Wavepool – In your statement for Its Hills and Valleys, you briefly touch on potentially inaccurate representations of Eastern Tennessee. What kind of stereotypes are you combating with your images?
Matthew Jessie – The series came about from my desire to depict East Tennessee in a way that challenges the stereotypical perception of it by providing a glimpse into its contemporary realities. Many representations of the Central and South Central Appalachian portion of Tennessee are limited in scope and gravitate towards certain subject matter. This has partially helped to create the sort of stigma that in many ways defines it. It’s not that these representations aren’t accurate and I am not denying the issues that have faced and continue to face East Tennessee and Appalachia as a whole, but rather I am working to broaden the scope and provide an alternative portrayal of the region from the perspective of a native. Simply put I am not concentrating my efforts towards depicting more classical issues associated with the stereotypical perception of the region, but instead am working to create a more contemporary portrayal that challenges, not combats this perception.
Wavepool – Are there any specific images that you consider to be crucial in maintaining that idea for the project?
Matthew Jessie – I really consider each image as being crucial in maintaining the idea for the project as a whole by referencing different aspects and realities of the region individually. Some of the images do this less subtly than others, but I don’t consider any one image to entirely embody the idea set for the whole project, as of yet. The nature of how I make work for this series, coupled with its broad scope, makes me hesitant to expect to make a picture that can do that. If it is even possible. Rather, if an image makes it through the editing process and into the series I feel that it adds to maintaining the idea for the project’s entirety in some individual way.
Wavepool – What does your working process look like?
Matthew Jessie – I usually begin by deciding which part of the region I want to work in for the day and then determine a final destination that I feel may yield a picture. I scout the area I am planning to work quite thoroughly online and with Google Maps to create a sort of loose plan, but from the time I leave my apartment until I get back everything is raw material to be interpreted and potentially photographed. This allows for a level of spontaneity not usually associated with using a large format camera. Where the spontaneous nature of smaller cameras is a result of their speed of use and mobility, for me working with a large format camera allows more of the spontaneity to come from the unfolding of events that I have no control over, but rather interact with to make a photograph.
Wavepool – So do you think the work would be much different if you weren’t using a large format camera?
Matthew Jessie – I do think the work would be different. To what extent I’m not certain because I haven’t used a smaller camera in a serious way in quite some time, but I imagine there would certainly be differences. Not necessarily because of the large format camera itself, but rather the innate process involved with using one. Over the past few years the way I approach picture making has evolved in many ways and I attribute much of this to using a larger camera. For me, using such a camera has helped push myself to take more risks that are many times necessary to make a picture.
Wavepool – What kind of risks do you think will be important to take as you move forward with the project?
Matthew Jessie – It’s funny you ask. Just yesterday evening I made a picture from the top of an interstate overpass with the surprise help of two state troopers. I had been scouting this spot for several months and yesterday I felt like all the conditions were right to finally make the picture. Being that it was from the top of a bridge over the Holston River on Interstate 26 near Kingsport, Tennessee I knew I had to be quick. Before I got there I put my camera, light meter, film holder, cable release, and tripod in the passenger seat of my car so I would have everything ready to go. I also knew that there were no turnarounds in the median for a few miles so I felt as if that would help me avoid the police, but I was wrong. I pulled over and parked in the best spot, just over the middle of the river, then quickly got out of my car and went to the passenger side to make the picture. I knew I should be out of there within 3-5 minutes. I set up my camera and had just composed the shot when I looked to the rear of my car and noticed blue lights. My heart dropped to my stomach as all I could think about was making this picture even if I was going to have some undesired consequences from doing so. I approached the officer’s cruiser in a mildly frantic way notifying them that I was making a picture and would be done in only a few minutes. Before the officer could respond I successfully enlisted their help by remaining behind my car with their flashing lights because it’s kind of scary when there is traffic traveling 70 miles an hour only feet behind you and a 50 plus foot drop only inches in front of you. Before I could proceed the officer first asked for my identification and as I quickly returned with it they said,”make your picture.” I hurriedly recomposed the frame and made the picture. After I packed everything up I returned to the cruiser to get my identification as well as to thank the officers for their assistance. I thanked them several times and one of the officers asked what I was thanking them for. I replied,”for helping me make this picture,” and the officer said,”no, you are thanking me for not writing you a ticket for parking on the side of the interstate.” I agreed with the officer,shook their hand, and quickly got in my car and drove away. Making this picture has been the most adrenaline stimulating one to date and is also a perfect example of the risks I consider, at times, to be necessary to take to convey the ideas of this body of work. Some people will feel as if actions like this are irresponsible, and while I can see that as a valid claim I don’t believe they understand the importance of making such actions and taking such risks to make work that to me is progressive. The way I see it, and what has worked for me so far, is that if I see a vantage point I feel will yield a picture I am willing to do what needs to be done to make it there. Whether that be trespassing, hiking up the side of a mountain, approaching complete strangers, or whatever else that doesn’t harm anyone, I am driven to do that.
Wavepool – Do you have an idea of when the project will be complete? What comes after that?
Matthew Jessie – This body of work can go on as long as I am alive and able really. I may eventually come to a point where I feel as if the work has said enough, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. There will definitely be breaks from making work for Its Hills and Valleys as I plan to attend a graduate program in another part of the country within the next couple of years, but I intend to continue the series when I return to the area. East Tennessee is continually evolving and I feel as if this time in it’s history is so transitional. I just feel really grateful to be able to make this work. I don’t think there will be an after with this series as I intend to work on it as long as I can, but I will definitely be working on simultaneous projects. I have too many ideas and too much of a drive to express them to only work on one project.
To see more, please visit Matthew’s website.