November 11th, 2019
Introducing: Garrett Grove
Against the backdrop of the US presidential election, a photographer documents growing cultural tensions in the Pacific Northwest’s rural communities.
By Cassidy Paul
On a snowy night, against a midnight-blue sky, a single cowboy hat flies above a landscape of trees. The camera’s flash freezes a dizzying array of snowflakes dancing around it, resembling confetti bursting from a magician’s hat thrown up during a magic trick. It was the first photograph I saw from Garrett Grove’s series Errors of Possession—and I was hooked.
As a native to the Pacific Northwest, I was drawn to Grove’s portrayal of the region’s rural towns and communities. Though the area is widely seen as liberal and strictly blue, a larger cultural and political divide exists between the eastern and western sides. Growing up, we called this the “Cascade curtain,” referring to the dividing line through Washington, Oregon, and Northern California made by the Cascade Mountains.
Born in California, Grove’s family moved to the Pacific Northwest at an early age, settling north of Seattle. He went on to receive his MFA in photography from the University of Hartford, a limited residency program that allowed him to continue living and making work in Washington. “I have always been more drawn to rural communities, even though I wasn’t raised in one,” he says. “I am much more at ease in a natural environment with more wide-open spaces.”
In the years leading up to and following the 2016 US presidential election, Grove began photographing in and around small coastal, farming, and logging towns in Oregon and Washington. Despite being made against that backdrop, Errors of Possession (2015–17) features no direct political imagery of the controversial event, instead offering a more poetic look at the growing cultural tensions alongside an economic and agricultural depression. “With the election gaining momentum, it was apparent that the polarization of our country was making this divide bigger, and I wanted to travel between these two psychological realities,” Grove says.
Initially inspired by early black-and-white archival photographs of agriculture and industry workers during the cultivation of the American West, Grove intentionally plays within the documentary genre. By setting classical, black-and-white images alongside color photographs often taken with a harsh flash, he assembles images that are anxious, humorous, strange, and deeply ambiguous. Tracks in a field create extraterrestrial-like symbols, a man slides down a mountain of potatoes, halos of light outline a mother and daughter, and lines of men and women walk through abandoned fields. Although the world Grove captures features familiar scenes of the American West, each frame gives the sensation that something is not quite right. “I am interested in taking the viewer into a psychological state filled with unknowns and non-answers,” he says.
Bryan Schutmaat, photographer and publisher of Trespasser Books, which recently released a photobook of this series, was drawn to the sublime yet perplexing quality of Grove’s images. “In the grandeur of the American West, [Grove] points out little oddities that are often poignant or humorous. His look into the Northwest relays disappearing wilderness, transformed agricultural land, and people among it who are rugged and peculiar,” Schutmaat says. “It does what work in this American genre does best—tells us in a unique voice what we’ve done to the landscape and to each other.”
Errors of Possession captures a moment of unrest and shifting landscapes and mythologies. “I don’t think it provides any answers, but it does take the confusion that I was—and am—feeling and infuses it into the work,” Grove says. “I’d hope that this work offers a new way of looking at and thinking about the American dream.”
Cassidy Paul is the social media editor of Aperture Foundation. All images courtesy the artist.
Read more from our series “Introducing,” which highlights exciting new voices in photography.