“One doesn’t start by asking one and all where a treasure is. That’s an opener, but a better questioning method is to express interest in local recluses, scandals, missing fortunes, rags to riches, back to rags stories, murders, suicides, once-rich families now poor, robberies, and that sort of thing. Don’t be afraid that a good many people will think you a bit touched. They will and that’s ok. That’s part of the price of being a treasure hunter.” H. Glenn Carson, Cache Hunting
Misplaced Fortunes guides readers on a literal and metaphoric treasure hunt. Navigating three centuries of history, legend, and lies, the work explores America’s colonialist ambitions, unquestioned obsession with progress, and the stories we choose to tell about it.
The project weaves photographs, original and found text, historic imagery, and typographic symbols into an interrogation of the myth of General Edward Braddock’s pay-chest, rumored to be lost in 1755 after the British General was killed along a military route in Western Pennsylvania. The trail had been built by Nemacolin, a Delaware Nation chief, to facilitate trade. It was then expanded at the behest of George Washington for military use. A half-century later, it became the first National Road, opening travel west over the Allegheny Mountains. Today both the trail and the treasure are buried beneath centuries of unhindered progress, replaced by the roads and highways that propelled the United States toward the promise of land and wealth.
The story of this fortune and the road on which it was lost compresses time, place and significance. The photographs—made between Alexandria, VA and Pittsburgh, PA—offer another layer of storytelling atop the rest. Rooted in documentary photographic traditions, these images retain an objective yet incomplete meaning. Through sequencing I expand their connections, creating additional understandings through accompanying text and titles excerpted from sources as varied as John Kennedy Lacock’s written and visual guide Braddock Road (1909); J.W. Hunt’s Cumberland Times editorials (1945-1968); H.G. Carson’s manual Cache Hunting (1984); and Gordon Kershaw’s critique of Hunt’s writings about lost treasure (2001). Images of holes, X’s, unintended cairns, remnants, and monuments further guide the viewer along my narrative path.
To trace a nearly three-century old chest of coins that no longer exists and, most likely, was never lost to begin with is a seemingly purposeless task. There is no clear conclusion in a search for something that can’t be found, but this legend has held my focus because of the absurdity of what it proposes and what I’m looking for. In my time living and working in Appalachia I have come to believe that the region can be understood best through genres like magical-realism, creative non-fiction, and absurdism. I came to the legend of Braddock’s gold with this in mind and found the tale fit my broad interests—it’s an inland treasure hunt, a colonialist road trip, a study on road building, an anecdote of American expansion, a metaphor-laden look at a region often superficially portrayed, and an analogy to my photographic practice.
My name is Ross Mantle, I live in Pittsburgh, PA and I work with photography. I maintain a documentary-based personal practice that sees my work in completed form as books or exhibitions. My work is in collections at the Museum of Contemporary Photography Library, Antenna Reading Room, Franklin Furnace Artists’ Books Collection, Herman Miller Inc., Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The MFAH Hirsch Library, The Houston Center for Photography’s John Cleary Library. In 2013, I received the Keystone Award from the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh, PA and in 2012, I was selected for Young Guns X by the Art Directors Club in New York City.
I am frequently commissioned for long-form documentary work, design and architectural features, portraiture, and place-focused projects by commercial and editorial clients. I have completed commissions for Herman Miller, Google-Design, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Monocle, Dwell, TIME, WSJ., WIRED, Rolling Stone, American Express, Air Canada, MASS MoCA, Whole Foods Market, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden amongst others.
In addition to my photographic practice, I have developed and taught courses in portraiture, narrative photography, visual-sequencing, and advanced digital imaging at Carnegie Mellon University. I also edit, design, and publish image-text projects with the imprint I co-founded, Sleeper Studio.
© Text and pictures by Ross Mantle