Last summer, I received an envelope in the mail from Scranton. Inside, Jason Fulford had sent me a tiny glassine envelope that included a tiny square photograph; a strange photograph of a mushroom and a pack of matches, carefully labeled Russula Pectinatoides; and a letter-pressed card with enigmatically numbered text. The package announced his new book The Mushroom Collector, which was published this fall by The Soon Institute.

 
 

© Jason Fulford

 
 

Like his prior books, Sunbird, Crushed and Raising Frogs for $$$$, there is a deceptive casualness to Fulford’s images that belie their intelligence and wit. Beginning with the front cover, we are led through the world, quietly gathering facts and making visual notations. The visual narrative is vague, at times perplexing, but nevertheless reassuring. We may not know where we are going, but we quickly grow to trust Fulford.

Midway through our journey, the book takes an oblique turn from investigating the world to bringing the world into the studio. At this point, the lessons and objects (and mushrooms) gathered from the world become touchstones for a host of playful darkroom experiments and studio shots – one leading to the next. Tying the work together are two elements - a text, which recounts a vague road trip; and a series of annotated mushroom photographs, or mycological studies, taken by an amateur photographer, the titular ‘Mushroom Collector.’ Given to Fulford by a friend, these images open and bind the work together in strange and fascinating ways.

Found photographs, especially older photographs, have always had a magical pull on photographers. While these images often have their own weight and visual interest, as well as an implied history and meaning, the task of incorporating them into one’s own work is difficult. As Lucas Blalock notes in an interview with Fulford, too often appropriated or found photographs become a sort of “cheap ownership of the world” and crutch for harder won revelations. Fascinating in their own right, the danger with the mushroom pictures is that they could easily trump Fulford’s or lead us astray. Fortunately, instead of overshadowing his work, the mushrooms, and the anonymous mushroom collector, become a thread that ties the work together and gives it its meaning.

 
 

© Jason Fulford and The Soon Institute

 
 

All this begs the question, who is this mushroom collector anyway? Although a perplexed Fulford asks “Where did the mushrooms end and I begin?”, it would be too facile an assumption to conflate him with the mushroom collector. Our fungi loving friend is merely a guide – for us both – albeit one who’s already left us for more promising mushrooming. Woven through the book, his images function as both formal and metaphorical devices for the images and the book as a whole.

From the mushroom picture’s regular inclusion of a matchbook to the subtle formal dance between the objects in the world, the mushrooms and the landscape, scale and form are reoccurring themes that bind the images. As these relationships unfold, it becomes clear that the book is not merely an investigation of the world filtered through an odd collection of mushrooms photos, but it is also a larger exploration of photography and the way it categorizes, collects and shapes the way we see and understand objects, places and world. Following the absent mushroom collector may be a fool’s errand, but his mushrooms are the book’s legend.

 
 

© Jason Fulford and The Soon Institute

 
 

Given the investigative and playful quality of the work, it is fitting that the numbered images that begin on the book jacket and flow through the book, continue on The Soon Institute’s website, as well as the book’s online and printed appendix. Including lists, videos, experiments and performances, the appendix pushes the work out from the confines of the book and into the world again – popping up in unexpected ways. Given the obdurate resilience of fungal spores, I’m sure the mushroom collector would approve.

 

 

Adam Bell