After the Flood: Strange Devotion at William Busta Projects

Photo by Jacob Koestler, from Strange Devotion

Exploring lives and culture through the landscape has long been a subject for Jacob Koestler, particularly through  the evidence of human impact and passing time. That manner of storytelling is at the heart of his and collaborator Michael McDermit’s new book Strange Devotion, which debuted in an exhibit at William Busta Projects on Waterloo in September. Its stories unfold in a novella by McDermit and photos by Koestler. Strange Devotion is a perfect-bound artist book, 130 pages with 86 color and black and white images, in an edition of 250, published under Koestler and McDermit’s own imprint, Blurry Pictures.

Photo by Jacob Koestler, from Strange Devotion

Neither text nor photos is documentary: The novella is fiction, and the photos are not journalistic. But they are based on an amalgamation of real places near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where Koestler and McDermit grew up, and they get at larger truths of life and history in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, poetically mining the territory between history and speculation.

The real town of Johnstown PA is forever marked by the Great Flood of 1889, which resulted from a catastrophic dam failure after very heavy rainfall. Two thousand, two hundred and nine people died—a death toll exceeded among American disasters by fewer than ten other events, including the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attack. That puts it in perspective. And Johnstown suffered half a dozen additional floods in the decades that followed, including one as recent as 1977. Prior to the Great Flood of 1889, the South Fork Dam in the Little Conemaugh River had been modified in the interest of a resort development that served businessmen made wealthy by the steel industry, which left it vulnerable to failure.

Photo by Jacob Koestler, from Strange Devotion

Set in the fictional town of Lapine, the story is told in 5 chapters that span the 20th century. It is predicated by that history of flooding. It dives immediately into the subject matter with a first line that bulges with potential: “The floods let everyone know that Lapine, Pennsylvania is a place where mistakes were not fixed.”  What follows has parallels in the Biblical Flood, to be sure, but also in the current threat of Climate Change: Is it due to Man’s negligence (or the failure to fix mistakes), or something that is and always has been out of our hands—divine wrath, a punishment for some mis-deed?


Photo by Jacob Koestler, from Strange Devotion

The story builds a thoroughly imagined world, grounded in a thoroughly real one. A group of people in the town who believe the flooding is divine punishment have founded a church, and they pass out a religious tract called The New Diluvialism. The authors have written and published that, too, as a companion to Strange Devotion. Its title, The New Diluvialism, and author—Willard Howard Clark—are based on the work and persona of an early 20th century creationist of the same name, but its content is completely imagined by Koester and McDermit.

The people in the stories are families whose livelihoods are dependent on mines. An uncle plays guitar to pass time. They believe not only in the text of the New Diluvialism, but in folklore, like that surrounding the protective power of a birth caul.

Photo by Jacob Koestler, from Strange Devotion

The text feels a little like the gothic observation of Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms: the culture of the place is more than a backdrop, but a force in the storytelling. But if Capote’s  story is about the boy’s search for his father (and himself), Strange Devotion feels really about the place itself.

Koestler’s photos support that: they are not sweeping views of landscape, but instead take a closer look. They focus on telling details, especially of things people made–improvised, cobbled together—or things once cherished, now broken, forgotten, abandoned. There are respectful photos of people leading contemporary lives: a man playing electric guitar, a woman with a baby in a stroller—lives going on with hopes and dreams, despite odds stacked against them by the history of their surroundings.

Photo by Jacob Koestler, from Strange Devotion

The landscape photos often capture human impact of a bygone era, like ruins. Piles of dirt, broken down fences, a collapsed shed. There’s a modern highway overpass that straddles a valley and cuts through the adjacent mountain, violating the contour of the landscape.

There are not captions to tell you where and what specifically is represented in the photos, and many will make you wonder. A photo of a staircase cut into stone seems to go into an abandoned mine shaft, for example.

When we hear the word “ruin,” we think of places like Tintern Abbey or the Roman Coliseum. In places like that we wonder about long-gone lives and events. In historic places, like Gettysburg, there is the same effect. The evidence left behind fuels the imagination and causes us to think about stories of the people who fought, died, or survived there. McDermit and Koestler reveal stories at the intersection of human endeavor and the landscape, but do so in the familiar territory of the Appalachian Rust Belt. These kinds of stories are much closer to our own. There’s a universal quality in storytelling and landscapes like this, and it is grounded in the rapid pace of change in the rustbelt surrounds of sprawling cities—places where there were once mines, or train lines, or dams, or steel mills, and where lives once were dependent on them.

The photo exhibit that launched this book was not to be taken in without investing some time. The photos are beautiful, but the stories they tell unfold slowly, and especially with help from the stories in the book. Likewise, this is not a book to breeze though, even if it doesn’t take long to read. But it is one of those things that rewards your attention. The characters, and the message of the generational impact we have on the landscape, and perhaps above all the sympathy for the people who live there, ring familiar, loud, and true.


STRANGE DEVOTION: JACOB KOESTLER & MICHAEL McDERMIT was on view at William Busta Projects September 24 – November 5. 

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