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Amani Willett had visited the woods of central New Hampshire since he was a child, as over the years his father looked for a place to build a cabin retreat. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the Brooklyn-based photographer began to investigate the area’s history.
“The cabin my dad built is on a lake called Hermit Lake and it’s just off a road called Hermit Woods Road,” Willett told Hyperallergic. “I was curious if they referenced someone who used to live in the area. After doing a little research, I learned about Joseph Plummer who, in the late 1700s, had left his family for a life of solitude in the woods.”
The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer, out now from Overlapse, considers this decision to exist in isolation. Willett’s photographs blur the past and present, with contemporary glimpses of a tree stump sliced with repetitive cuts from chopping wood, or an enigmatic moment when the watery floor of the forest glows with sunset colors. Personal objects owned by Plummer, archival images from the Meredith Historical Society, and Willett’s photographs retracing Plummer’s paths, join this meditation on self-exile.
“Before he left society for a life in the woods he was basically anonymous,” Willett said. “It was his act of leaving that turned him into a myth. Paradoxically, his desire to become invisible has only fueled people’s interest in his life. As I spent time piecing together what little I could of Joseph’s story through first-hand accounts, old newspaper articles, and help from the local historical society, I began to realize that in some ways my dad was following in his footsteps a few hundred years later.”
As in Willett’s 2013 monograph on family and social unrest, Disquiet, there is an underlying sense of unease, as the viewer is experiencing a fragmented journey. Even the scraps of information about the 18th-century hermit are cryptic. As one historical anecdote goes: “The Hermit did feel that roads and railroads would be the ruination of the land, and I was told that when the Town started to build the Hermit Woods Road near his home he went down with a rifle to stop them … Mr. Eastman claimed that the Hermit never owned a gun of any kind.” Likewise, the photographs mask faces with light and debris, and contrast the serenity of a reflective lake with the eldritch shape of a swaying tree. The diversity of imagery, from a black-and-white photograph of trees sewn together with red thread to obliterated pages from a book, adds to a portrait of a recluse whose separation from the world made him a legend.
“The modest information there is creates a mysterious, ambiguous portrait,” Willett explained. “From the beginning, I thought it important for my photographs to operate in the same way — to provide pieces of information to create a scattered narrative that honors the mystery of his life.”