The first monograph from American photographer Jesse Lenz is a languorous meditation on life in America’s rural Midwest, where sweeping lowland plains meet lush forest and rugged hills. The Locusts was shot around his Ohio farm, where Lenz recently settled with his wife and three young children after a testing year driving across America in an Airstream.
Born from the need to re-calibrate and decompress, the monochrome series reflects a passage of reorientation in Lenz’s life. The surrounding landscape, pictured as simultaneously tranquil and threatening, is where Lendz slowly re-discovers a form of lost innocence: the thrill of discovery and serenity in nature that was intuitively clear to his children.
Having previously worked as an illustrator and graphic artist for the likes of Rolling Stone and The New York Times, in 2014 Lenz co-founded The Collective Quarterly, a publication that explores people and place with a slower pace of photojournalism. The long-form structure of the Quarterly set the tone for Lenz’s next venture, The Charcoal Book Club, a subscription-based service offering a new photobook through the mail every month, each chosen by a leading figure in the field.
Given the considerable energy expenditure of running these ventures (Lenz also founded the acclaimed Chico Hot Springs Portfolio Review in addition to his continuing work in illustration), Ohio’s bucolic setting offered an urgent panacea that Lenz was initially reluctant to swallow. As he describes below, his appreciation for the area was initially vicarious – felt through the excitement his children found in its Edenic freedom and pure sense of life.
Now however, the self-taught photographer has adjusted his senses and fixed any misgivings to produce a debut monograph that spotlights what the good life looks like in 2020.
Finn Blythe: What inspired the move to Ohio and how did it change your own process or way of seeing?
Jesse Lenz: There were many factors that all coincided with moving to Ohio that affected my way of seeing. After about six years producing and publishing a traveling art journal, The Collective Quarterly, the last year of which my family was traveling North America in an airstream, I discovered photobooks. I began collecting and immersed myself in “art photography” which was the genesis of Charcoal Book Club, the photobook subscription service. I hadn’t had any inspiration to draw from when I was on the road, only Instagram. Looking back now I can see how much my way of seeing was impacted by the mindset of commercial and lifestyle photography. Always looking for the perfect sunset, the perfect moment, getting upset when life got in the way of a “decisive moment”.
My sons were three, two, and one when we sold everything and went on the road. It was very difficult living in 30ft of space with boys that age. We had hoped to live on the road for about five years, but we had to pull the plug for our sanity. We bought the house my wife grew up in, that her family built. At first, I did not want to move to Ohio, I wanted to live out West again. I felt really embarrassed and depressed to move back to the Ohio/West Virginia area. The landscape and culture was very subtle, and did not speak to me. A place gives you back the energy you put into it. I did not want to move to Ohio, and thus I didn’t feel connected to it. I rejected it, and it rejected me.
The Locusts, Jesse Lenz, 2020
“A place gives you back the energy you put into it. I did not want to move to Ohio, and thus I didn’t feel connected to it. I rejected it, and it rejected me.”
I had been immersing myself in photobooks and for the first time realised the issue was my own perspective. That others, including my children, had found magic buried in similar landscapes. I decided to let my children be my guides. Spending time watching them play, listening to their ideas, being bored with them, spending the kind of time with them I did with sources when I was doing photojournalism. When I did this, the world around me came alive. I began to recognize the hawks on our property, observing them with their fledglings, watching them kill snakes and mice in the field. Going for walks with my boys, looking for mushroom patches like treasure hunters and searching for owls and other birds like we were “Pokemon trainers”.
FB: Can you talk a little about the book’s title?
JL: The title is subtext. I wanted the viewer to be in a biblical or mythological state of mind when viewing the work. To constantly hear a buzzing behind each image. According to the book of Exodus, locusts were one of ten plagues God inflicted upon Egypt as a demonstration of power. Yet, locusts are also said to be the food of prophets and holy men during times of pilgrimage, exile, and hiding in the wilderness. To me, the word immediately brings to mind wilderness and loss. It presents the complex relationship between anxiety and hope, blessing and curse, sin and salvation.
[American author] Brad Zellar said it best, “You’re always hyper-aware that beyond every frame of every photo, the heartbreaking locusts of progress and desecration are out there somewhere, massing inexorably in the darkness beyond the cardboard fortresses and the fields.”
The Locusts, Jesse Lenz, 2020
“When you struggle to find hope and beauty where it isn’t obvious, you embark on the same journey all of humankind has been on since the beginning of consciousness. Looking for grace in the wreckage of life.”
FB: What changes (if any) did you notice in your children after settling in Ohio?
JL: I think children grow best when they have roots. I never had that. I was a missionary kid, always on the move. I realised that I am only at peace when I am on the move to the next place. I loved my upbringing, but it has certainly lent to a difficulty in being fully present in my life. I am always planning the next thing or dwelling on the past.
My wife and I experienced a large relief from stress when we finally settled back down. It was very dangerous for our children in all the landscapes we traveled in. We didn’t realise how anxious we were until we came back. Also, I feel having limitations is very important to creating meaningful art. When you struggle to find hope and beauty where it isn’t obvious, you embark on the same journey all of humankind has been on since the beginning of consciousness. Looking for grace in the wreckage of life.
FB: Why do you opt to shoot in monochrome? What do you feel this adds to the images?
JL: I shoot B&W film for many reasons. First, it’s what made me fall in love with photography in high school, the magic of the darkroom. Second, I can control the entire process of developing and printing myself, no need to send film away or have someone else print it. Third, it helps blend the beauty and ugliness of the real world into shades of grey, both poetically and literally. Lastly, it helps me see the parallel universe my images come from; I never saw my own family as subject matter that I could be interested in artistically, I can remember the first photo I took that really stopped me in my tracks.
The Locusts, Jesse Lenz, 2020
I looked at it and it seemed like it was from a different world, a parallel universe. Images that felt like scenes out of It by Steven King, or something directed by Terrence Malick or Andrei Tarkovsky. At that point I realised I could make the surreal, dark, gritty and emotive work I wanted to, in my own back yard if I could find a way to see that parallel universe by looking through my viewfinder. Black and white helps me do that.
Additionally, shooting film is a practice of letting go of control and discovering a buried fossil that you are then responsible to excavate. Every photo I fall in love with is a photo I was not trying to make. It is one I often don’t even remember taking. Having a process of delayed gratification really helps when it comes to selecting and editing images. It allows you to view your work at a distance.
FB: What influences the level of light and dark in your prints?
JL: I shoot many different cameras, but I always shoot Tri-X 400 pushed two stops. This is a classic photojournalism technique to help give you as wide a range of latitude for different situations. As my subject matter is always moving fast, in and outside, at all times of the day or night, I can’t afford a slow shutter, a tripod, or confusion of what film I have loaded.
When it comes to printing, for me, it’s really about balancing the negative. Getting into the darkroom is about finding the best way to bring all into balance and make the image what it needs to be. It’s about bringing the highlights back in, bringing the midtones into the shadows, finding balance. Much like life.