Jon Horvath – This is Bliss

Review by Steve Harp ·

Lynchian:  noted for juxtaposing surreal or sinister elements with mundane, everyday environments, and for using compelling visual images to emphasize a dreamlike quality of mystery or menace. – Oxford English Dictionary

Lynchian is a description that immediately came to mind on my first viewing of Jon Horvath’s 2022 monograph, This is Bliss.  It may be because I had spent much of the summer rewatching the entire Twin Peaks saga – the original television series (1990-91), the 1992 prequel movie Fire Walk With Me and the 2017 Showtime “special event” series taking place 25 years later.  So, I was well immersed in David Lynch’s eccentric world when I “visited” Bliss, Idaho, another quirky small town in the Northwest.  

Many images or scenes in Horvath’s book seemed familiar: the road into the town (with a sign reading, “Entering Bliss pop. 318), the diner, the high school and sports trophies, Native American petroglyphs and rock markings, roads at night illuminated by car headlights, birds, power lines and even a strangely deserted shack in the woods that recalls the abandoned railroad car where Laura Palmer was killed.  The close-up photographs, “Horse and Snake” (pp. 70-71), recall Packard Falls and the shimmering opening to the mysterious Red Room.

Yet for all this parallel “Lynchian” iconography, what I am emphatically not suggesting is that this work is derivative or a “knock off” of Lynch’s visuals.  Rather the “Lynchian” aspects of Horvath’s portrait of Bliss are much subtler and more evocative.

As the OED definition tells us, “Lynchian” is wrapped up in a kind of unsettling strangeness – unsettling given that what we see is so familiar or mundane.  We note echoes here of Freud’s concept of “the uncanny” in which the familiar and unfamiliar (Heimlich and Unheimlich) seem to merge.  The everyday is infused by a mystery (or menace) that renders it “dreamlike.”  Mundane mystery permeates Horvath’s images of Bliss (the irony of the town name should need no further comment). 

The sites he presents, the people he photographs, the objects he shows – all seem perfectly familiar, yet .  .  . somehow unsettling to us and disconnected from each other.  We don’t really know what Bliss is.  We’re given richly poetic and evocative visuals but are not quite sure what they evoke.  Or, put another way, we know what we’re seeing but we don’t know what it means, how these sights connect.  Meaning – or significance – seems to hover just out of reach, just inaccessible.  

Besides the basic types of imagery Horvath presents (places, people, objects and documents) he also  seems to take us on a number of unexplained “side trips”:  eight images (seemingly tintypes) of  “Beer Bottles (as Collected from the Hwy 30 Turnoff)” (pp. 52 – 60), nine color photographs of “Easter Vase Permutations” (pp. 87 – 100), twelve black and white images  of  a man in t-shirt and shorts “Skipping Stones Across the Snake River Canyon (After Evel)” (pp. 162 – 169) and, as mentioned earlier, sixteen black and white images (most blurry, some nearly opaque) of an unpaved road – “Security Lane” –  illuminated by (we assume) car headlights.  These being essentially the final images of the monograph. What might be the significance of these extended diversions?  Very .  .  . Lynchian.  But perhaps rather than asking the meaning of these images, it might be better to wonder about the role or function of the images Horvath gives us – how they convey Bliss.  What do they suggest to us? What is the sense of Bliss that Horvath’s photographs collectively portray? Because in these questions is where I see This is Bliss as most compellingly Lynchian.  

This is Bliss is a large book – 9 ½” x 12” and one-inch thick.   It contains more than 190 images over 264 pages.  The images are a mix of color and black and white and, as already noted, one group appears to be tintypes.  Some images or groups of images are given titles or descriptors, others are left unexplained, ambiguous.  A traditional documentary portrait, This is Bliss is not.  In fact, Horvath’s avoidance of the knowing, all-seeing eye of the documentarian is central to his portrayal of Bliss.  

This circumvention of conventional documentary expectations is inherently “Lynchian” as is David Lynch’s circumvention of conventional narrative expectations in his work.  The monograph concludes with a text by Horvath titled, “COYOTE: A Short Fiction” dedicated “To the people of Bliss.”  This text – which suggests reference to figures depicted in the images – is similarly imbued with an underlying quirkiness of characters “exotic and frightening,” ruminating on religious preoccupations, spirit animals, personal loss and madness.   The text also implies an uncertainty as to the uses and effects of photography.  Prior to asking Horvath to take his photograph and send it to his daughter, Karl asks the narrator what he came to Bliss to photograph.   “I didn’t come here for anything in particular,” Horvath responds. What does it mean to photograph something? Despite an underlying sense of immanent violence which permeates “COYOTE,” it unexpectedly ends on a note of grace and mercy.     

And so, perhaps it is worth a deeper reflection on the irony of the town name (and book title), after all.  We might think of bliss as perfect or complete happiness, joy or contentment.  In a theological sense bliss is often equated with heaven or paradise.  How is Bliss a place of bliss?  This question seems to underlie Horvath’s quest.  What does it mean to photograph Bliss?  Might the very enigma of the town be a source of bliss?  The more time I’ve spent with This is Bliss, the longer I “visit” Bliss, the more I’ve appreciated and have come to esteem its quirkiness and unwieldiness, its inscrutability.  This is Bliss seems like a documentary (if we can even call it that) that finds its truth in the underlying mystery of the mundane and in Horvath’s attempt to speak to that – a search for the truth of dreams rather than the truth of surfaces.

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Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul U.

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This is Bliss, Jon Horvath

Photographer: Jon Horvath, born and resides in Milwaukee, WI

Publisher: Yoffy Press (Atlanta, Georgia, copyright 2022); Co-published with Fw: Books (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Fiction essay: Jon Horvath

Text: English

Book description: stiffcover with linen binding, printed and bound in Amersfoort, Netherlands, ISBN: 978-0-83165-86-8

Photobook designer: Hans Gremmen

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Articles and photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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