Once a year, the enigmatic redwood forests of Monte Rio in Northern California host a crowd of powerful men, who meet for reasons nobody knows for sure. The secrecy surrounding this bizarre frat party has sparked the public’s imagination for over a century, igniting a flurry of conspiracy theories that Bristol-based photographer Jack Latham elegantly explores in his latest book Parliament of Owls.
In his new book, Parliament of Owls released this year through HerePress, the Welsh photographer focuses on the Bohemian Grove, an enigmatic private club located in Monte Rio, California, where every year since 1878, some of the most powerful men in the world — a group comprised of prominent businessmen — meet for a two-week encampment.
The curious tradition has stirred countless conspiracy theories. Back in 2000, InfoWars founder Alex Jones made a name for himself with a documentary where he infiltrated the club and filmed a ceremony called the “Cremation of Care”, in which an effigy of the members’ “worldly cares” is burnt. The infamous right-wing commentator claims to this day that the Bohemian Grove hosts occult practices and human sacrifice.
Inspired in part by the documentary, Richard McCaslin, a Nevada man known as ‘The Phantom Patriot’ famously attempted in 2002 an attack on the Bohemian Grove armed among other weapons with a crossbow, a sword, and a pump-action/shotgun hybrid.
McCaslin wore a skull mask and a blue jumpsuit with ‘Phantom Patriot’ written in red on his chest.
Without clearance to photograph the camp itself, Latham went on to investigate the mysteries surrounding the Bohemian Grove, as a commentary on the dangers of disinformation, media and American culture.
We had the pleasure of chatting with the photographer about his career, his fascination for America, and of course, conspiracy theories.
You’ve touched upon American culture in many of your works, including your latest series, Parliament of Owls. Where does your fascination with the United States come from?
“The allure of North America I think started when I was at Newport University. I didn’t know much about photography other than photographing in bars before joining, so I ended up spending a lot of time in the library going through photo books. Like many people, Robert Frank’s work had a big effect on me and led me on to discover the works of Epstein, Soth, Sternfield, and Shore.”
Filmmakers and theoreticians like Robert J. Flaherty or Joris Ivens have attempted to define over the years the relationship between reality and photography/film, with some reveling in the artifice and others searching for “purity”. You’re an artist who has explored memory, truth, and fiction in your work. What is your take? Can a photograph ever be completely true to reality?
“I don’t claim my work is true nor an accurate representation of reality but then again is anything? The core of this new project is how Alex Jones interpreted what he saw in the Grove and suggested his reality as fact. I’m pretty certain that he meant it when he suggested that there were occult members that were worshipping Moloch. Even though I disagree with him, it’s his reality of the situation. This project attempts to show how reality is often filtered through the imperfections of the storyteller.”
What gear do you usually use? Did your technical approach on Parliament of Owls differ from what you’ve done before?
“I use a view camera for a lot of my work. With Parliament of Owls, I made the switch to black and white for many reasons. The main one was that I had the idea of developing the images in the water sourced from the Grove itself. This project is the first time I used flash in a significant project which allowed me to photograph interiors in a way I hadn’t been able to before.”
Why do you think people are so attracted to conspiracy theories?
“People love mysteries. It’s a strange dynamic and I think conspiracies are spread to help make sense out of something without a clear or definitive answer.”
You were denied access to the Bohemian Grove for Parliament of Owls. How did you build a project around a theme that you could not photograph directly? Who are these people that you ended featuring in the book?
“For Sugar Paper Theories I re-investigated a crime case that happened in the 1970’s so I have gotten quite used to photographing things indirectly. I think it’s something that lends itself to photography really well. The people that feature in the new work are a mix of Monte Rio locals, associates of Alex Jones and the Phantom Patriot who infamously broke into the Grove dressed as a superhero in an attempt to liberate the “sacrificed children””
What’s your personal opinion on the Bohemian Grove? What’s going on over there?
“It’s a summer camp for wealthy men. I would hazard a guess that they probably chat about business and policies but I’m certain they aren’t an affront to the occult and certainly do not sacrifice children. I think I’m more concerned about what the Grove represents rather than what it actually is.”
Why should people buy Parliament of Owls?
“If you’re into reading about the Illuminati, conspiracies or even Twin Peaks it would probably be something that would be interesting to see. There is an in-conversation with Jon Ronson and myself at the end in which we discuss the link between photography and conspiracies which is pretty interesting too.”
What’s the easiest way for the public to acquire your book?
The exhibition of the project runs till the 17th of August at TJboulting in London.
59 RIDING HOUSE STREET LONDON W1W 7EG