Review by Douglas Stockdale •
Matt Shallenberger’s photobook The Leaping Place is a mashup of family history, overlaid with a visual investigation of Hawaiian mythology. He utilizes the Hawaiian mythology of Kumulipo, a long chant of creation, as the foundation for his own creation quest, using translations of this long chant to help guide him in his own visual journey.
Shallenberger’s first chapter focuses us on his family’s 19th century home in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, an island in the Portuguese Azores. Similar to the Wizard of Oz, this introduction is captured in black and white photographs, that due to Shallenberger’s rendering are haunting. This initial series of dark images are ambiguous with few details hidden in darkness, while his urban landscape hint at the large bordering watery masses of this home-land. The narrative is about a mysterious source of family history, but much of it is unknown as a place that at one time was their own leaping place to another equally unknown destination, as well as another island, this next time situated in the Pacific Ocean.
When Shallenberger shifts in his next chapter to the big island of Hawaii, home to his family following their migration from the Portuguese Azores, he also shifts to his large format color photographs. We have landed in Oz as this is the most current reality for Shallenberger growing-up on this island. For him, Hawaii is more than an idyllic vacation place and his photography is mostly devoid of idealized picture postcards. There are frequently traces, if not outright vestiges, of the long-term urbanization of Hawaii, while still intertwining a few lyrical images that tie to the island’s creation and ongoing evolution. A collective vision of Hawaii that not many of us have witnessed.
The push/pull narrative of the book is the inclusion of Shallenberger’s investigative notes of Kumulipo juxtaposed with his early sepia-toned family photographs, those who were living in Hawaii at the turn of the twentieth century. This visual mashup does make the reading of this book a tad bit confusing as to what this book is attempting to bring forth. What provides a wonderful insight is Shallenberger’s interview with Eirik Johnson, when he states “In the Kumulipo the haku mele (chant teller) buried hidden meanings throughout, telling a layered story that was all at once political, historical and mythological. Imagery repeated, characters were interchanged and transported on top of each other. A fascination with opposites led to what might in our minds seem like paradoxes, but more than that they demonstrated a worldview that allows for the whole range of possibilities in between”.
Likewise, Shallenberger provides a series of paradoxes that has a wide range of possibilities.
This large book utilizing Smyth binding that allows it to lay open and flat, is a visual pleasure to read. Shallenberger frequently explores Po, the mythological darkness from which life has evolved, and the printing allows these darker values to have beautiful tonal separations. His large format photographs provide ample details to delve into, making this book a delight to read.
Shallenberger’s personal family investigation encourages us to take a similar historical voyage of our own making.
The Leaping Place, Matt Shallenberger
Photographer: Matt Shallenberger, born in Oahu, Hawaii and resides in Altadena, CA
Self-published, Los Angeles, copyright 2018
Essays: Eirik Johnson and Matt Shallenberger interview, Sam ‘Ohukani’ohi’a Gon III (Afterword)
Soft cover and printed dustcover with French folds, Smyth binding, four color litho, 10″ x 14″ trim size, printed in China.
Photobook Designer: Matt Shallenberger
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).