The duo collaborate on a book project of 10 years to create new narratives surrounding their shared childhood home region in and around the Ozarks
Near the edge of the Ozarks, in a region where the borders of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri blend together, is a county road known as Devil’s Promenade. For locals, this area is considered to be, quite literally, where the Devil lives. Curious visitors are drawn to the road and its surroundings, hoping to catch a glimpse of ‘the spooklight’ – the glowing phenomenon, visible on chance nights. Over time, stories about the road and glowing orb have evolved and adapted into juxtaposed tales: when you visit Devil’s Promenade, you might see the infamous spooklight – but you also might meet the Devil.
Photographers Lara Shipley and Antone Dolezal grew up in and around the Ozarks, immersed in the complexities of the ecological, economic, and social threads familiar to folks from regions that feel inseparable from their geography. They both moved away from the area to pursue careers in other parts of the country, but met each other in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They immediately connected and subsequently stumbled into a creative partnership that guided them back to their formative place. Together, Shipley and Dolezal have been making photographs about Devil’s Promenade for the past 10 years, researching its folklore, and reacquainting themselves with the Ozarks through their shared dualistic experience of absentee locals.
Where many documentarians might enter the region to make classic portraiture, or shots of terrain with a photojournalistic bent, Shipley and Dolezal’s complex and sentimental exploration prompted them to question our contemporary dismissal of storytelling and folklore in meaning-making. Facing the importance of metaphors head-on, the duo started questioning and reinterpreting what role photography might play in their own version of storytelling. Increasingly, their work shifted from linear records of the spooklight to a more holistic approach to imagery. It embodies a network of voices, perspectives, and narratives communally grounded in the processing of this wondrous, painful place.
Their years-long exploration resulted in Shipley and Dolezal’s new book, titled Devil’s Promenade. The terracotta-coloured cover includes folkloric, woodblock illustrations of local symbols, peppered with rose gold embellishments that reflect the light—a nod to the mysterious orb. Holding the book feels like you’re in possession of something magical. In many ways, you are. The sequence of images across its pages combine the photographers’ own wayward documentation of people and place with archival materials, sometimes represented with shadowed renderings of entire photographs and records, and sometimes magnified into full bleeds, oscillating between the liquid clarity of high–res scans and the silver gelatin blurriness of movement and degradation.
Dolezal and Shipley are careful to note that their book isn’t meant to align with the infantilising view that many mimic while discussing the Ozarks. The people and scenes on their pages feel familiar somehow, their worldview emanating a subliminal, relatable atmosphere, prompting self-reflection rather than pitiful distancing. Devil’s Promenade is at once about the Ozarks and ourselves as human beings, alluding to the ways we’ve hidden stories away, deeming them illegitimate, only to make them more susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. While so many perceive inhabitants of the Ozarks as victims of their own culture, Shipley and Dolezal ask us whether these interpretations successfully identify and qualify the root of pain. “There’s nothing unusual about the people here,” Shipley writes in her essay at the close of the book. “They can be found anywhere in America; a country where the myth of success is like the Devil’s bridge— a dream exchanged for a soul.”
Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.