and buoyed by a Magnum Foundation grant, Hatleberg found himself drawn predominantly to the south-east of the country – “from Virginia and Louisiana down to Florida and as far west as east Texas” – but the vivid sense of place he evokes is imaginative rather than geographical.
People chill on their porches, mend their cars and play dominoes beneath the unforgiving sun. The slow rhythms of everyday life unfold against a backdrop of social decline: makeshift buildings, walls stained with damp, yards cluttered with junk. Throughout, there is a palpable atmosphere of inactivity and listlessness that the novelist and short-story writer Joy Williams deftly describes in her accompanying essay as “weary, post-consumer-ish”.
Hatleberg, who is 40, grew up in Washington DC and currently resides in Baltimore. For him, the American south is another country, and he entered it with an open mind and seemingly limitless curiosity. He is wary of the term “documentary photographer”, describing it as “too rudimentary”, and rejects outright the description “road photographer”, which has been applied to him in the past.
“I like to have a deep connection with the people I photograph and that requires time,” he says of his immersive approach. “Often, I was awed by people’s openness and trust. When a door opens, I go all the way in, as deep as they will allow. I travel with them, talk with them, have meals with them. And, from the get-go, the camera is always present, so there is no misunderstanding. It’s a strange tool because it tends to annihilate distance rather than accentuate it. I find that it’s often a way of cutting through.”
Here and there, his style nods to the southern quotidian sublime of William Eggleston – one image of a lone girl on a dusty road echoes a similar image by the older photographer – but more often his outsider’s eye is drawn to more surreal, sometimes joltingly grotesque, imagery. A biblical-looking man wears a beard of humming bees, a butchered and bloody alligator hangs upright, a fat, writhing snake emerges from a bath. “In Louisiana, the alligators are always there, like this low-level threat lingering just out of view,” he says. “Whereas the bee guy was just someone I encountered who made beards from bees to teach people not to be afraid of them. He looks quite strange, but he’s just an apiary enthusiast.”
In his photographs, nature is a relentlessly encroaching, unsettling presence: weeds spring up through abandoned shacks and rusting automobiles; snakes slither across wet surfaces. Decay is constant. Amid several, often disquieting, recurring motifs in River’s Dream, water is the most predominant and the most eerie. “The water reflected in Hatleberg’s eye, in the world he is chronicling, is slack, slick with torpor,” writes Williams. “It lies on the compacted soil of the junkyard and the cement steps of homes. Its oily sheen coats the alleys and the marshes.”
Published by TBW Books, an independent imprint based in Oakland, California, River’s Dream is an art object in itself, with an intricately marbled cover and large format colour plates. Intriguingly, Hatleberg’s images themselves seem to have a strange liquid lustre to them, as if the prints have just emerged from a developing tray. “Atmospherically, it’s a wet book,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to capture that heavy feeling of intense humidity, the high point of swelter, when you start sweating as soon as you move and never dry off all day.”
Hatleberg came to photography through painting, attending art college in Colorado before studying at Yale under acclaimed photographers such as Gregory Crewdson and Tod Papageorge. His first book, Lost Coast, published in 2016, was an intimate portrait of the town of Eureka, California, a once-thriving industrial community set amid a beautifully elemental natural landscape. River’s Dream is the result of a much more open-ended engagement with everyday American life.
“When I received the Magnum grant,” he says, “all I knew was that I wanted to head south in high summer and be open to any opportunity that came my way. For me, it’s all about invitation and chance. The project comes into shape later, when I’m editing the work and start to see certain organising principles within a big group of pictures – repeated motifs or maybe a unifying sense of atmosphere. Basically, the way I work means I impose the narrative and the meaning afterwards. In this instance, even the idea came later.”
Many of the most atmospheric images in River’s Dream are also the most mysterious. In one tableau, people are spread out across a scrubby field at dusk, the air around them wreathed in smoke. It was shot on the 4th of July – he’s not saying where – on a piece of waste-ground on which people had gathered to let off fireworks. It is a glimpse of a down-home communal ritual that is a world away from the extravagantly choreographed celebrations that simultaneously take place across more prosperous America cities. “I like my pictures to carry the mystery of what might be happening,” says Hatleberg. “Plus, there was a wonderful eagerness to that event that is very American. Many of those people had been out there since early morning letting off fireworks in the sunshine.”
In another image, a young girl sits amid the rubble of a demolished building, casually holding a snake that is spread out across her bare legs. I ask him if it was taken in the aftermath of a hurricane. “It could have been, but maybe not,” he replies. “A lot of the places I visited are in Hurricane Alley, and there is always this sense there that impending doom is just around the corner. For the people I encountered, though, hurricane season is a part of life. They don’t know what’s coming down the line, but that’s also where their toughness, resilience and stubbornness comes from.”
The narrative culminates in a trio of images in which a praying mantis alights on the hands – and transistor radio – of a couple drinking beer by the river. In closeup, Hatleberg captures the delight in the eyes of the woman whose day has been interrupted by the insect’s fragile presence. It could, I say, be a still from one of Terrence Malick’s most recent films about spiritual wonder and transcendence. “That’s good to hear,” he says. “We’re all, to some degree, captive to our influences. Malick, Eggleston, Faulkner – they are all subconsciously in there, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of them when I was making the pictures. I was just letting stuff happen and being alert to the possibilities. In a very real way, the depth of the work is attached to the depth of the experience.”