Sam Burnham, Curator
In 2017 I pulled open the cover of a James Calemine book for the very first time. His then newly released Insured Beyond the Grave, Volume 1 captured my imagination with very real stories about fascinating people.
In 2022 I find myself writing my fourth review of one of his books. Ghostland America is currently in pre-sale and the official release date is July 19th.
The very first thing that struck me about the book is the shape. Ghostland is wider than it is tall, which can be awkward for a novel. But once you open the cover you understand the design. This is not just your typical book.
Calemine is a man of many talents. Sure, he’s a gifted writer. But he’s also a photographer, a spoken word performer, an adventurer, a cultural historian, and has even been known to pick on a guitar. In his latest book he has combined his talents to give his readers a different experience than his previous publications.
Ghostland highlights his photography, which explains the book’s design that I mentioned earlier. But where a typical photography book might offer mere captions, Calemine offers deeper descriptions that help his beautiful photos tell their stories even more effectively.
The first (and also the last) photo that confronts the reader is the beautiful red 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle on the cover. When it comes to American muscle, you can Camaro and Mustang the debate to death. You can ask the cliche question “does that got a Hemi in it?” But none of that will negate the fact that the first generation Chevelle was the pinnacle of the American hot rod. Calemine displays this beauty on a dirt road framed with a tree line on one side and pasture on the other, all beneath the canopy of a blue sky. It’s hard to improve on that image.
But as the reader opens the book and starts turning the broad pages, images jump out, each one has the same effect, they’re just hard to improve on. What’s even more powerful is that the Chevelle photo is the only staged photo in the book. As you meander through this treasure, you’ll find relics of the past, just as he found them. Old businesses, homes, cars, now in ruins, they represent the hopes and dreams of previous generations now shrouded in fog, hidden in thickets, or tucked behind a crumbling barn. This was the life our ancestors knew. These are the remnants of their homes, their livelihoods, their pursuits of leisure. In many cases, these images capture all that remains of that era.
The images are haunting. They stir nostalgia, perhaps even grief. But they also give joy, a happiness based in the knowledge that such things were once common reality. Calemine gives his readers some insight into his processes. I’m not saying reading Ghostland will make you a better photographer but you’ll definitely get a few pointers.
Occasionally along the way he found a local or perhaps a family member or friend who could tell the story of the photo. Other times we’re left with our imaginations or personal experiences with similar places to hash out what might have happened. Either way, the stories are rich.
Calemine is a Georgia boy. But as I mentioned before, he’s also an adventurer. So while the bulk of these photos are of Georgia, you’ll also find gems from other states, a Southern quilt with fragments of our past sewn together with the thread of their stories. But he found what he’s presenting because he’s not afraid to turn that Chevelle off that two lane blacktop highway most people have forgotten and onto an even more ignoble dirt road and find the good stuff. Modernity refuses to coexist with Ghostland’s subject matter. No, that stuff must be razed to make way for a Dollar General, an automated car wash, or some more self-storage units, all in the name of “progress.”
One thing sticks with me after completing Ghostland in a single sitting. Each Calemine book I’ve reviewed has been completely different than the last. It leaves me wondering what I’ll find inside the next time I bend the binding on one of his works. Whatever it is, if the pattern holds as it has, it’ll be fantastic.
Check out Ghostland America by James Calemine from Snake Nation Press, an independent publisher and Georgia-based small business.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire