Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Virginia-based Photographer Morgan Ashcom Creates a Narrative of a Fictional Southern Town


Mythmaking is essential to the human condition. It's a careful blend of written and oral family history, cultural markers, collective memory and generational influences. Of course, there are differences to what shapes each person's narrative, but we are each a product of the stories we tell ourselves or have been told by others.

Photographer Morgan Ashcom is an oral and photographic storyteller, as seen in his photo books "Leviathan" (2015), about a skateboarding community in southeast Ohio, and "What the Living Carry" (2017), the centerpiece of an upcoming solo exhibition at Candela Books and Gallery. A lecturer in photography at the University of Virginia, Ashcom, who hails from Free Union, returned to Albemarle County in 2016 after nearly a decade in the Northeast.

Ashcom shares his own narrative with doses of Southern writer William Faulkner, horses, rural Virginia, and a 12-year-old boy (Ashcom's father). The story goes — according to the Ashcom family — that while Faulkner was the first writer in resident at the university in 1958, he employed Ashcom's father to exercise his horses for fox hunting. Coincidentally, this occurred while Faulkner was writing his final book, "The Reivers" (1962), which includes a 12-year-old boy who rides horses as a main character. Scholars would deny any connection, but Ashcom's family still shares it as family lore.

"The whole point of [retelling this story] of all of it," Ashcom expalins, "is that stories define who we are for better or for worse. … These narratives, they're really important. They're simultaneously inventive but they also invent us."

That slippage between truth and legend is central to the exhibition "What the Living Carry," the same name as the book. The display tells a narrative of a fictionalized rural town named Hoys Fork and its people through photographs, sculptures made with a 3-D printer and found objects, typed letters and carbon copies, ambient audio, interactive headstone rubbings and a movie. The letters follow a dialogue between two fictionalized characters, Morgan and Eugene, who discuss Morgan's desire to have his DNA analyzed by Eugene, who works at the Center of Epigenetics and Wellness of the Spirit.

Though some have interpreted the town and its people as Southern gothic or foreboding, Ashcom is dismissive: "I guess the box of Southern gothic is as annoying to me as the box of Southern. These are just fictions that people tell themselves about what places are like. I'm not terribly interested in that."

Instead, he considers "What the Living Carry" a fictionalized chronicle about rural America. It took him nearly five years to understand this as he worked through his creative process, which he analogizes to casting a fishing pole. "David Lynch wrote this book called 'Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity' (2007) ... it's basically about not knowing what you're doing but trying to open yourself up to impressions and the unknown," Ashcom says.

While "casting," he began traveling in 2012 to small towns littered across the East Coast from Rochester, New York, to southern Georgia. Armed with a tripod and a 4-by-5-inch view camera, Ashcom explored each place, speaking with people while photographing and making sound recordings. Along the way, he discovered that many places looked the same: a Family Dollar, a prison, a courthouse and a family and children services building. As he started compiling the photographs later in his studio, he realized that the images tell an archetypal story about everyday people from any forgotten small town in America.

Intentionally elusive, Ashcom is reluctant to answer questions about the open-ended narrative in the photo book or exhibition. Rather, he thinks of the work as a prompt that allows visitors to reassess their assumptions about rural America or any subculture that is different from his or her own.

Instead, he points to another literary source: "'In his book 'How Fiction Works (2008),' James Wood writes, 'a good proportion of reality consists of what we freely imagine; and then, less happily perhaps, we discover that that reality has imagined us — that we are the vassals of our imaginings, not their emperors or archdukes.'" S

Morgan Ashcom's "What the Living Carry" opens March 2 at Candela Books and Gallery, 214 W. Broad St. Runs through April 21.