by Catherine Kirkpatrick
Self-portrait, ©Kyle Mumford
In every artist there is place, a county of the soul, where memory and imagination meet, ideas gather force, and work begins to form. It can be an almost physical place, with a detailed topography and culture that often reflects where the artist has settled or spent their early years.
From Essays ©Kyle Mumford
At first glance, the people in Kyle Mumford’s portrait series Essays don’t leap out. They are average looking, shot in unremarkable everyday settings–at home, in a back garden, on a street in their town. Some are young; many are not. There is no purple hair, no tattoos, extravagant or skimpy clothing. If you saw them on the street, you would pass them by, just as you might be inclined, at first glance, to pass Essays by.
From Essays ©Kyle Mumford
But if you take a closer look at the images, if you read the paragraphs of poetic text underneath and watch some of Mumford’s films, a very specific world, half real, half imagined, begins to emerge. Like so many others, it is a place that has fallen on hard times, its people neither rich nor poor, but struggling, barely holding onto jobs and homes, families and tattered pride.
In tired eyes there are tales of duty, service, sacrifice and regret; of lost love and surrendered dreams; of roads taken, and those not. It is the poetry of the everyday and everyman, of dramas, large and small that loom in every life. Tragedy traditionally is the purview of kings, but really it’s just a matter of scale. Everyone has something they don’t want to lose and some power, even if very small, they dearly want to keep. Though comprised of still images and text, Essays is strangely time-based, concerned with the broader arc of each life: what the faces do not share, Mumford sketches in with carefully chosen words. Weaving through everything are stories, which for Kyle Mumford is what it’s all about.
From Essays ©Kyle Mumford
He was born and raised in New Jersey, in West Allenhurst, on the outskirts of Asbury Park. Like Bruce Springsteen, the area’s most famous son, he absorbed from an early age the ways of blue collar life and the economic struggles that went with it. He saw his own father, Chris Mumford, work long hard hours as manager and chef to keep his restaurant and family afloat, and felt his absence keenly. At a young age he was diagnosed with various neurological disorders, including Dyslexia, OCD, and Tourette syndrome, which is surprising because he seems normal, even laid back, his looks and manner bearing more than a passing resemblance to James Dean. “I am able to hide it,” he said, though admits the dysfunctional label stung, as did the prognosis that he would never amount to much.
But he loved movies, and in high school started making them. His short films got him into New York’s School of Visual Arts, where he branched out into documentaries, animation and cinematography. In his professional life he has landed freelance editing gigs with corporations like Kohl’s, directed music videos, and crewed on feature films, but in his personal work he’s never strayed far from the characters in those struggling towns along the Jersey shore.
Clip from His Naked Mind, by Kyle Mumford
For his thesis film, His Naked Mind, Mumford told the story of Christopher Gearity, a young high school dropout struggling to grow up, understand love, and escape the shadow of a local drug lord. Set in crumbling Asbury Park, it transcends the small town world to become a universal coming of age story, and won SVA Dusty Awards for Best Editing, Cinematography, and Director.
He also took a hard look at his own family in a powerful documentary called Mumford’s Law. Sensing a reticence and darkness about his father’s early life, he began tracking relatives with a video camera, lingering in long shots till the truth slipped out in dribs and drabs and tears. The story is part film noir, part Greek tragedy, beginning with the early death of Chris’ mother and the bad stepmother who quickly steps into her shoes. One son is cast out, another dies early, and anger and guilt build, casting long shadows over the family going forward.
“Some fathers are a mystery…” Chris Mumford ©Kyle Mumford
Like Oedipus and Luke Skywalker, Mumford searches for the truth about his father, incorporating that journey into his own as he struggles to understand tragedy and how to move beyond it. While Mumford the son dearly loves his father, Mumford the filmmaker never flinches or pulls a shot. In a world of quick cuts and stagey tabloid confessions, this is the real thing–deep, focused and mature.
At SVA, Mumford also took up still photography to “sharpen his eye,” and in Essays, zeros in on the same kind of people that appear in his films: seemingly average, tackled by life, reaching for dreams that forever seem a little beyond their grasp. In the images we see them, in the text, we hear him as he absorbs their journeys into his own, trying to grow and move forward artistically.
Even his pictures of Bushwick, the place he’s called home since 2011, are not about the neighborhood so much as the struggle of artists and young adults. He catches the gritty edge of the hipster experience, the flip side of shimmering urban life. In his images you feel the heavy, smoke-laden air of an underground club, the absolute dark of a roof at 4 A.M., the lights of the city winking like a patch of distant stars.
In a world where people don’t want to grow up, Kyle Mumford, at a young age, has put together a very mature body of work. If his subjects are not particularly young or hip, it doesn’t bother him. He is guided by an inner compass, through an inner terrain, digging for stories and truth, taking a hard look at life and its uncertainties, trying to figure out in pictures, film and text what it all might mean.