Matt Shallenberger

Matt Shallenberger, was born in Hawaii in1978 and currently resides in Altadena, California.  With a background in poetry and anthropology, most of his projects begin as attempts to illustrate existing pieces of literature.  His interest lies in local myths and folklore, and their relationship to the landscape.  

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The Leaping Place

In ancient Hawaiian mythology the souls of the dead detach from their bodies and wander among the living, unseen. Guided by deceased ancestors and guardian gods, they search for places from which they may travel to the underworld, commune with ancestors, explore the many-leveled ghost worlds, or return to the dim past from which all life sprang up. These pathways take many forms: cliffs, trees, forrest clearings, and more.

They are called leaping places.

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The photographs in this series tell two ghost stories.

First, of my ancestors, who immigrated to Hawaii a century before I was born there. The path of these photographs was built around their recollections. These are the landscapes of my youth, and their history.

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Second, they illustrate the Kumilipo, the ancient Hawaiian creation chant- a memorized poem of more than 2000 lines that tells the myth of the earliest beginnings of the Hawaiian people. The titles of the images, and the scenes depicted, are drawn from its pages.

The recitation of the Kumilipo was an act shared between the teller and the listener. Beneath the stories of gods and men the chant-teller buried ‘kaonas’- secret metaphors that connected the passages. The leaping place idea is one of those secrets. Amid the forests and deserts of the big island, there are pathways not only between life and death, but history and myth, fact and fiction, and memory and imagination. These are the places where we step not only into our own past, but each other’s.

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Could you tell us more about the Kumilipo, and your first experience with it? 

The Kumulipo is popularly known as the ancient Hawaiian ‘Song of Creation.’  No one knows exactly how old it is, as there was no written language in Hawaii before foreign intervention in the 18th century, and it certainly predates that.  It’s a memorized chant of more than 2000 lines, and tells stories of Hawaiian world-creation and human history.  I first encountered it on my dad’s bookshelf.  His copy was a reprint of a translation by Martha Beckwith, and it’s the main one I used.  That translation is nice because Beckwith combined the interpretations of several different foreign and native sources, to try to render a translation that was more true to the original intent..  sort of a ‘compromise/compilation’ translation.  The poem is incredibly difficult to translate.  It uses archaic versions of words (or words that are no longer used at all), and it omits the sign for the glottal catch that is pervasive throughout the language, so there’s no distinction between words that have radically different meanings except their context.  Beyond that, the text is purposefully built around metaphors and hidden meanings ( ‘kaonas’ ) that extend to whole sections.  Interpretations of those meanings vary wildly, but after diving in to the text for so long, I’ve come to the same conclusion that one of Beckwith’s sources did: ‘probably all are right.’  The meaning of the stories and the images wasn’t fixed – it was something to be shared and built anew buy each teller/listener.  The leaping-place image – of a place from which the departed soul begins its journey to the underworld – appears only once in the chant.  But I’ve taken it as inspiration to find places that connect me to my past.

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How do you think a childhood in Hawaii informed your selection of “leaping places” to photograph? 

Since I was a kid I’ve been drawn to places that feel dislocated from time.  I was in to mythology and fantasy, and would play around in the woods and name all of the different parts of the forests with names that made it sound like they were 1000 years old.  I would draw maps with the names that only I knew and imagined that they were the sites of epic battles.  It’s easy to see how Hawaii could breed that particular kind of imagination.  The weather and light change constantly, and deserts and jungles overlap and intersect.  A day on the big island can feel like traversing half a dozen planets.  This series was a way to tap in to that same part of my imagination.   I had loose threads of my own family stories, combined with the ambiguous mythology of the Kumulipo, and I worked off the assumption that the same landscape animated both of them.   I went out looking for places that I would have named as a kid – places that felt inhabited.

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Is it important for the viewer to recognize that the image they’re seeing was made in Hawaii? So many your photographs capture spaces that are different from the Hawaiian-paradise type of landscape we’re used to seeing. 

On one level it is important, but I hope that people are surprised when they find out.  There’s no shortage of wonderful images of Hawaii, but they are for the most part focused on the most idyllic scenes, or the ones that fit within an idea of Hawaii built over the last 100 years.  The idea of a Hawaiian-paradise isn’t a lie, but it’s incomplete.  The Hawaiian landscape, like its mythology, is complex, violent, dark, and mysterious.   On one level I do feel responsibility to correct the record.  As the landscape has been reduced to a certain type of image, so has the outside perception of the culture and history.  I hope that by drawing the structure and imagery from the mythology of the ancient Hawaiians, I can render a little more fully the complexity of the landscape, and by extension, the people.

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Each image is titled after a chapter in the Kumilipo. Were you conscious of this while you were making the photographs or did the pairings happen at another time? 

I built the series in a few separate stages.  First, I combined the study of my own family history with native and foreign information on Hawaiian history and mythology.  I absorbed as much of the imagery as I could without placing any kind of intention on it.   I continued to read, though mostly just from the Kumulipo, while I shot the images, over the course of about six months.  The whole series is large format, so the image-making itself was methodical and slow-going, with a lot of hiking back to places over and over.   All told there were about 75 landscapes.  Then I pulled all of the images together, and edited/sequenced them, and began to pair them with the chapter titles of the Kumulipo.  Each of the images satisfies its title in a different way – some more literal, some more personal or metaphorical.  For example, the 16th image is titled after the chapter, ‘Maui the Usurper.’  There are several stories of Maui’s birth throughout Polynesia: in the New Zealand version, his mother bears an abortion and casts it among a bramble of branches.  In one Hawaiian version her afterbirth is thrown in to the sea.  In the Kumulipo, Maui is the child of his father’s abandoned loincloth, conceived when his mother wraps it around herself.  In all three he is born as a bird, though the type of bird varies.  The photograph that I’ve titled after that chapter shows a place I returned to several times above the volcano Kilauea, where dead branches are blown by the wind into large pits on the ground.  Underneath the piles of branches red vines grow with small pink flowers.  That to me recalled the nest of the demigod born as a bird, as well as the afterbirth cast into a bramble of branches.   It pulls images from previous chapters together, too, ‘heaping up’  meaning from other places.  It’s near the previous image called ‘The Flood,’ and suggests the bramble left there by the receding waters.  It also recalls the pit in the ‘land of Lua’ from another part of the chant.  I would never expect a viewer to infer any of those connections, much less my personal connection to that location, which intrigued me as a child.  The hope is that these landscapes could inspire the imagination of the viewer in the same way that they did me, or that they did the haku-mele, the writers of the chant.  In the Hawaiian mode, the reality of that place combines all of our imaginings.

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Has your research into the Kumilipo and its many mythological layers influenced your understanding of your family history at all?

Maybe not mine in particular – but the notion of family history, absolutely.  My personal family history is, like the Hawaiian history, almost entirely oral.  It is also, like the Kumulipo, an almost inaccessible combination of memory and imagination.  In the Hawaiian conception, the chant is something shared between the teller and the listener;  as the chant-teller describes events from the past he lays in clues to decipher their meaning like breadcrumbs for the listener to pick up.  The ‘truth’ of the story is less real, and less important, than the shared experience of the storytelling.   I used to be more interested in deciphering the reality of my family history, and frustrated by the inconsistencies.  I’m now happy to presume that, like in the Kumulipo, ‘probably all are right.’

Matt’s series, The Leaping Place recently won PDN’s 2016 Exposure Award and was awarded first prize for fine art landscape at the Moscow Foto Awards. To see more of Matt’s work, please visit his website.



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