There is a loose tribe living at nature’s margins in the United States, slaughtering goats raised by hand at Idaho’s Lost River and picking cherries growing wild in California’s Marble Mountain Wilderness. Seattle-based photographer Adrain Chesser followed some of these wanderers from 2006 to 2012, capturing scenes of a rough and nomadic existence.
In collaboration with ritualist Timothy White Eagle, and with support from a Kickstarter campaign, Chesser published The Return this April with non-profit Daylight Books. Clad in an embossed cardboard cover with poetry and minimal text from White Eagle, Chesser’s book is full of quiet pauses. Sweeping western landscapes dwarf his subjects, and portraits show the contemporary hunter-gatherers as they shift their homes by the season across Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Northern California. While the tattoos on arms, green hair dye growing out, and a poignant scene of one subject wearing buckskin in Burger King keep the transformation away from society incomplete, there is a distinct distance from the urban world. White Eagle writes:
The subjects in The Return are predominantly not indigenous. Most carry European ancestry, and most come in one form or another from the disenfranchised margins of mainstream America. Most are poor, some are queer, some are transgender, some are hermits, and some are politically radical. All believe that major shifts are needed in the way modern society interacts with the natural world.
White Eagle and Chesser met at a 2007 ceremony in Tennessee, each interested in this symbiotic relationship with nature. White Eagle’s writing tends to embrace more of an idealization of returning to the root fields and abandoned orchards from an American Indian culture that was moved aside by American settlers’ brutal Manifest Destiny, while Chesser’s photographs are less gentle, showing the hardships along with the beauty. His previous projects have often been sharply personal and emotional, such as I have something to tell you where he photographed his friends right after he told them his HIV-positive diagnosis, and Orange Blossoms, Fire Ants, and the Tyranny of Memory where he documented his harrowing returns to his conservative hometown in South Florida.
While this time the photographs aren’t about him, Chesser keeps that open vulnerability in The Return. The book can feel like a call to arms to detach from destructive modernity, and to “consider the whole in […] every daily action, and in consideration of the future,” yet it also leads you to consider what it means when you declare “king’s x” to the industrialized world. As Chesser’s photographs show in almost every frame — with the mass-produced clothes and glimpses of concrete roads that stretch even into the most remote of places — modernity clings to you like a burr.
The Return by Adrain Chesser is available from Daylight Books.