Amani Willett is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose practice is driven by conceptual ideas surrounding family, history, memory, and the social environment. Working primarily with the book form, his two most-recent monographs have been published to widespread critical acclaim. The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer (Overlapse, 2017) tracks a mythical hermit’s overgrown trail through the woods of central New Hampshire while simultaneously exploring our human desire to escape the burdens of modern society, while Disquiet, (Damiani, 2013) – is a meditation on starting a family in a time of social unrest and uncertainty in America. Both books were selected by Photo-Eye as “best books” of the year and have been highlighted in over 50 publications including nods from PDN, Lensculture, Hyperallergic, Todd Hido, Elisabeth Biondi and Joerg Colberg (Conscientious).
Willett’s photographs are also featured in the books Bystander: A history of Street Photography (2017 edition, Laurence King Publishing), Street Photography Now (Thames and Hudson), New York: In Color (Abrams) and in a wide range of publications including American Photography, Newsweek, Harper’s, The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Amani completed an MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts, NY in 2012 and a BA from Wesleyan University in 1997.
In addition to his artistic practice, Amani currently teaches photography at Mass Art in Boston.
PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer
2010 – 2016
Searching for a place to be at peace in the wilderness, my dad bought seven acres of undeveloped land in central New Hampshire in the late 1970s. It wasn’t until 2010 that I became curious about the story of a man named Joseph Plummer, who we were told lived in the same woods during the late 1700s and 1800s. It was said this local legend left his town of a mere 100 people to be in seclusion. Researching and finding very little concrete information about Joseph has paradoxically heightened his presence in my mind and inspired me to seek out what drove him from his life. I uncovered some of his personal belongings and spent summers tracking down the places where he spent his days. Interviews with local residents told of his hostility to “loafers and spendthrifts” and his “mortal opposition to progress, generally.” But the scant information about Joseph only inspires more questions and feeds his local mythology.
I believe the story of Joseph Plummer parallels my dad’s and now my desire to disappear into the landscape of central New Hampshire. Joseph’s world is an unabashedly romantic view of nature and its sublime power, yet his life and the landscape he inhabited exude the mystery of the unknowable. My dad and I often take long walks in the New Hampshire woods, usually ending up searching for where the hermit lived. While we’ve been to the site of his long-gone home many times, we somehow always get lost along the way – and getting lost seems to be the point. In our modern world when it can be difficult to disconnect, following Joseph’s path into the woods offers a welcome respite.
When and where did The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer begin?
When I was young, maybe four or five years old, my dad began taking our family to central New Hampshire as he looked for a place to build a small cabin in the woods - a place where he could be alone, away from the city. He eventually found a small plot of land and instinctively knew it was the place to start building his fantasy life away from society. For close to 40 years my family has been going to this same spot and it’s become a very important place for us.
It wasn't until about 2010 that I became curious about the history of the surrounding area. The cabin my dad built is on a lake called Hermit Lake and it’s just off a road called Hermit Woods Road. I was curious if they referenced someone who used to live in the area. After doing a little research, I learned about Joseph Plummer who, in the late 1700s, had left his family for a life of solitude in the woods. He had built a small cabin in the same area my father built his hundreds of years later.
As I spent time piecing together what little I could of Joseph’s story through first- hand accounts, old newspaper articles and help from the local historical society, I began to realize that in some ways my dad was following in his footsteps a few hundred years later. My father was drawn to the very same land as Joseph where, he built a house, outhouses and storage areas. He created a self-sufficient world near the same spot as the original hermit. Both men marveled at the land’s sublime power and knew they wanted to spend as many of their days there as possible.
What’s been particularly special about working on this project is being able to spend more time with father - quality time, just walking and exploring an area of the world he taught me to be passionate about.
Congratulations on recently publishing this series as a monograph! What was your experience like making the book?
I started putting the book together in the winter of 2016. I had some ideas in my head for years but it wasn’t until then that I became serious about the final form. There comes a point in a project when its not done, but in order to complete it, I need to make my best attempt at creating the final product - in this case the book dummy. That process teaches me a lot about the project and what is still lacking. From there I made more images to fill in the gaps I felt were still missing. By the fall of 2016 I had a book dummy I felt was good enough to start showing to publishers and other people I wanted feedback from.
I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a small new press out of London called Overlapse. I was really impressed with the sophistication with which they had crafted their first book - which also dealt with combining archival and authored materials. The publisher and I immediately hit it off and we set out on refining the dummy I had shown them. That process took about two months of intensive work. I can’t say enough about how wonderful Overlapse has been to work with because of their commitment to their artists. They already have 5 - 8 new titles slated for next year.
For my first book, Disquiet, I was able to be on press but unfortunately I wasn’t able to be there this time around. I completely trusted my publisher to make the right decisions about tone, color and density and we went through 2 sets of proofs printed before the final printing. That being said, being on press is amazing! It’s such a rush and also frightening because pages are flying out of the offset and you have to very quickly approve them.
Where may we purchase The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer?
Where do you see this project going?
I have an upcoming artist talk in Boston at Porter Square Books on March 19th and I’ll be speaking at The School of Visual Arts for the i3 lecture series on June 12th. Additionally, two shows of the work will be mounted in the next year, including a solo show at the Griffin Museum of Photography next spring.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
I mainly just try to stay engaged - politically, socially, culturally, etc., in order to remain open to what the world has to say. My projects usually have a tension created from exploring a subject matter in both very personal as well as universal themes.
I also experiment a lot. Every project I do is a bit different than the last. There needs to be the excitement of discovering new forms, technologies and ideas when I work. I have young kids and they are the best reminder to be curious and that curiosity inspires creativity.
Also - I run a lot and when I run I have ideas. Most are not very good, but every time I come home from a run I have at least 3 - 4 ideas to jot down or file away for further review.
What’s next for you?
This semester I’ve started teaching full-time at Mass Art in Boston. It’s a new endeavour and one that is opening a new chapter in my photographic career. I’m really excited about the discourse I’ve been having with the next generation of photographic artists. Other than that, I’m starting to research my next project which I’ll most likely shoot in entirety this summer.