In the Devil’s land
In The Devil’s Promenade, photographers Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley take us to the heart of the Ozarks, a rural area of the United States, the cradle of ancient folk legends. A captivating study of the land, mankind and their evolution.
In the Ozarks – a mountainous region of the United States – it is said that a strange luminous orb sways along the Devil’s promenade, a mysterious territory, surveyed by the Devil himself. Venturing there, hypnotised by the glow of this globe, the inhabitants would run the risk of having their souls taken away. Popular legend, passed down from generation to generation, this frightening tale has fascinated photographers Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley, both born in the region.
Inspired by atypical mythologies, rural cultures and communities and the immersive power of stories, the two artists ventured into the Ozarks, the land of their childhood, to capture this strange floating light. “I grew up in Northeastern part of Oklahoma, near the Great Plains. I spent many nights around the campfire, listening to my father telling these folk tales. The Devil’s Promenade is about us reconnecting with our past, there is a real magical quality to the stories we heard growing up”, says Antone Dolezal.
Exploring, questioning, blurring boundaries
Imagined in the form of a book, the series mixes photography, archives and folklore elements. A way of exploring, questioning and blurring the boundaries between imagination and reality, past and present. “We wanted to create the world of these stories through our photographs and make it feel real enough to immerse the viewer. My background is in journalism, and this felt like a new method for storytelling”, confides Lara Shipley. Playing with the book format – itself often seen as a collection of imaginary stories – the photographers paint a portrait of a community rocked by these legends, and erect a meticulous backdrop.
“We played with different photographic genres. This includes a mixture of documentary and environmental portraits of individuals living off the land, musicians, artists and religious happenings such a tent revivals and spirit healings. Always with the aim of presenting the diversity of the Ozarks to the reader”, continues Antone Dolezal. Linked together, the numerous narrative strata unfold and construct a universe inspired by memories, childish fears, customs and fantasy. But how can we discern reality from fantasy? What does our reluctance to erase all traces of fantasy from our existence reveal about us?
Are we really in control of our lives?
“These customs say a lot about the region. Why believe the Devil lives in the woods near your house? It was a question that intrigued us because it felt so fitting with Ozark culture, where talk of the Devil is so common, such a big part of religious belief and daily life”, explains the photographer. For the artists, this folklore reads like a metaphor for the notion of choice: Which road to take? Where do we come from? Are we really in control of our lives? Anchored in an isolated territory, where nature still plays an important role, The Devil’s Promenade documents the existence of a community far from the big cities, a world in perpetual evolution. There, in the heart of the forests and mountains, beliefs and fears endure and govern our existence.
“Growing up in the Ozarks without the Internet was really a thing. Getting access to music and books took effort. There wasn’t this expectation that you could have an ambitious career. People tend to do what their parents did. The majority don’t go on to college. Most stay close to home”, Lara Shipley says. While the region is modernising, of course, just like the rest of the country, its spatial isolation allows traditions to endure, making the Ozarks a unique cradle, where magic and contemporaneity coexist. “With The Devil’s Promenade, we wanted to celebrate and continue this tradition, while also connecting the lineage of these stories with the current realities of this space”, Antone Dolezal sums up. An exciting excursion into the mysterious American landscape.
The Devil’s Promenade, Overlapse Editions, £35, 152 p.
© Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley