SLANT, by curator, writer, and photographer Aaron Schuman, opens with a poem from Emily Dickinson that begins, “Tell all the truth / but tell it slant – / Success in Circuit lies.” Schuman follows this dictate to create a slyly humorous and alarming portrait of Amherst, a bookish Massachusetts town where Dickinson lived out her days and where Schuman, who is now based in London, spent his youth. SLANT, published by MACK, alternates between police blotter excerpts from the Amherst Bulletin and black-and-white photographs taken by Schuman within a thirty-mile radius of the town. Two pages of clippings are followed by one to three pages of photographs, with each grouping separated by a blank page to create suites of words and pictures that accumulate like thematically-linked poems within a volume. The relationship between the excerpts and the images is elliptical rather than illustrative, inviting the reader to make sideways connections in the manner advocated by Dickinson’s poem.
When Schuman visited his parents’ house in Amherst in 2014, he paged through the local newspaper and found himself enthralled by the absurdity of several police blotter items, so much so that his father began mailing odd entries to Schuman in the UK over the following years. The clippings, published between 2014 and 2018, first elicit laughter, but, as the book unfolds, the sheer number of bizarre anecdotes builds up into a whirlwind of paranoia. People call the police to report dreams of strangers looking into the windows of their homes, a neighbor yelling in a foreign language, a student taking photographs for an art project, a “man with a wild hairdo” spotted going door-to-door, odd sounds later determined to be acorns falling on the roof. Even the sun is not above suspicion, as noted in an undated entry from 4:14 a.m.: “A man shoveling snow on State Street told police he saw a strange orange glow coming from the eastern sky that might have been something on fire. Police determined that the glow was probably the sun coming up for the day.”
The green cloth cover of the book references the binding of the first edition of Dickinson’s collected works, with the title written in a delicate scrawl that mirrors her handwriting. Dickinson’s poems frequently use slant rhymes, in which two words almost seem to rhyme, but not quite; for example, “snow” and “now” in Dickinson’s poem “The Snow that never drifts”: “The Snow that never drifts– / The transient, fragrant snow / That comes a single time a Year / Is softly driving now.” Schuman was inspired by Dickinson’s use of slant rhymes to take photographs that echo but do not precisely mimic stories in the blotter excerpts, so that links between the words and images never lock completely into place.
Taken between 2016 and 2018, the photographs are spare and neat, containing brick homes, arching trees, local signage, gravestones, and darker, more timely images such as a barn painted with “In border patrol we trust.” Some pairings are straightforward and amusing, like a clipping about a sinister photographer who was reported for asking a woman to take pictures of her feet and, a few pages later, a photograph of a giant sculptural foot, its origin unexplained. Others are more roundabout, with narratives branching out from multiple possible pairings, such as a photograph of a “no trespassing” sign that could correspond to a number of police reports about allegedly suspicious activity on private property. The reader begins to project the ominous happenings of the police blotter into the tidy squares of lawn and shaded streets, suddenly cast as the sites of possible crimes and conspiracies.
The photographs and blotter anecdotes reflect the fears of callers that Amherst, in contrast to its reputation as a charming college town, is brimming with unexplained and disturbing occurrences. In an interview with The Photocaptionist, Schuman noted that the quietness of the city paradoxically increases the sense of tension and insecurity, leaving residents conditioned by sensational news reports and true-crime stories to report seemingly mundane events in the absence of obvious danger. “Initially, in 2014, I simply found these newspaper ‘Police Reports’ quaint and hilarious. But today, in 2017, I actually find them both unexpectedly poignant and painfully disturbing,” Schuman explained. “They seem to reveal certain worrying undercurrents in America, psychological or otherwise, that point to a particular loss, at least in terms of being in touch with reality.” Through its poetic and inventive portrayal of Amherst, SLANT captures this untethered national mood with economy and wit, and its ingenious conceptual structure reveals the suggestive power that images and texts can have when placed into unexpected contexts.