Meet Justin Hamm, photographer extraordinaire! Justin Hamm’s most recent books are The Inheritance: Poems and Photos and Midwestern, a book of photographs. He is the author of two other poetry collections, American Ephemeral and Lessons in Ruin. His poems, stories, photographs, and reviews have appeared in Nimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Sugar House Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and a host of other publications. Recent work has also been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest (New American Press) and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center. In 2019, his poem “Goodbye, Sancho Panza” was chosen as part of the curriculum for the World Scholar’s Cup. It has been studied by tens of thousands of students worldwide.
Justin’s photographs have hung in the Art House Gallery in Fulton, Missouri and have earned a twelve-page, full-color feature in San Pedro River Review as well as the Inkslinger Award from Buffalo Almanack. His work has been or will soon be featured in solo exhibits in Columbia, Missouri; the Normal Public Library in Normal, Illinois; Presser Arts Center in Mexico, Missouri; The Mississippi River Gallery in Hannibal, Missouri; The HUB in Rushville, Illinois; the Carbondale Public Library, in Carbondale, Illinois; and elsewhere. Justin works as the District Librarian at North Callaway R-1 Schools and lives in Mexico with his wife and two daughters.
Says Justin; “are thoughts their own separate entities or are they merely physical events in the body? Where do I stand on the idea of moral relativity? What possessed me to be such an arrogant ass when I was younger, and how do I atone for that today?
Truth is, I have no idea the answer to these questions, but I’ve spent plenty of time considering them, and about a million other unanswerables, while piloting over out-of-the-way gravel roads in rural Missouri and Illinois, first to make pictures I could use to spark poems, and later as an artistic pursuit it its own right.
Along these drives I listen to old music of the sort my Kentuckian grandfather introduced to me when I was a young child. The combination of song and reflection creates an atmosphere in which I’m best able to recognize in my gut the kinds of pictures I want.
I might’ve begun my obsession with the old, the rusted, and the dying out as preservation project, believing I could pin down some of this fading Midwest I love before it disappears entirely. And, of course, some objects just have a certain soul about them. Old trucks, barns, signage from the past—contemplating them and their history is in and of itself a powerful experience.
Preservation is still very much a living aspect of my purpose, but my approach has evolved some, too, into what I think of as a document of the futility of documentation. It’s like this: you can take a picture of your grandmother every year on her birthday, and those pictures will make you feel something years later, but they haven’t stopped time, not really. You’ll be glad to look at them, and they might tell a rich, beautiful story about her life, but underneath there will always be a sense of sadness from watching her age toward her end. That mixture of joy and sadness is where I am now in trying to capture the landscape around me. I believe there’s truth in its emotional complexity.
I’ve also found hunting down and capturing photos to be fairly analogous to writing poems—at least the way I write them—which has been a blessing for my sanity during dry writing spells. The idea in both cases is to get yourself good and lost, to be unafraid of any turn, to react first with the gut rather than the intellect. And for your effort, to hopefully uncover something that moves other people.
I’m not a trained photographer. I shoot mainly with a Canon T2i, using a 75-300mm lens, a fixed 50mm lens, an 18-55mm kit lens, and occasionally, an 8mm fisheye lens. In a pinch I’ll also pull out my iPhone. I process using an app called Snapseed.
I had a few informal lessons from a buddy in order to understand the principles of a camera, but otherwise, trial and error has been my learning process for the last decade. My pictures aren’t going to sell on stock image websites, and they aren’t supposed to. I want them to look like they were taken by a human being. Imperfection is no defect in my book. And I don’t mind a heavily processed look now and then, as long as it enhances the initial emotion or possibility of the scene as I encountered it.
That said, there must be a balance, and I’m sometimes frustrated by my own limitations—the realization that I can’t always make a picture expresses what I feel about the scene.
What else can I tell you about my method? There’s coffee involved—a whole lot of coffee. Other times I worry I might’ve run up on the backroads abode of a methamphetamine chef, and as if I’ve discovered a grizzly in the wild, I’ll back away slowly and quietly until I reach my car.
But most of the time, there is a lot less adventure and a lot more contemplation. I’ve come to rely on photo hunts as regular and necessary escapes. Even writing involves the constant lure of the internet, the distraction of children coming in and out of the room, et cetera. But with my cell phone turned off on a photo hunt, no one can reach me; I’m free to focus my mind fully in whatever direction I choose. Maybe that’s why I’ve never really come to any firm conclusions to those questions I mention above.
Maybe conclusions aren’t the point. Maybe the point is to return to the questions again and again on different days and from different angles, the way I might return to a certain barn or a certain rail car to consider it in different light or a different season, every shutter click raising the possibility of a new answers.”∎