Laurel Mountain Laurel (Deadbeat Club, 2021) is a book that sits well within the wider photographic exploration of America’s Rust Belt. It seems that there have been many bodies of work about this region: Gregory Halpern’s A and Jason Koxvold’s Knives are two that come to mind. In Laurel Mountain Laurel we see the tropes of post-industrial decline, photographs of abandoned homes, overgrown industry, burned out cars, nature and an impending sense of exhausted loneliness. Yet, moving beyond this established vocabulary, Reinhart’s work adds depth, with elements of home and time central to what makes this work unique.
Reinhart seems driven to explore the dissonance between an internal idea of home that is fixed, and the reality that nothing quite stays still. This is most clearly seen in the evolving way that the opening image becomes a symbol: hills, trees, a river and a road (or track) all in the same frame. The first time this is seen, it is cold, foggy and hard to see, yet each time this type of image repeats it gets both visually clearer and changes. This inclusion alludes to one of the internal drivers of the book: that the narrative grows as Reinhart grows through making the work. What initially seems confusing but overwhelmingly bleak can be given splashes of life, renewal, hope and return. This book, then, is not chronicling a physical exploration, but a metaphysical one.
Reinhart seems driven to explore the dissonance between an internal idea of home that is fixed, and the reality that nothing quite stays still.
This work also explores the confusing middle ground between two extremes: the run-down and the beautiful. Reinhart makes a lot of beautiful images of ugly things. Abandoned homes, overgrown and lonely, are shot in a stately manner. Temporary caravan homes lit up by sunrise illuminating the condensation in their windows. Eroded cliffs murky with runoff during a rainstorm. Yet, looking beyond the texture of the image, these are plainly spaces of despair. Loneliness, absent-minded decay and lives left behind all seem to hit the stomach hard. While it may be tempting to view this dissonance as artistic immaturity, I think the opposite is true in this case – Reinhart seems to want to acknowledge that home contains sadness and beauty. What is left unresolved is whether the sadness is what’s being discovered, or the beauty. This is an excellent omission from the work that keeps the viewer wondering: did Reinhart always know this was an area in decline, and suddenly he found beauty? Or was it the other way around? How has his idea of his home changed?
It would be difficult to discuss this book and not mention the writing. For context, the writing included acts almost to break the book into chapters, and while the structure is predictable (introduce the sadness, move into despair, end on hope), there’s enough variation in the tone and structure of the writing to make each piece feel interesting in its own right. Crucially the writer, Matthew Newton, is not the photographer, and this adds another voice to the work. The writing does, though, tell a slightly different story – focusing on bodies, history and darkness. It feels, in some ways, as if the photographer and the writer are coming to the same area with slightly different views. Reinhart’s photos never seem dark to me, there’s no skeletons in the closet, but instead something slower, less energetic, but inevitable and melancholic.
Gentle images of people touching, moments of reflection with young men, and warm smiles might seem cliched when described here, but remind readers of the capacity, always, for genuineness and hospitality.
Laurel Mountain Laurel contains, I think, a really unique take on industry: insightful and cutting. One of the strongest images of industry is of a lawyer’s front window showing two placards for services offered ‘gas/mineral rights’ and ‘worker’s compensation’ – what could be more stark than that? The precariousness of industry’s dominance is also something present in the work – there are no shortage of decaying or abandoned industrial relics, yet an absence of industry that’s alive. All we can see are trains: industry has gone and its only remaining element is forever leaving town. The railroads define the geography so much, but are reminders of what’s not here: jobs, businesses and activity . A snake hung amongst the thinnest of a bush’s branches makes this predatory existence seem all the more temporary.
There is, though, hope in the work primarily found in the images of people and nature. People, in this work, are shown distinct from the landscape, not trampled down or left behind but embraced and tender. Gentle images of people touching, moments of reflection with young men, and warm smiles might seem cliched when described here, but remind readers of the capacity, always, for genuineness and hospitality. Nature, too, is shown as something essential: beautiful and embracing. One image of new flowers emerging from young buds just feels so buoyant amongst the dilapidated homes and plywood boarded-over shops.
This book is not necessarily trying to tell us anything we don’t know. The rust belt is broken down, defined by relics and a palpable feeling of being caught in amber; time feels slower in the worst way. Yet Reinhart keenly looks at this and makes images about how similar this feeling is to the way we may all feel about home and, indeed, how our image of home could change (but often doesn’t). We get, I think, the most essential encapsulation of this in the cover image: caught in amongst the geography of a place, we cannot escape what defines somewhere, we can only find our way through it.