“Each image in this series is linked to the folklore of the Spook Light.”
In their project “Devil’s Promenade” Lara Shipley and Antone Dolezal explore a mysterious light phenomenon in Ozark hills. Their fascinating images combine a popular myth with a narrative storyline.
The life of the inhabitants of this remote region in the backwoods has been deeply shaped over the years by the regular appearance of the “Spook Light”.
Lara Shipley explains: “We feel that they (the images) describe the deepest values and fears of the community.”
The project Devil’s Promenade has also been turned into a book series made up of 3 volumes. The first volume called “Spook Light Chronicles” is already sold-out.
In this interview, the two artists tell how they brought a fantasy world upon an ordinary place. They also talk about their experience of working together on this long-term collaborative project.
“Deep in the backwoods of the Ozark hills locals both young and old still talk about the Spook Light. This mysterious light phenomenon appears on chance nights as a floating orb, seen on a remote country road in an area known as the Devil’s Promenade.
Many have tried and failed to discover its origins, including the United States Army Corp of Engineers in the 1950’s. Because of its lack of explanation the Devil’s Promenade has been a popular local destination for decades, with the tale of the Spook Light taking on the quality of myth within the local community.
Our collaborative project combines photographs of Ozark people and the land with more abstract and interpretive images based on oral accounts and mythology surrounding the light.
“It is the sublime experience whose defiance of explanation provides a reprieve from ordinary life.”
Our aim is not to provide documentation, but to suggest a narrative that, in the spirit of the light, is part fixed in this unique region and part afloat in a mysterious, otherworldly realm.
Folkloric stories can shed symbolic light on very real issues in a community. In the Ozarks many live in isolated poverty and drug addiction is high. This region is in the heart of the Bible Belt, and the struggle between heaven and hell factors into everyday conversation.
We feel the frequent and mysterious appearance of the Spook Light has come to represent for the people we meet a desire for redemption and the fear of slipping into darkness. It is the sublime experience whose defiance of explanation provides a reprieve from ordinary life.”
Interview with Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley
Antone and Lara, one of your recent series is called “Devil’s Promenade”. What is it about?
Lara: The project centers around a mysterious orb of light that appears on a rural road in the Ozarks, known by locals as the Spook Light. In response to this unexplained phenomenon the local community has developed stories passed down over generations.
It is these fantastical, mythic stories that we find fascinating.
We feel that they describe the deepest values and fears of the community, while also providing a stronger shared identity that is important for the rural community.
Looking at the final series, one often doesn’t realize how much time it took to realize it. How much time did you invest into this particular project? From the idea, the research, finding the locations etc.
Antone: Lara and I spent about 6 months researching the story of the Devil’s Promenade, coming up with ideas and concepts we wanted to see come to life.
“We knew we had a special story to tell.”
When we finally went out to photograph, we found out a lot more about the myth than anyone could ever find through Internet or library research and we knew we had a special story to tell.
Since our initial outing nearly two years ago we are still making images, videos and writing stories that relate to the folklore and oral accounts of this place. Since we have received a lot of press and are publishing a book trilogy about this work, I feel like the project is consuming our lives!
I couldn’t tell you how much time it’s taken, but there is a great dedication involved from both of us to see this work reach as many people as possible.
What role does the concept behind a single image or series play in your work as opposed to the photograph itself?
Antone: In this series we would go out and collect different oral accounts from people who had seen the light or had an interesting story about the Devil’s Promenade.
We would often make photographs based upon the oral accounts we collected. Each image in this series is linked to the folklore of the Spook Light, but it really takes the whole series to see the full realization of our story.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
“We hope to give a sense of an ordinary place with a world of fantasy just beneath the surface.”
Lara: Both of our working methods changed a lot through the course of this project. In the beginning we were working in more of a straight photography style that we were more familiar with, but quickly found that these methods were not well suited to a project that includes fantasy and the history of a place.
We found that by experimenting with lighting and staging scenes, including artifacts, oral accounts and writing that we could enrich the narrative. By combining these elements with the more traditional portraits and landscapes we hope to give a sense of an ordinary place with a world of fantasy just beneath the surface.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at your photos?
Lara: In this project, Antone and I are not only exploring the folklore of this region but participating in this tradition by expanding upon it, creating our own world we hope the viewer can enjoy becoming immersed within.
My hope would be for the viewer to question the role of myth in their own lives. I believe myths are an essential means to feeling connected with the world, but are undervalued or lost in our transient culture. Knowing the stories of a place is a part of belonging to that place. It doesn’t matter if the stories are factually true.
What matters is that they are remembered and shared.
Can you please describe your experience of working together with another artist? Especially keeping in mind that the creative process of a photographer normally is a very solitary one.
Antone: I think it’s been a great experience to work with Lara. At first we had to get used to compromising on our creative vision, but I think because we were willing to do that the work became much stronger.
“I don’t know why more photographers don’t collaborate!”
We will go on the road to make images for 4-6 weeks and it gives us this huge amount of time to do nothing but put our heads together and concentrate on what we want the photographs to look like and how we want to see the project develop conceptually.
Lara: I feel like one of the reasons our collaboration works is because we push each other to try new things and are both sensitive to the other’s ideas and input. I don’t know why more photographers don’t collaborate!
Now you are trying to turn the series into a book. Can you share a little bit your experience of publishing? Let’s begin with the editing.
Antone: Our first book in this series Spook Light Chronicles vol. 1 – the road and the light, came out in January 2014.
The books are inspired by older Ozark Spook Light booklets made in the 1950’s and 80’s that were sold at a roadside attraction known as the Spook Light Museum. Lara and I collaborated on the concept and editing the text and images and Lara did the design for the first volume.
We are meeting this month to work on the concept and design for the vol. 2 – The Phosphercent Man.
And what about the printing and financing?
Antone: We completely financed the book through pre sale orders. The printing was done with Edition One Books in San Francisco.
What does a book publication mean to you personally? How is it different from having your images exhibited in an exhibition for example?
Antone: Our book series Spook Light Chronicles will come out in three volumes, each representing a different narrative in the overall story of Devil’s Promenade.
We have incorporated fictional literature and vernacular imagery alongside our own photographs in this book series and it is truly an expanded version of the work that allows the project to reach its full conception.
The books allow the viewer to see the work in a completely different way than previously realized. That said, we are looking forward to exhibiting the work this year and feel that the book and exhibitions will be complementary to each other.
Lara: We met through our former employer, the photography book distributer photo-eye, and knew from the beginning that the book form was crucial to both of our ways of working.
I believe there is no more intimate way to experience a body of work.
“I am most engaged with a project when it is complex.”
Books can also offer freedom and narrative experimentation. Creating the 3 volume series was a great opportunity to focus on different aspects of the project. I think of them like short stories. The first volume focused on searching for the Spook Light.
The second will go deeper into the myths relating to the region and one of its principal and most fascinating characters, Spooky. The third will focus on the community and culture of the Spook Light region. I am most engaged with a project when it is complex.
By breaking it up into parts we are able to preserve all the aspects of this project that are exciting to us without overwhelming the viewer.
One general question: What do you consider the most important developments in contemporary photography? And what have been the greatest changes recently? Especially keeping in mind the sheer amount of visual imagery we are exposed to these days.
Antone: I think all of the imagery we are exposed to because of different online venues just makes the strong work stand out even more. It’s nice to see a body of work really rise out of the sea of photographs that circulate over the Internet.
The rise of the independent and self-published photobook has been very intriguing to me. We are seeing photographers who now realize it’s up to them to design, edit and finance their own books and I think these additional creative elements are pushing how we as artists are not only presenting, but also conceptualizing our work.
The old photographic structures everyone once played by are dissolving and it has opened the door for a lot more experimentation.
Lara: I don’t know that there has ever been a time when photography was more open. Art photography seems to be much less ruled by one prevailing style than it has been throughout its history.
“The death of the printed snapshot in popular use is pretty heartbreaking.”
I see this as a very positive development, a sign that the medium is becoming more self-assured as an art form.
I am also fascinated by the changing ways we use photographs as a culture. The death of the printed snapshot in popular use is pretty heartbreaking. But on the other hand the advent of photographs as a means of communication through social media such as instagram and snapchat is fascinating.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
Antone: During my first year of elementary school my teacher told me my only assignment for the year was to learn how not to daydream. I have recently realized that the projects I have been focused on for the last 4-5 years have all derived from stories that captured my imagination as a child.
Photography has been the medium in which I can reconnect with that kid who would daydream in class all day.
Lara: The photographs we make tell a lot about ourselves. The drive to make one image over another is a difficult thing to ascribe language to. By looking at my photographs I’ve learned more about the way I see the world and what it is I’m looking for.
This becomes especially interesting working on a project like Devil’s Promenade, set in the region where I am from. I’ve found that my feelings about this place come out for me in the images.
It is an interesting way to confront your past.