Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
The Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil
Perhaps astonishingly, Riley C. Goodman’s From Yonder Wooded Hill is the second book I have reviewed for this platform that invokes the devil, both photographically and textually. Not only that, Goodman’s publication has much in common with another monograph I have discussed previously: Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley’s Devil’s Promenade.
First, however, a note on the many levels on which From Yonder Wooded Hill operates. An initial, and most immediate one, is visual. Many instantly perceptible echoes reverberate throughout the book. These include, but are not limited to, the following: gnarled roots and branches encircling tree trunks; various bits of torn fabric entangled in bare branches with the river flowing past; several porcelain birds; close-ups of tombstones both at night and during the day; tight crops of clapboard exterior walls; a pointed steeple penetrating the sky; tree stumps protruding from adjacent pages; and a pair of dogs sitting in perfect unison within the same picture frame.
More complex visual echoes encompass the character of ‘The Doffer’ recurring in a number of found images – first on his own, later nuzzling up to a beautiful young woman; two peripatetic teenagers seemingly lost in the surrounding landscape – one in full colour and clearly situated in the present day, the other in a monochromatic archival photograph at least a hundred years old; a near identical porch found both in an old-fashioned diorama as well as in a Polaroid held up by a disembodied hand; and a log house perched first on stilts and then situated on top of the titular hill.
From Yonder Wooded Hill combines contemporary portraits, landscapes and still lives with archival imagery and ephemera, conceptual photography with a more documentary-style practice, printed newspaper articles as well as pieces of handwriting, and neutral reports married with flashes of poetry and what can only be described as an oral recounting of local myths, legends and fairytales.
On a more intermediate level are the echoes between text and image, between text and text, or between image and ephemera. Sassafras tea is mentioned both in a printed report as well as in a handwritten one. One story – speaking of caressing a revolver when going down a particularly dangerous section of the river road – is perhaps unsurprisingly joined by an actual image of a hand-held gun. A handwritten tale describing handkerchiefs is obligingly followed by several close-ups of the aforementioned items. More subtle examples include a map showing the trajectory of hurricane Agnes in 1972 along the eastern US seaboard, which closely resembles the adjacent image of two entangled trees against the raging river. Another, more complex, echo is of a drawing showing the floods raging around the Patapsco Mills, with the photograph on the next page depicting water sloshing around in a bucket, the pattern closely resembling the scene of the flood.
From Yonder Wooded Hill combines contemporary portraits, landscapes and still lives with archival imagery and ephemera, conceptual photography with a more documentary-style practice, printed newspaper articles as well as pieces of handwriting, and neutral reports married with flashes of poetry and what can only be described as an oral recounting of local myths, legends and fairytales. Indeed, when looking into the background of the photographer and his motivations for the creation of this monograph, the predominant rationale appears to be Goodman’s desire to explore his family’s heritage. More specifically, the artist professes his interest in the story of his maternal ancestors moving away from a farming existence in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia and North Carolina, in order to find work in the lumber mills of the Patapsco Valley in Maryland. He is also fascinated by the traditions of folklore and storytelling as passed on to him by his maternal grandmother. Once one is aware of this context, Goodman’s creative take on these matters can easily be discerned in the resulting imagery and text.
Goodman attempts to unpick the thread between climate change, exploitation of natural resources, and the encroachment of human habitation on locations potentially not very suited for that particular purpose. It is both refreshing and disconcerting to see how these issues play out in locales we might not usually associate with the consequences of the climate crisis.
Keep peeling away the layers within the book, though, keep digging deeper into the context of the monograph’s creation, and two more fascinating narrative threads emerge. The first strand, perhaps surprisingly, is one of climate change. As Goodman explains in an interview with VAST Magazine, the project started out as a direct photographic response to the 2016 flooding of Ellicott City in the Patapsco Valley, Maryland, where he was born and raised. The torn fabric in the trees, as well as the street signs surrounded by stones and rocks, were in fact scenes he found in the direct aftermath of the flood. Researching the history of the valley, Goodman found that inundations are a regularly recurring feature. Given that – according to the photographer – the valley is also the unacknowledged seat of the industrial revolution of the US, the story acquires a further unexpected dimension. Indeed, the recent devastating floods in Appalachian Kentucky and Tennessee – areas not too far removed from Goodman’s maternal ancestors’ places of origin – appear to be both the result of global warming as well as strip-mining and mountaintop removal for coal. The successful extraction of this mineral resource in Appalachia has always been deemed necessary to fuel America’s ongoing industrial development. In this way Goodman attempts to unpick the thread between climate change, exploitation of natural resources, and the encroachment of human habitation on locations potentially not very suited for that particular purpose. It is both refreshing and disconcerting to see how these issues play out in locales we might not usually associate with the consequences of the climate crisis. It highlights how the impacts of ongoing industrial development and use of coal and fossil fuels can now be witnessed everywhere.
The second thread, as already hinted at above, is the presence of the devil. At the start of the publication, an ominous black cloud can be seen rising from a forested hillside. At the end of the monograph, said cloud has completely engulfed the trees lower down the hill. About four-fifths into the book, a staircase descends into an orange-lit hole carved into a grey concrete factory floor. Fire and brimstone seem to beckon. As my eyes linger over this particular image, snatches of Graveyard Train’s ”Song for Beelzebub“ echo in my mind. If we were to go down these steps, would we scorch our lungs? Would we be deafened by the beating drums? And would we be blinded by the blood and sweat in our eyes?
Alongside these strangely disquieting pictures, various stories hint at the presence of the Antichrist.
Alongside these strangely disquieting pictures, various stories hint at the presence of the Antichrist. One tale reports on strange things seen in the vicinity of the river road. More specifically, a man on horseback was sighted with fire coming out of both his and his horse’s nostrils. Another fable details the correct procedure to follow when encountering a spirit. And whilst the main character of that story followed the procedure and was not harmed by the apparition, its presence was strong enough to scorch the protagonist’s handkerchief. In a third legend, a generous hostess is warned by a cloven-hoofed guest not to extend a welcome to all and sundry as that may not end well for her and her family in the future. And in one particularly fascinating archival image, the majority of a large family can be seen staring stonily into the lens, alongside two men perplexingly and jarring engaging in fisticuffs. Has the devil been whispering in their ears? And if so, what might the nature of his game have been here?
It is here that the similarities between From Yonder Wooded Hill and Devil’s Promenade strongly come to the fore. Both are explorations of local folklore through the use of conceptual and documentary photography in combination with oral history, archival material and found imagery. In the case of Dolezal and Shipley, the folktale in question relates to a floating orb of light recurring in the Ozark Mountains, indirectly linked to the devil. In the case of Goodman, the Prince of Darkness is but one feature in a larger mythology, albeit an overriding one in my mind. Both, however, connect their investigations into that folklore to a larger understanding of and a different take on a particular and much mythologised region of America. Both present their findings in well-designed and well-sequenced books, with the cover especially playing an important role. In the case of Dolezal and Shipley, it resembles the cover of an old fairytale book, in Goodman’s instance a velvet photo album, a precious keepsake, a family heirloom. Dolezal and Shipley’s treatment comes across as more intimate, however, possibly courtesy of the smaller size of their publication, and their significantly longer engagement with their chosen topic. Both are fascinating monographs though, and highly recommended to viewers interested in an alternative portrayal of rural America.