Parliament of Owls
25 July - 17 August 2019
TJ Boulting are delighted to present the solo show of Jack Latham, the winner of this year’s British Journal of
Photography International Photography Award for his series ‘Parliament of Owls.’
Text by Horatia Harrod, editor for Financial Times Life & Arts, writing for FT Weekend Magazine 13/7/19:
In northern California, protected from prying eyes by a screen of towering redwoods, a group of America’s most powerful men meet every year for an unusual sort of summer camp. They are members of the Bohemian Club, founded in 1872 by dissolute journalists and artists who, over the course of a century, were displaced by directors of Fortune 1000 companies, chief executives and statesmen. Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush (senior and junior) have passed through the encampment; Henry Kissinger is a regular.
For a fortnight in July, the all-male membership can disport itself freely. There is skinny-dipping and skeet-shooting, marshmallow- toasting and heavy drinking. In elaborate theatrical entertainments, female characters are played by masters of the universe in drag. Talk of business is officially forbidden, but informal “lakeside chats” on pressing issues of the day have been given by everyone from Nelson A Rockefeller to Arnold Palmer, Robert F Kennedy to Wernher von Braun.
Each year’s festivities begin with a ceremony known as the Cremation of Care. In the twilight, robed figures carry an effigy representing the “dull cares” of everyday life to the base of a 40ft concrete owl - the bird is the club’s symbol, and a motif that appears throughout the camp. The owl is given voice via hidden speakers - his recorded dialogue at one point delivered by newsreader Walter Cronkite - and, as night falls, the effigy is set alight to frenzied cheers. This is how the one per cent lets loose.
What goes on at Bohemian Grove, says the photographer Jack Latham, who has spent the past two years investigating its mysterious allure, is one of the “greatest hits” among conspiracy theorists. With so many powerful people in residence, they argue, it must offer more than a getaway for superannuated boy scouts. It must be the place where the course of world affairs is decided.
The most bombastic proponent of this idea is Alex Jones - the founder of the paranoiac website Infowars - and it was he who set Latham on the path to Bohemian Grove. In 2000, Jones had managed to break into the camp, tagging along with the British journalist Jon Ronson. “Break in” is overstating the case: both men simply strolled past security. Once there, Jones secretly
taped the Cremation of Care. Ronson would later write about the event as a “cod-pagan spooky ritual” for men reliving their college years. To Jones, however, it represented something far more sinister.
In an Infowars video that helped to make him famous, Jones shared his footage, labelling the ceremony “Luciferean garbage”, and suggesting that the Bohemians offered real human sacrifices to their “owl god”. “It’s amazing how one thing can provoke two such radically different perspectives,” says Latham. “So the question is: are these secret societies dangerous because we don’t know what they’re saying and doing, or because the secrecy is fodder for people like Jones?”
Since 2017, Latham has been looking for an answer. For a year he immersed himself in the mythology of the place, reading and researching. Last May, he went to get a closer look. Unable to secure permission to shoot within Bohemian Grove, Latham photographed the site from without: the impenetrable redwoods, the Russian River that helps to keep unwanted visitors at bay. Absent from Latham’s cool, melancholic pictures, the place acquires an unnerving power.
The closest town to Bohemian Grove is Monte Rio, where, says Latham, “everything looks incredible, but there’s an undercurrent of poverty”. The pictures he took there - a kitsch tavern overlooked by glowering woods, an owl figurine keeping watch at the golf club - have the feel of a David Lynch scene, an effect that was entirely intentional.
“A couple of months before I went I had watched Twin Peaks for the 50th time.” Latham even convinced the owner of the town cinema to put up a line from the series on his frontage: “The owls are not what they seem” - a gnomic phrase with a decidedly Bohemian flavour.
The locals are mostly unfazed by the annual influx of Learjets and limos. “People away from Monte Rio think that Bohemian Grove is the manifestation of the Illuminati,” says Latham. “People that live there say, no, it’s just fat white men who go and camp for two weeks.” Some, though, have been fighting the Bohemians for decades. Latham met Mary Moore, whose cabins in the woods are filled with ephemera documenting her years of protest against the warmongers and arch-capitalists of the Grove. “If Alex Jones is a representative of the alt-right, she’s a representative of the far left,” says Latham. “What’s interesting is that [Bohemian Grove] unites both sides against a common evil. They just have different takes on what happens inside.”
Latham’s ultimate target became Jones himself. “His studio is actually harder to find than the entrance to Bohemian
Grove,” says Latham. Although he eventually managed to acquire the address of the Infowars headquarters in Austin, Texas, Latham was shooed away by a security guard. Unexpectedly, he sees a parallel in the work that he does as a photographer, and that Jones does as a propagandist.
“What I do is go into a situation and take photographs, and then I put them in a new context and tell that story,” says
Latham. “I feel that conspiracy theorists aren’t too dissimilar to that. They take snippets of things, and then they present them in a new light, and create their own narratives by sequencing things.”
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. But they have acquired an extra potency recently. According to a study
by YouGov and Cambridge University earlier this year, people with populist views are 50 per cent more likely than the general population to believe that there is a secret group that actually controls the world. And while Jones remains mired in controversy, his views have received repeated endorsements from the man who now occupies the White House. So who’s pulling the strings now?
Jack Latham in conversation with Horatia Harrod - Thursday 15th August at TJ Boulting, 6.30-8pm. Book tickets via Eventbrite, £5
The book ‘Parliament of Owls’ can be seen upstairs, published by Here Press. The book is for sale for £40 and includes a limited edition of 100 insert of ‘The Phantom Warrior’ comic exclusively for the duration of the exhibition.
Note to Editors:
About BJP International Photography Award:
This is the 14th edition of BJP’s International Photography Award, and the fifth consecutive year it has been presented at TJ Boulting with a solo show. A leading showcase for contemporary photographic talent, recent winners include Dominic
Hawgood, Juno Calypso, Felicity Hammond, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Daniel Castro Garcia, Sara, Peter & Tobias and
This year’s BJP International Photography Award has been judged by:
Sarah Allen (Assistant Curator, Tate Modern)
Simon Bainbridge (Editorial Director, British Journal of Photography)
Russ O’Connell (Picture Editor, The Sunday Times Magazine)
Renné Mussai (Senior curator, Autograph ABP)
Johanna Neurath (Design Director, Thames & Hudson)
Hannah Watson (Director, TJ Boulting)